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Ernie Harwell (1918-2010)

Since he retired in 2002, I’m not sure I ever heard Ernie Harwell call a full game, as his career preceded the bountiful period in which fans in any market can see or hear virtually any game. But as a fan steeped in baseball history and old enough to remember, say, the Tigers’ 1984 World Championship, I was certainly aware of him, and heard his smooth, lilting voice via numerous clips and occasional guest appearances in the booth over the years.

Furthermore, I could appreciate how closely identified Harwell was with his team, for he was no less to the Tigers what Vin Scully is to the Dodgers, a golden voice ringing true through the decades,  as essential to the team’s identity as the Olde English D on the uniform. Yesterday, that voice was finally silenced, as Harwell passed away at the age of 92. Stricken by terminal cancer, he said his goodbyes last September, but that didn’t prevent the news of his passing from producing any less emotion.

Harwell actually preceded Scully in the Dodgers’ broadcast chair by a year about a year and a half*, and the two were close friends, so it was only fitting that Scully offered a moving on-air tribute to his fallen comrade last night: “He was such a lovely man, everybody loved Ernie, and eventually he just stole the hearts of everybody in Detroit and the state of Michigan, and for that matter anybody who loved baseball.”

* As King Kaufman, who sent me the correction, elaborates, “He got the gig in ‘48. The Giants offered him a job in ‘49, but he turned it down because he didn’t want to jump from the first big league team that hired him (traded for him!) so quickly. But the next year, the Giants upped the offer so he went, and Scully replaced him in Brooklyn. ‘My claim to fame!’ Ernie used to say.”

Sons of Steve Garvey, the home of the wonderful Vin Scully repository, has the full transcript of Scully’s comments, which include the story of just how Harwell came to the Dodgers. Here’s the video, at least until MLB forces it down:

Meanwhile, at MLB.com, virtually every announcer on the job last night took time to offer his own thoughts, neatly edited in this eight-minute clip, Scully’s included. Don’t miss it.

Also worth reading:

Harwell had one of the longest runs by a broadcaster with one major league club, calling Tigers games for 42 seasons. For the first 32 of those seasons, he made and cemented his legacy by doing play-by-play on the radio. His Southern voice — rich and authoritative but not overbearing — became as distinctive to Michigan listeners as baseball itself.

Unlike some announcers in recent decades, Harwell didn’t litter his broadcasts with shouting, excessive talking or all-knowing pronouncements about players and managers. Listening to him was as pleasant as being at Tiger Stadium in the summertime. As he fell silent between pitches, listeners got to hear the sounds of the ballpark — the crowd’s buzz, the vendor’s cry — and absorb the rhythm of the game. Harwell thus became an ideal companion for a listener anywhere: the couch, the yard, the car or the boat.

“He’s a master craftsman,” former Tigers broadcaster Josh Lewin, now with the Texas Rangers, said in 2002. “He’s always kept it simple, which I think is part of his charm and staying power.”

He conveyed warmth through a relaxed and humorous style that mixed the precise details of the game, player anecdotes, tales about his wife, Lulu, and idiosyncratic phrases that defined him to millions of listeners.

A player retired on a called third strike “stood there like the house by the side of the road” or was “called out for excessive window shopping.” A double play was “two for the price of one.” A foul ball that reached the stands was caught by “a man from Saginaw” or any other city or town that came to mind at the moment.

  • Tyler Kepner’s tribute, excerpting Harwell’s speech at the Hall of Fame after winning the Ford C. Frick award for broadcasting in 1981:

“Baseball is the president tossing out the first ball of the season and a scrubby schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm. A tall, thin old man waving a scorecard from the corner of his dugout. That’s baseball. And so is the big, fat guy with a bulbous nose running home one of his 714 home runs.

“There’s a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh 46 years ago. That’s baseball. So is the scout reporting that a 16-year-old pitcher in Cheyenne is a coming Walter Johnson. Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered, or booed. And then becomes a statistic.

“In baseball democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rulebook. Color merely something to distinguish one team’s uniform from another.

…“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. This is a game for America. Still a game for America, this baseball! Thank you.”

It’s hard to talk about what kind of guy Ernie Harwell was without sounding like you’re talking about a guy on the night of the day he died. But it was just as hard when he was still alive. I spent three days with him, and he was unfailingly kind, generous, cheerful, energetic, positive and humble. And not just with me. At 84 years of age, he was tireless, making sure as he roamed the ballpark — which he did a lot — that every fan who wanted a moment with him — and there were many — got the moment he or she wanted.

I talked to a lot of people about Ernie Harwell that summer, and in the eight years since then I’ve talked to more people about him and I’ve heard and read many things said about him, and I’ve never heard a hint that the man I came to know in those three days wasn’t the genuine article. It may be that there has never been an unkind word said about Ernie Harwell.

Jon Miller, the ESPN and San Francisco Giants announcer, was hurrying across a field when I sidled up to him asking if I could talk to him for a minute. He kept walking as he asked what I wanted to talk about. “Ernie Harwell,” I said, and he stopped on a dime. All of a sudden, I had his attention and he grew animated as he told stories about Ernie.

  • Keith Law’s explanation of the enduring power of both Harwell and Scully, transcribed from an ESPN radio spot:

Their style is dated… it’s very understated. The baseball dictates the commentary, and the commentary is fairly limited, and the delivery is very low-key. They sort of absorb you in the game as opposed to absorbing you in their commentary. Now with the rise of the three-man booth you’re sort of being absorbed in the repartee between the announcers, which to me is not actually why I listen to or watch a baseball game. On television, I will often mute the sound because it is a distraction to me… What sets Scully and Harwell and a few others of their ilk apart is that they stuck with that style even as it fell out of favor, at least within the industry.

And here’s Harwell’s highlight reel and farewell address from last September:

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