Ernie Harwell and Tiger Stadium: Two old friends

Harwell’s articulate, melodious Georgia drawl has been described as “a smooth ride on the river of baseball’s heritage.”

      “On warm humid nights through transistors and earphones, they whisper to us — like lovers across a pillow. On hot sunny days, through stereo speakers in the back ofthe car, they shout at us like happy children on the way to summer camp. They are the local baseball announcers for the local teams on the local radio stations, as much a sound of summer as the singing of birds, the chirping of crickets, and the hissing of lawn sprinklers.”

— Joe Lapointe, New York Times

        He has called major league baseball games over six decades. And like a conductor true to his music, Ernie Harwell has been devoted to the score.

Said one sportswriter of Ernie’s style: “For Harwell, the game’s truly the thing, and this credo, more than mere lip service, is what allows him to describe a ball game with such remarkable clarity. He knows that his audience checks in and out during a game, so he always sets and resets the scene.”

Ironically, the man from Georgia whose melodious voice would become the best loved in Detroit was so tongue-tied as a youngster that schoolmates ridiculed him. His parents hired speech teachers and he struggled through school classes and school debates. But by the time he graduated from Emory University, he had overcome his handicap.

Seen in the library of his Baltimore home in 1959, Ernie shows his extensive collection of sports books.

      Earnest Harwell was born on January 25, 1918 in Washington, Georgia. When his father, Davis Gray Harwell, lost his furniture business, the family moved to Atlanta. When his father was striken with multiple sclerosis, his mother became the breadwinner.

“We had three brothers in the family and she used to make cakes and sandwiches and sell them for weddings and parties,” Ernie recalled. “She did this her whole life.”

Ernie heard his first baseball broadcast in 1926 at the age of 8. His parents had bought him a crystal set. He sat in the basement and listened to Grover Cleveland Alexander of the St. Louis Cardinals strike out Tony Lazzeri of the New York Yankees with the bases loaded inthe seventh game of the World Series.

“You had to hold a piece of wire. They called it a ‘cat whisker’ in a small pool of mercury and you had to hold it just right for the station to come in,” Harwell would describe years later. “I sat there for two hours, not moving a muscle, listening to every pitch.”

By 1928, with their father’s health deteriorating, the three Harwell boys got jobs to help out at home. Ernie got a newspaper route.

“I delivered the old Atlanta Georgian, a Hearst newspaper, and I could bring down two or three bucks a week.” One of his customers was Margaret Mitchell, world famous author of Gone With the Wind.

Even when he was ill, the elder Harwell enjoyed listening to the games over the radio and following the career of one of his closest friends, Sherrod Smith, a major league pitcher.

“That’s where I got my love of the game — from my father,” Ernie recounted.

Years later, Ernie would imagine his deceased dad back in their living room, sitting by the radio, listening to son Ernie with his trademark conversational style announce the plays.

Former Tiger George Kell and Ernie Harwell became a broadcasting team in 1960, each calling half of each game on TV and radio.

      A trick he learned from his debating days still plays a role in educating listeners on baseball history. Harwell found interesting anecdotes of little known players and events during the off season. He wrote these facts down on index cards, just like he did in debating classes, and before each game Ernie will grab a handful of these index cards and share those tidbits of trivia.

Harwell enjoyed all sports but he longed to be a baseball play-by-play man like his heroes, Red Barber and Mel Allen. He’d spend hours practicing his style by announcing imaginary games.

At age 16, he became an Atlanta correspondent for Sporting News, by fibbing about his age.

“I didn’t know how little I knew. But I wrote the letter anyway and signed it Earnest Harwell so they wouldn’t think I was too young.” His career move brought him to the sports desk at the Atlanta Constitution.

During World War II he served his stint in the Marines as a writer for their publication, Leatherneck.

Harwell’s earliest sports broadcast job was for a local station. The rival paper – the Atlanta Journal – owned a radio station WSB, and wanted someone to do a sports show. When he showed up at the studio for an audition, they handed him a newspaper and told him to make up a sports show on the spot.

Ernie was home.

Long-time broadcasting partner Paul Carey, left, shares the radio booth with Ernie in 1986.

“The most amazing thing is that we did interviews. We didn’t have tape recorders and so the players had to come up to the studio to be interviewed. … I’m talking big-name athletes, too, like Ted Williams and Jack Dempsey and Bobby Jones and Don Budge.”

Ernie also worked some fooball games at Georgia Tech and covered The Masters golf tournament in 1940 and ’41.

In 1940, Ernie met wife-to-be Lulu while both were in college. They were married a year later.

In 1943, Harwell began doing play-by-play for the minor league Atlanta Crackers. In his book, “Tuned to Baseball,” he recalls being paid $25 a game plus an unusual perk. Each time a Crackers player hit a home run, he got a case of Wheaties cereal from the team’s sponsor.

“Wheaties was the big sponsor in those days. They sponsored almost all the baseball games in the majors and the minors. That was a lot of Wheaties. I think there were 24 boxes in a case and some of these guys were hitting 25 and 30 home runs a season. We had a dog in those days named Blue Grass and the players used to give us their Wheaties for him. Blue Grass loved Wheaties and so did I.”

Harwell became the only broadcaster ever traded for a player when the Crackers swapped him for Cliff Draper, a Brooklyn Dodgers farmhand. He joined the Dodgers broadcast team in the 1948 season, one year after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. In 1950 Harwell was lured to the rival New York Giants, where one year later he broadcast the debut of Willie Mays. From 1954 to 1959, Harwell was the voice of the Baltimore Orioles.

George Kell was finishing his Hall of Fame career as a player with the Orioles, and one day Ernie invited him into the radio booth. Kell later landed a job with the Detroit Tigers and in 1960 the Detroit club signed Harwell to become Kell’s partner. “It’s the best move I ever made,” Ernie said. “I’ve been very happy in Detroit.”

The broadcaster started as a newspaper writer and is the author of several books.

At first only a few games during the season were televised. Ernie and Kell took turns each calling half of the game on TV, the other half on radio. Kell took over the full-time TV duties in 1965, and Ernie stayed in the radio booth where he felt most at home.

Harwell became such a habit in Detroit and the Midwest that many associated him with the changing of seasons, the signal that soon the weather will be warmer and the days longer.

Each year, on the first broadcast from Spring training, the devoutly Christian Harwell recites from the biblical Song of Solomon:

For the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the song of the birds has come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

Baseball author Bruce Shlain reflects: “Somehow he brings the proper pitch and phrasing to a whole season, with a rhythm and pacing that only a select few have ever commanded. In many ways a Harwell broadcast is profoundly musical, as befits a man who has published 55 songs with composers such as Johnny Mercer. Many an announcer has aspired to sounding as if talking to a friend in his living room, but Harwell effortlessly establishes the same rapport on the air as he does in person.”

He often speaks at Sunday morning “Baseball Chapel” services in team clubhouses. In Tuned to Baseball Ernie observed: “Opening Day in Detroit is what Easter is to the church. The faithful come out, but a lot of once-a-year attendees are there too.”

While Harwell became a household name in Detroit, few fans realize he also pursued careers as a writer and lyricist. Scores of his pop, rock, and country songs were recorded.

In 1968, when the Tigers reached the World Series, Tiger front office asked Ernie to select the singers to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” for the three home games. He chose Margaret Whiting, Marvin Gaye and Jose Feliciano.

Feliciano’s bluesy off-beat rendition of the National Anthem ignited a furor. The country seethed over the performance. Editorials lambasted it, civic groups passed angry resolutions. Patients at a Veteran’s hospital threw shoes at the TV set during the rendition of the song.

Amid the turmoil, Ernie stood by his singer. But for the most part, Harwell stayed far from controversy. He believed that his job was reporting, not commentary. He never criticized management or players, concentrating on keeping the listeners up to speed on the game score and action.

Ernie reminisced about the 1968 championship season: “So much happened it was hard to keep up with everything. We had Denny McLain’s 31 victories, Gates Brown’s great pinch-hitting in the clutch, Tom Matchick’s home run to beat Baltimore in the ninth inning, then Darryl Patterson striking out the side to beat them in the ninth … excitement every day in the ballpark.”

For Harwell that season remains the most significant. “The greatest single moment I’ve ever known in Detroit was Jim Northrup’s triple in the seventh game of the World Series in St. Louis. It was a stunning moment because not only were the Tigers winning a world championship that meant so much to an entire city, they were beating the best pitcher I ever saw — Bob Gibson.”

On August 2, 1981, Ernie stole the show and received a standing ovation in Cooperstown, N.Y. as he became only the fifth broadcaster to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Overcome with joy at his induction he spoke to the audience from his heart about his relationship with the game. “Baseball is a tongue-tied kid from Georgia growing up to be an announcer and praising the Lord for showing him the way to Cooperstown.”

In December of 1990, Tiger management and WJR radio told Harwell that the 1991 baseball season — his 43rd in the major leagues and his 32nd in Detroit — would be his last.

Harwell waves to the fans who gave a long standing ovation to him on Oct, 1, 1991. Everyone thought it would be his last Tiger broadcast.

      Fans angrily reacted to the dismissal news. Bumper stickers, T-shirts and billboards proclaimed “Say It Ain’t So, Bo” appeared all over Tiger Town. Bo Schembechler, the team president and former U-M football coach, was denounced. Local talk shows and newspaper headlines sizzled with fan threats of boycotts against the team, and pizza lovers boycotted team owner Tom Monaghan’s Domino’s Pizza chain.

The furor spread nationwide. Curt Smith, baseball historian and author, charged, “Bo Schembechler and Tom Monaghan should be ashamed of themselves. You cannot overestimate the damage this has done to the Tigers. If you are a businessman, you don’t fire your best asset.”

The Tigers’ front office tried damage control. Bill Haase, senior vice president, attempted to explain their decision: “If you listened to his broadcasts over the last four or five years, you’d realize his skills were starting to diminish.” He declined to specify what kinds of mistakes Harwell was making.

WJR boss Jim Long later said it was his decision to fire Ernie. “I want to set the record straight. It was me, not Bo, who wanted to make the change.”

Baffled by the decision not to renew the contracts of Harwell and partner Paul Carey, Detroit News columnist George Cantor reflected on the day Harwell announced that the ballclub was letting him go after the ’91 season. “I drove to that news conference at the ballpark, thinking that I was going to a retirement announcement and already composing the warm and wiggly column I would write about him in my mind. I was stunned when he revealed that he was not leaving by choice. I still can’t understand it ….

“People welcomed them into their homes because they sensed that they were genuine, honest, more worthy of emulation than most of the heroes whose feats they described.”

On September 30, 1991, Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey said goodbye to thousands of cheering fans at Tiger Stadium. “God blessed me by putting me here for 31 years at Michigan and Trumbull,” Harwell told a crowd of 17,000 during a 15-minute ceremony officiated by former Tiger Al Kaline. “I had the greatest job in the world — a job I loved to do. But most of all, I appreciate you fans … I appreciate your loyalty, your support and your love that you’ve shown me, especially the love.”

It was a special day for Carey also, who called his years with Harwell an “absolute joy.””I’ll miss the people, I’ll miss baseball, but most of all, I’ll miss sitting side by side with Ernie.”

Harwell still didn’t understand how the decision to dismiss him germinated in the Tiger organization. “My main reaction has been one of puzzlement,”he said. “I’ve had so much support from people, and that’s been very gratifying. I can’t allow myself to be bitter. We all have to move along.”

But two years later, with a change in ownership of the team, Harwell confirmed what people had been praying for: He was back with the organization. Harwell returned to the Tigers’ TV booth in 1993 after Mike Illitch bought the club.

And this season, at the ripe age of 81, he once again became the team’s radio voice. Ernie understands the siginificance of the two-year deal that spans 1999 and 2000, the reality that he will broadcast every game at Tiger Stadium’s last year as the team’s home, then carry the fans into the 2000 season, when the new downtown stadium, Comerica Park, opens for business. He is just happy to be back home with the game, the score and the fans he loves so well.

With Ernie the game comes first, last and always.

1993: Back home.

By Pat Zacharias / The Detroit News Library