How do you say good-bye to a broadcasting legend, who had impacted millions for almost 50 years? Over 41,000 people made up baseball fans, current and ex-players, coaches and other officials will probably have a collective cry together tonight, at Detroit’s Comerica Park, when the Detroit Tigers will honor baseball Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who announced recently he has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
Like many native Detroiters, Ernie Harwell was the voice I grew up with listening to Tiger baseball games on the radio, for decades. Not only was he on my own radio, but anywhere you went at times, you heard him. He was on radios playing at the beach, on a radio on your neighbor’s front porch, or on a car radio during a road trip. His voice was of course smuggled under the bed sheets at night, for those late starting West Coast games, via my transistor radio.
And his voice would be heard from beyond your neighborhood. For most of those years, the Tiger’s flagship radio station was WJR-AM, that had a 50,000 watt clear-channel signal, that could be picked up in the evening as far as St. Louis in one direction, north Florida in another direction, and as far away as Bermuda. Tiger fans could always get their ‘fix” almost anywhere, and it was Ernie’s voice behind that.
It would be his voice listened to by baseball fans in 1967, as parts of Detroit were burning, they were still playing baseball at the old Tiger Stadium. Ernie described to his audience then, black smoke that could be seen billowing over the left-field roof of the stadium, as the heat of the riots was tearing apart a city, and few sought refuge in a baseball team contending then for a pennant (which the Tigers were eliminated from the pennant race in the last few days of the 1967 season).
Ernie’s voice was the lone messenger for most of the 1968 season, as the 2 Detroit newspapers were on strike. This was long before there was ESPN or the internet, so if fans couldn’t read the game box scores in the newspaper, they had to tune in nightly to listen to the games. As the city tried to rebound from the riots the previous year, the baseball team was marching on to win their first World Series win in over 30 years. Some say the Tigers helped heal some of those riots wounds. If so, it would be Harwell placing the band-aid into the right spot.
For those who met Harwell, he was a living Roy Rogers, everyone liked him. I met him and interviewed him a few times, and I walked away saying the exact thing so many fans are saying today, “He is the nicest man you could ever meet.”
Tiger Pitcher Nate Robertson told MLB.com, after his visit to Harwell’s home Monday, "He's such a magnetic personality, and I think it's going to be really emotional for a lot of people, the fans, the generations of people that have listened to him over the radio, the city, the organization. So many have been drawn to him in so many different ways. I just thanked him [Monday] for the effect that he's had on my family, he and his wife. He's first class, no doubt, first class."
It will be Harwell’s voice in my memory when I think back to Tiger memories like 1968 and Denny McLain winning 31 games (still the MLB record); the 1972 team, managed by Billy Martin, as his team scrapped from behind and won the division title on the 2nd to last day of the season; the excitement of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych’s magical 1976 season; the 1984 World Series team, and just about any Tiger memory I have until 2002.
Harwell was one of the last great radio broadcasters of a generation, where one voice was associated with one team. He is legendary though for so many other reasons:
*He is the only announcer in history traded for a player. In 1948, he was broadcasting games for the minor league Atlanta Crackers, who traded him to the Brooklyn Dodgers for catcher Cliff Dapper.
*He broadcast NY Giants games in the 1950s and he was on the air for NBC television and called the famous “shot heard round the world” home run by the NY Giants Bobby Thomson. Sadly, that broadcast was not recorded at the time.
*He was one of the first broadcasters for the Masters golf tournament, for NBC Radio.
*As youth newspaper boy in Atlanta, among his customers on his paper route was “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell.
**Somehow, he could tell his audience, where a fan was from after the fan caught a foul ball, “And a fan from Traverse City, Michigan, caught that one,” he would say. I would later hear the Atlanta Braves Skip Carey do the same thing during his broadcast days.
*His signature calls were, on a called third strike, "He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by," which was actually an allusion to a poem by Sam Walter Foss.) or after a home run, “That ball is long gone, ….”
There won’t be a dry eye at Comerica tonight. Ernie, you will be missed, especially by me. His most memorable call for Tiger fans, that most can recite, word by word. This is from September, 1968, the night the Tigers clinched first place in the American League and their first World Series trip in 33 years:
“This big crowd here ready to break loose. Three men on, two men out. Game tied, 1–1, in the 9th inning. McDaniel checking his sign with Jake Gibbs. The tall right-hander ready to go to work again…and the windup, and the pitch...He swings, a line shot, base hit, right field, the Tigers win it! Here comes Kaline to score and it's all over! Don Wert singles, the Tigers mob Don, Kaline has scored...The fans are streaming on the field...And the Tigers have won their first pennant since nineteen hundred and forty-five! Let's listen to the bedlam here at Tiger Stadium!”
Tonight at Comerica Park in Detroit, Harwell is honored, game time 7:05p ET
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