Ernie Harwell was known for decades as the "Voice of the Detroit Tigers." The play-by-play radio announcer broadcast his first game for the Tigers in 1960, and except for a single season with the California Angels in the early 1990s, he remained with the Tigers until his retirement in 2002 at the age of 84. Known for his perceptive and colorful narrations of baseball games, Harwell is beloved by his fans, many who grew up listening to him. Highlights of Harwell's long career include broadcasting the first American League Championship game, broadcasting the first major sporting event heard from coast to coast, and broadcasting three World Series games. In 1981, he became the first active radio announcer to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"I think I've done more games than anybody," Harwell told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 's Chuck Finder around the time of his retirement. "Seven decades and 55 years. Even the old-timers came a little bit after I did."
A Life in Baseball
Ernie Harwell was born in Washington, Georgia, on January 25, 1918. He fell in love with baseball at an early age, and he dreamed of becoming a sports reporter. He landed his first job as a sports reporter in the middle of the 1930s, while still a teenager. That first job was as a reporter for the Sporting News, and his beat was the minor league team the Atlanta Crackers. This was the start of a newspaper career that continued even after his retirement from broadcasting in 2002; he later had a regular column in the Detroit Free Press.
Harwell attended college at Emory University, and while in his final year there, in 1940, he landed his first job as a radio broadcaster. "I got into radio by mistake, he later told the Detroit Free Press 's John Lowe. This first job was as the sports director, and indeed the entire sports department, at station WSB in Atlanta, Georgia. Included in his duties were broadcasting games for the Atlanta Crackers. Getting this job was a major accomplishment for Harwell, who had initially been handicapped by a speech impediment.
At that time, radio sportscasters would broadcast in studios separate from the baseball field. This meant that, instead of calling the game as they saw it unfold, they had to recreate the game based on written descriptions from wire reports. Consequently, Harwell, and his colleagues at the time learned to fill in a lot of details to bring the game to life for listeners. Details that, according to present-day ESPN announcer Jon Miller, are often lacking in current radio broadcasts. "The actual
description," Miller told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 's Chuck Finder, "giving the count, if the guy is left-handed or right-handed, where did he go to field the ball—did he go right, did he go back—those are things lacking in radio broadcasts now. And those are the fundamentals. People need to see what's going on, not just a rough outline of it."
To these "fundamentals," Harwell himself added "wearability," as he said on the Web site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "You're visiting so many homes for three hours every day or night that you have to be yourself." Harwell also decided early on that he would not use his broadcast booth to cheer for his team, something many other sportscasters did. "I don't denigrate people who do it," he explained on the Detroit Tigers Web site, "I think you just have to fit whatever kind of personality you have, and I think my nature was to be more down the middle and that's the way I conducted the broadcasts."
Harwell married his wife, Lulu, in 1941. Then, after the United States entered World War II in 1942, Harwell joined the Marines. He served in the Marines for four years before returning to civilian life as a radio broadcaster.
Moves Up to the Majors
In 1948, Harwell moved up to the major leagues, broadcasting games for the Brooklyn Dodgers. This appointment came after he was traded for a player. This was the first time, and, as of the date of Harwell's retirement in 2002, the only time, a player was traded for a sportscaster. The president of the Atlanta Crackers, Earl Mann, let Harwell go to the Brooklyn Dodgers only after Dodger president Wesley Branch Rickey agreed to send Dapper to manage the Atlanta Crackers. (Harwell and Dapper met for the first time only in 2002, at a ceremony honoring Harwell at Detroit's Comerica Park, when Dapper took part in the ceremony.) The season Harwell joined the Dodgers was the second season with the Dodgers for Jackie Robinson , the first African American to player to play in the major leagues.
In 1950, Harwell moved to the New York Giants. He stayed with that team until 1953, and it was there, in 1951, that Harwell took part in broadcasting history. This was when he broadcast the first telecast of a major sporting event heard from one coast of the United States to the other. The occasion was the final game of the 1951 playoffs, and the competing teams were the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The highlight of that game was the game-winning home run by Giant Bobby Thomson that was later remembered by baseball fans as "the shot heard round the world." It was a big year for Harwell; also that year, he introduced the great Willie Mays to Giants fans, an event he remembered with much fondness in later years. "Mays was simply the best," he later told Mike Brudenell of the Detroit Free Press. "He could throw, hit and run."
In 1954, Harwell moved to the Baltimore Orioles. He remained with that team until 1959. Then, in 1960, he moved to the team that he would stay with for every year but one for the rest of his broadcasting career, the Detroit Tigers.
Before the 1992 season, Harwell was fired from the Tigers by Tigers president Bo Schembechler. Some speculated that Tigers owner Tom Monaghan prompted this action. The action was later called by John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press "the most unpopular move the club has ever made."
Harwell then went to work for the California Angels, broadcasting games for that team for the 1992 season. However, also in 1992, the Tigers were bought by Mike Ilitch, who promptly rehired Harwell. Harwell was back as the Tigers' announcer beginning with the 1993 season. "One of the highlights of my career," Harwell said in a speech in a pregame ceremony to honor him at Comercia Park in 2002, according to John Lowe, "one of the things I'm most grateful for, is that when Mike Ilitch bought the Tigers, he brought me back to be the announcer."
"Thank you," not "Goodbye"
Harwell announced his retirement from broadcasting in 2002. To honor him and his many years of broadcasting Detroit Tigers games, the ball club honored him at a pregame ceremony at Comerica Park on September 15, 2002. The ceremony lasted an hour, and culminated in the unveiling of a statue of Harwell standing with a microphone at the stadium's entrance. The statue was created by Lou Cella, who also helped sculpt the statues of other Tigers baseball players erected at the stadium. Harwell, in a speech that lasted five minutes, thanked the Tigers for erecting a statue of him, and according to Lowe said, "When I see a statue, I think of history. Of Washington and Lincoln, generals Grant and Lee. I don't deserve a statue or part of history. But let me tell you, from my heart, I'm proud this statue is me."
Harwell finished the day by broadcasting the Tigers game that followed. At one point in his broadcast Harwell said, wrote Lowe, "Our game got started late because they had some old guy out there."
Before his final game, Harwell summed up his 55-year career in the major leagues this way, according to Mike Brudenell of the Detroit Free Press, "I consider myself a worker. I love what I do. If I had my time over again, I'd probably do it for nothing." And, "I had a job to do, and I did it all these years to the best of my ability. That's what I'd like to leave behind as I finish my final game in Toronto."
|1918||Born on January 25 in Washington, Georgia|
|1930s||Lands first job as a sports reporter and writer for Sporting News|
|1940||Lands first job as a sports radio announcer, at WSB in Atlanta, Georgia|
|1941||Marries wife Lulu|
|1940s||Serves four years in the United States Marines|
|1948||Broadcasts for the baseball major leagues for the first time, for the Brooklyn Dodgers|
|1950||Becomes a radio broadcaster for the New York Giants|
|1951||Broadcasts the first U.S. coast to coast broadcast of a major sporting event|
|1954||Becomes radio sportscaster for the Baltimore Orioles|
|1960||Becomes radio sportscaster for the Detroit Tigers|
|1992||Tigers fire Harwell, begins broadcasting games for the California Angels|
|1992||Tigers rehire Harwell as broadcaster|
|1993||Resumes broadcasting for Tigers|
|2002||Broadcasts final home game on September 22|
|2002||Retires after season's last game|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1948||Became first sportscaster to be traded for a player when the Brooklyn Dodgers hire him in exchange for catcher Cliff Dapper|
|1981||Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame|
|1991||Inducted into the Sportscasters Hall of Fame|
|1998||Inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame|
|2002||Honored with a statue at Detroit's Comerica Park|
Harwell broadcast his last game in Detroit on September 22, when the Tigers played the New York Yankees. His final broadcast came on September 29, 2002 in Toronto. After the Tigers lost to the Toronto Blue Jays by 1-0, Harwell delivered to his listeners a farewell address that lasted less than a minute and a half. "Rather than goodbye," the Seattle Times reported him as saying, "please allow me to say thank you.… I might have been a small part of your life, but you have been a large part of mine. It's a privilege and an honor to share with you the greatest game of all. Now God has a new adventure for me. I'm ready to move on, so I leave you with a deep sense of appreciation for your longtime loyalty and support."
Where Is He Now?
His plans following retirement include catching up on a lot of reading and seeing a lot of plays. He also has expressed an interest in going back to songwriting, something he had done in the past for Mitch Ryder, B. J. Thomas, and other recording artists. Most of all, Harwell plans to spend plenty of time at home with Lulu. "Lulu and I have traveled a lot," he told the Detroit Free Press 's Mike Brudenell, "so we might just take it easy for a little while." And, of course, baseball will never be far from his mind. As he told Brudenell, "I'd also like to watch as many baseball games as possible on TV or listen to them on the radio."
Finder, Chuck. "Summer's Fading Soundtrack; Baseball's Rich Radio Broadcasting Tradition Eroded by Death, Retirement and Technology." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (June 30, 2002): D3.
"Harwell Calls His Last Game." Seattle Times (September 30, 2002): D6.
Beck, Jason. "Harwell: Doing More with Less." Detroit Tigers Web site. http://detroit.tigers.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/det/news/det_news.jsp?ymd=20020915&content_id=129194&vkey=news_det&fext=.jsp (September 15, 2002).
Brudenell, Mike. "Signing Off: Harwell Modestly Reflects on His Legend, Legacy and Life after 55 Years of Big League Broadcasting." Detroit Free Press. http://www.freep.com/sports/tigers/booth13_20020913.htm. (September 13, 2002).
"Ernie Harwell: Signing Off." Detroit Free Press. http://www.freep.com/photos/harwell2002/top.htm (September 13, 2002).
"Ernie Harwell, Sportscaster." Radio Hall of Fame. http://www.radiohof.org/sportscasters/ernieharwell.html (November 21, 2002).
Lowe, John. "Ernie Harwell: Signing Off: Emotional Farewell Address Focuses on Fans'Affection." Detroit Free Press. http://www.freep.com/sports/tigers/ernie30_20020930.htm (September 30, 2002).
Lowe, John. "Waves of Joy on Ernie's Day." Detroit Free Press. http://www.freep.com/sports/tigers/ernie16_20020916.htm (September 16, 2002).
"1981 Ford C. Frick Award Winner Ernie Harwell." Baseball Hall of Fame. http://www.baseballhalloffame.org/hofers_and_honorees/frick_bios/harwell_ernie.htm (November 13, 2002).
"1991 Hall of Fame Inducts Ernie Harwell." American Sportscasters Hall of Fame.com. http://www.americansportscasters.com/harwell.html (November 13, 2002).
Sketch by Michael Belfiore