Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Ernie Harwell

Here’s how valued Ernie Harwell was.

Ernie was the long-time voice of the Detroit Tigers. He passed away yesterday way too young at 92. But in 1948 he was broadcasting for the Atlanta Crackers minor league team. Red Barber, the announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers took sick and the Dodgers needed a replacement. They had heard good things about Ernie so they called the Crackers to see if they might release their announcer. The Crackers said okay but they had a need too. A catcher. So for the first and only time in history, an announcer was traded for a player. Cliff Dapper went to Atlanta and Ernie Harwell traveled north to Brooklyn.

And he stayed in the big leagues – for nearly 60 years. From 1960 on he was the beloved voice of the Detroit "Ti-guhs" (as he called them in his rich baritone twang).

Here’s all you need to know about Ernie. I first met him in 1989. I had just completed a season of calling minor league baseball and had arranged with the Angels to use an open booth to record a demo tape. They were playing the Tigers that night and I met Ernie. He thought my story was interesting and asked if I would be his guest on the pre-game show. Are you kidding? It was an HONOR. The gift for appearing was a pair of shoes from some local Detroit shoe store. I told Ernie I didn’t plan to be in Detroit anytime soon so he was welcome to give the gift certificate to someone who could use it.

Four innings into the game he finds me in my booth and wants to know my address and shoe size. Two weeks later a pair of shoes arrived. That was Ernie. With all that was going on around him, he was concerned about me getting shoes.

Ernie was a true Southern Gentleman. And one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. I cherish the fact that he and I have always stayed in touch. I’m going to greatly miss trading emails with bbpeach.

I once asked Ernie if he saved his old scorecards. Among the many milestones he’s seen and called was Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world” in 1951 (he did the game for NBC TV). Ernie said that yes, he’s kept them all – from his years with the Dodgers, Giants, Orioles, and Tigers. I don’t know where they are but what a treasure – pretty much the history of baseball for the last seven decades.

Ernie was once asked the difference between announcing baseball on TV and radio. He said, “On TV I provide captions for pictures. On radio nothing happens until I say it happens.” What he neglected to mention was that his elegance and love of the game elevated what happened from just baseball to warm summer nights with your dad, weekend cookouts, and the best of America.

Farewell dear friend. Thanks again for the shoes. I wish I could have walked a mile in yours.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful memories of Ernie. The shoes were probably from Sibley's, a long time (but now departed) Detroit area shoe store that sponsored the pre-game shows for a long time.

DJ said...

"I'm not leaving, folks. I'll still be with you, living my life in Michigan, my home state, surrounded by family and friends. And rather than goodbye, please allow me to say thank you. Thank you for letting me become part of your family. Thank you for taking me with you to that cottage up north, to the beach, the picnic, your work place, or your backyard. Thank you for sneaking your transistor radio under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers. I might have been a small part of your life. But you have been a very large part of mine."

-- Harwell's final broadcast, 2002, quoted by Tom Gage, Detroit News.

amyp3 said...

"That was caught by a fan from Royal Oak, Michigan."

Charles H. Bryan said...

One of the pleasures of growing up and living in Michigan – there are a few – was listening to Ernie Harwell broadcast Tigers games. One of my fondest memories of home maintenance are the weekends I spent puttering around the house while listening to Tigers games on WJR. His broadcasting displayed not just a love of baseball, its players, and its history, but a love of people generally. There was a sense of gentle fun when Ernie was on the air. While the roster changed with increasing frequency, Ernie was a welcome constant.

I think what makes me additionally sad is that there are so few others like him. I’ve heard the Tigers current team and they’re good, and I like listening to Cubs broadcasts, but I listened to Vin Scully call Opening Day at Dodger Stadium awhile back and I think he’s the only one left that knows what a radio broadcaster really needs to do for the listener. It’s not enough to just call the balls and strikes, or talk about the players; it’s also good to hear about the other sights and sounds of the day, to feel that you’re right there in the booth watching the game with a nice guy.

A lot of us here in Michigan have a misty eye today. He meant just that much to us. Here's link to a remembrance in today's Detroit Free Press:

Mike Bell said...

It's amazing to me that the Tigers actually let him go for a bit.

WV: Perfati - The Italian state of perfection.

David L said...

Beautiful, Ken. Bill Moyers leaves the airwaves. Ernie Harwell leaves this mortal coil. What will we do when the last of the Mohicans is gone?

Jeff said...

I knew Ernie Harwell only from a distance, from hearing him only occasionally. But, yes, a treasure. It was a kick to visit his booth on a tour of Tiger Stadium in the last year it was open.

This is apples and oranges, of course, but we in Wisconsin are facing a summer without Bob Uecker, who had heart surgery last week. He's called Brewers games for 40 years -- almost all of my life with baseball.

When Ueck was filming "Mr. Belvedere," he used to miss a bunch of games every season, so we have had baseball without him. But not a full summer.

Kevin Gershan said...

Ernie Harwell was a unique and special person. But there is no need to say that to anyone who has ever met him. From team owners and presidents of networks to hot dog vendors and strangers on the street, Ernie treated everyone as if they were the most important person on the planet. It is this type of rare gift that gave him legendary status beyond the scope of his work as long-time voice of the Detroit Tigers.

I was fortunate enough to spend a few hours with him back in November of 1999, as the late Robert W. Morgan was posthumously being inducted into the RADIO HALL OF FAME at the Museum Of Broadcast Communications Cultural Center in downtown Chicago, IL. Ernie was in attendance and had been inducted, himself, just the year before.

There was some mix-up with the seating arrangements and, as there were two seats available at my table, was asked if Ernie and his wife Lulu could join us. Hello? I had first met Ernie in 1992 when he did a one-year stint as the announcer for Gene Autry’s California Angels. I only met him once, briefly, and somehow, unbelievably, he remembered my name. Between introductions and acceptance speeches, the next few hours were among the most enjoyable conversations I had ever had.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Vin Scully was my favorite baseball announcer, but always felt that Ernie brought, to the Detroit Tigers, a similar spirit, knowledge and story-telling ability to his fans. Ernie made me feel that he was more interested in my life, my work and my family than I was in his. Not. One of the most-interesting things he told me that evening was that at, then, age 81, he still drove himself over 50 miles to and from his home in suburban Detroit to the ballpark in the oldest neighborhood in Detroit, Corktown. This despite the ball club offering him a car service to save him the hassle. He thought that was a terrible waste of money and resources.

Later that evening, he and Lulu said, if I was ever in Detroit on a non-game day, to please give them a call and that they would love to have me over for dinner. I thought he was just being polite, but wrote down his number and address anyway. The following year, I was back in town, covering an event at the Motown Museum (Hitsville, U.S.A.) and thought I would invite him out to dinner. He would have none of it. He insisted that I come to his house and Lulu would make dinner. It took a little longer to get there than I had hoped, and they liked to go to bed early, so it was a short, but memorable evening.

Ernie talked a lot about Gene Autry, the Angeles and radio station 710/KMPC, where we originally met. Lulu showed off the gorgeous roses in her yard, which I told her my mother has a passion for as well. I shared with her my mother’s secret rose food cocktail (a mixture of expired birth control pills and warm water.) She tried it the following season and wrote me a lovely note saying how well it worked.

I left the Harwell home feeling like I had just spent time with my favorite Uncle (and Aunt) who always liked me best. But that is just who he was to his very core. It wasn’t an act. It wasn’t insincere. It was just Ernie.

I will always treasure the time I was fortunate enough to spend with him, and only wish there had been more opportunity for me to do so. He was one of the best.

You will be missed.

Kevin Gershan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

What a wonderful tribute.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully could very well have been brothers. They carry so MANY of the same wonderful qualities. Not just on the air, but as human beings. RIP Ernie, you will be missed.

Unknown said...

My Ernie Harwell story.

In the 70's I was doing radio in Detroit, my hometown. Ernie and I were part of a small group scheduled to be guests on a mutual friends' radio show.

Driving to the station I wondered how to best introduce myself to one of my childhood legends and not sound like an idiot. Ernie took care of that, he introduced himself to me and put me at ease. Ernie Harwell was truly one of nicest people I have ever met.

As a bonus, that day I was able to correctly answer a Tiger trivia question Mr. Harwell flubbed. It made my year.

Charles H. Bryan said...

@Mike I thought about the Monaghan ownership years (also marked by hiring Bo Schembechler as a baseball team President and some veiled threats about moving the team to St. Pete) and then decided not to think about them.

JamesFinnGarner said...

Checking some tributes in the Detroit papers this morning, I came across a video that reminded me: Ernie knew his music, and former Tiger GM Jim Campbell did not. So Campbell asked Ernie to name some artists who could sing the National Anthem during the 1968 World Series.

One he chose was Marvin Gaye, but Gaye was given the stipulation by management not to put "too much" soul into it. So Gaye sang it the traditional way.

Ernie recommended for the next game Jose Feliciano, who was up and coming at the time. Jose did a Very rocking, UNtraditional version, and a lot of people were upset with it. But Ernie took all the heat for it, saying it was his choice and he should take any punishment laid down. Nothing happened, and that version of the song in retrospect (and thinking of the realities of 1968) is completely thrilling.

I wrote a poem for Ernie today at our baseball poetry website, Bardball. It's doggerel, but it's heartfelt.:

Max Clarke said...

Great tribute.

Ernie was traded for a ballplayer. Beautiful.

Ref said...

I never listened to Harwell as I grew up in Northern New England. He was well known, however, as an exemplar and was often lauded by colleagues, including the Red Sox announcers. Blessings upon all who share their love of the game.

Mike B. said...

Ernie donated his entire baseball collection to the Detroit Public library. It is reputed to be the largest collection of baseball material outside the Hall of Fame. One time while using the collection, I found a ticket from the 30s being used as a bookmark.

AP said...

"Farewell dear friend. Thanks again for the shoes. I wish I could have walked a mile in yours."

Ken, what a magnificent phrase to end a very beautiful remembrance.

Michael said...

A magnificent reminiscence. He broadcast for the Dodgers and then, when he got an offer from the Giants, Red Barber decided to hire a red-headed kid from Fordham. The rest really is history--and here's some history.

The Dodgers were in Atlanta to play the Braves and, in the first inning, turned a triple play. This would have been around 1996. Vin called it and then said, "That's the first Dodger triple play since ... I don't remember the last Dodger triple play." A minute or two later he said, "Ross has looked it up, and the last Dodger triple play was in 1949, before I got here. But Ernie Harwell is in the next booth doing this game for CBS Radio, and when he left the Dodgers, I got his job. So I'm going to ask him between innings." Vin came back to start the next inning and said, "I asked Ernie, and he said," and then Vin actually imitated him, and he did it pretty well, pitching his voice lower, drawling a bit, "Well, Vinnie, it WAS a long time ago, but I believe it was Hermanski to Robinson to Hodges." And it was! What memories they have--and thanks to them, what memories we have.

By Ken Levine said...


You have the story wrong. When we learned Tuesday of Ernie's passing at Dodger Stadium we all went to Scully to get his reaction. He told us that triple-play story. When Scully asked Ernie about it he really said, "Well, Vin that was a long time ago. I don't rightfully remember."

Don't you just love the way he phrased things??

Larry said...

Growing up in Detroit, Ernie was the voice of my childhood, and then some. He was also the voice of summer. Like any big city, Detroit had its number of local celebrities, but there were none as unassuming, and as universally liked, as Ernie.

John c said...

Wonderful tribute, Ken. I'm pretty sure all of Ernie's baseball stuff is at the Detroit Public Library. He donated it a year or so ago, and they have a special collection room. Not sure it's every single thing. But worth a visit if you're in town. I know this because that's where I met him. And I concur with the central point of your essay: He was one of the nicest people I ever met.
Also, I moved to Detroit in 2000, when Ernie was in his last few years. Having moved to Chicago in 1987 and caught the last several years of Harry Carrey, I expected Ernie to have lost a step or two. He hadn't. He still called a flawless game - from the simple punch-outs ("He stood there like the house by the side of the road," to the doubles into the corner with runners flying around the bases.

Bob Summers said...

It never ceases to amaze me the number of truly kind and wonderful people you meet in occupations where everyone is expected to be cutthroat and rude.

But I have to say...Atlanta Crackers...isn't that hilarious on some level?

Debbi said...

Ernie was the voice of summer. My son and I attended the visitation at Comerica park. There were stories, reflections and tears. Ernie brought us together again, one last time. He will be missed.

Bart said...

"He passed away yesterday way too young at 92". Not many times could you agree with that but with Ernie its very true. He was the reason I ever even thought about working in radio. He was the greatest!

phine: a Phish cover band from the Netherlands