Sad news in the baseball world this evening, as 92-year-old Ernie Harwell, the long time voice of the Detroit Tigers before retiring in 2002, passed away. It was by no means unexpected – he announced his battle with terminal cancer last fall – but it is still plenty sad. I don’t have the personal connection to Harwell as others do, so I’ll leave that kind of remembrance to them (Craig Calcaterra’s take is great).
Harwell was an absolute legend. When I created that chart of the great radio broadcasters of the past 60+ years last week (boy, there’s been a lot of mortality talk recently), there were three names that I knew, without even thinking, would go on it besides Uecker’s (he inspired the chart, after all): Vin Scully, Jack Buck, and Ernie Harwell. When you’re talking about baseball broadcasters, you’re talking about Ernie Harwell.
From 1960 until his retirement at the age of 84, Harwell was the voice of the Tigers. But that wasn’t his first gig. He actually began his big league career as a fill-in for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Red Barber in 1948. He remained with the club in ’49, but moved over to the crosstown Giants in 1950. In 1954, when the Browns moved from St. Louis to Baltimore, he joined the club. How long ago was that?
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The best I can determine, Harwell’s first game as a major league broadcaster took place right around August 8, 1948 (this article from Tuesday, August 11, 1948, mentions that he was “in Atlanta until last week.”). On that day, Jackie Robinson was still the reigning Rookie of the Year, Duke Snider was a 21-year old kid was only 2 career home runs, and Gil Hodges socked two home runs to help Joe Hatten beat the Reds 10-2. That’s a life’s worth of baseball anyone would be jealous of.
And, as an added bonus, here’s an article Harwell wrote for Baseball Digest in 1951 about Ty Cobb and the “obscure bush league manager who discovered the latent greatness in his young outfielder and started him on the road to stardom”, George Leidy.
Leidy was a wise leader. He knew men and he knew baseball fundamentals. Without hesitation he discerned the unlimited potentialities in young Cobb and went about to develop them.
Ty was timid, supersensitive, high strung and nervous. He was a youngster among a crowd of hard-bitten, tough, rookie-hating veterans. But he had fire. All this, Leidy saw. He showed Cobb thoughtful kindness, something Cobb had come to believe foreign to baseball. He spent hours teaching his young rookie. He instilled in Cobb a new confidence. But – most of all – he fired him with a lasting ambition.
Near old Warren Park in Augusta that spring was an amusement park. Leidy invited Cobb to go there with him. It was all new to this boy from the farm – the strings of colored lights, the strident cries of the midway, the dancing girls. And it stirred him.
With this backdrop, Leidy appearl to Cobb’s imagination with stories of the big leagues. “Ty,” he told the rookie, “this is just a cheap sample of what you can reach – if you want to. You can play in the big leagues, live in swell hotels, ride in Pullmans, hobnob with the stage stars. Why, your name will be in every paper in the country. You’ll make lots of money. You’ll be famous.”
Cobb was impressed, but it all seemed as unreal as the midway.
“But how?” he asked.
“By practice, constant work. By listening, observing and learning. And you can do it.”
Harwell definitely had a way with words. If he can make you like Ty Cobb that easily, imagine how beautifully he could describe a game. Baseball is a lesser game today now that Ernie Harwell has passed.