Ernie Harwell (1918-2010)

First off, let me preempt this post with the following suggestion: DONT GROAN AND ROLL YOUR EYES (just yet). You seriously need to give this story a chance.

Its about someone you’ve never heard of before, who worked for a team you probably don’t care about , that played a sport you likely find rather boring.

Well…

….too fucking bad. Its time for you to meet Ernie.

To qualify (or quantify) my opinion, let me start by saying I don’t recall ever hearing a game called by Ernie.

Although I grew up in SE Michigan, I was never really a dedicated fan for the Detroit Tigers as a child. I liked them to say the least, and have some great memories of my late father taking me to games at the old Tiger Stadium. However, I was never interested enough to follow them on television or radio until years after Ernie Harwell had retired.

What a shame.

Paul Carey, his broadcast partner of many years, said recently after a memorial service, “He was the greatest man I have ever known”.

Another broadcaster replies, “I’ve heard that recently from many, many people.”

Mr. Harwell has the distinct  honor of being the only broadcaster to be traded from one team to another. This isn’t what makes him memorable, but is a great example of how unique his career was. In many ways, he was the Forest Gump of broadcasting.

In 1923 Ernie got a job as the visitor “Bat Boy” for the Atlanta Crackers (seriously). He was 5 years old.

Nine years later, he is a regional correspondent for the Sporting News. After college, he returned to reporting for the Atlanta Constitution as a sportswriter, then made the move to radio game calling for the Crackers in 1943. Soon after he joined the Marines Corps and served for four years.

Fast forward a few more years and we find Ernie broadcasting for the Crackers again. One day they receive a call from Brooklyn Dodger’s GM. They were frantic to find a replacement announcer for Red Barber, who was thought to be dying from a bleeding ulcer. They made an unprecedented trade, a transaction that has yet to be replicated. Ernie’s broadcasting contract was traded for a major league catcher.

Turns out Red didnt die, and Ernie left the next year for other baseball teams (the Giants, and Orioles), along with some golf and pro/college football games. During this time, Ernie broadcasts the very first nationally televised (coast to coast) game for the 1951 National League playoffs.  This wasn’t a division playoff that we think of today with several games deciding the fate of the champions. The team with the best record at the end of the season were the league champs..plain and simple. They would go on to face the American League champs for the ultimate title. In 1951, the Dodgers and their crosstown (NY) Giants ended the season with matching records of 96 wins and 58 losses. We had a 1 game playoff for the league honors. Tension was high, and fans were going crazy across Manhattan as well as the nation. Ernie gets the nod to be the only broadcaster for the television feed.

In the bottom of the 9th inning, with the Giants losing by a score of 4-2, outfielder Bobby Thomson hits a walk-off 3-run homer to win the game. It went down in history as “The Shot Heard Round the World”. As soon as he hears the crack of the bat, Ernie says a simple “Its gone!”. He later reflected that he probably called it too soon, but it was just an instinctual call of confidence, and sure enough the ball left the field. Not an elaborate exclamation of his excitement. He just says “Its gone”, and leans back to let the noises of the stadium’s erupting crowd do the rest for his televised viewers. Classic Ernie.

Oddly enough, no one recorded Ernie calling one of the most famous events of US sports history. Someone did capture the sounds for one of the radio feeds called by another commentator- but Ernie’s entire game has been lost forever. When asked about it, he replies “Lulu was watching the game…so that makes two of us, and I suppose thats all that matters.” He gives a golden smile after referring to his wife, then asks how your family is doing. Again, classic Ernie.

Ernie was known for remembering every person he met. Names, faces, quotes- he had an incredible memory for details. He would ask questions from random rookies at batting practice and then recite their conversations verbatim during the broadcast. He would read paperback books in the 4 hours it took to fly from Detroit to LA. This made him an intelligent, and compassionate legend amongst the people who worked with him everyday.

Ironically, one of the things that made him popular with the audience was his trademark of making shit up on the air.
“There’s a fly ball, deep into right field…and its going foul. A man named Harry Grimson from Dexter, Michigan caught that ball.”

The listeners would wonder, Did this man really know the name of every person in the stadium?

“Sitting along the 3rd base line is the Swanson family from the great city of Cleveland Ohio. They came straight from church!”

Another favorite move was to simply turn the microphone around so that his audience could listen to the crowd’s enthusiasm for 20-30 seconds at a time. Thats a long time for radio silence.

Ernie Harwell ends up working for the Detroit Tigers for 42 years. He won several awards over the decades, including recognition in the Radio Hall of Fame as well as the Baseball Hall of Fame (something Dave Niehaus did a couple years ago, Mariner fans).
He goes down in history for creating some of the most used, or interesting catch phrases in baseball announcing:

“That ball is LONG GONE!”  (homerun)

“Two for the price of one!”  (double play)

“He stood there like the house at the side of the road, and watched it go by.”   (striking out while looking)

The last one I admit, isnt very catchy…but its another great example of the twist Ernie brought to the game. He always did his best to intertwine humanity, childish fantasy, and poetic imagery with his love for baseball.

Last year, Bob Costas did an interview with Ernie after he revealed he was dying from inoperable cancer. Bob asks the 92 year old if he can recall any part of his 1981 Hall of Fame speech. Ernie recites the entire speech...by memory.

Whenever someone would tell him he was a living legend, the response was more often than not, “Im nothing more than a failed newspaper journalist.”

Rest in peace, Ernie. You were truly one of the greatest failures we’ve ever loved.

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3 thoughts on “Ernie Harwell (1918-2010)

  1. Now that I’m back from my summer hiatus, I really appreciate this post. Sorry I didn’t give it the attention it deserved 4 months ago.

  2. thanks man, i got a lot out of writing it and Im
    glad at least one other person read/liked it (you know jules doesnt care about baseball 🙂

  3. Would you mind telling me who shot the Harwell photo you use of Mr. Harwell sitting in the booth at Tiger Stadium? Which website can I search to find it? I’m having my book published and that would be an ideal cover shot. Please let me know who I would need to contact. Thank you.

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