George Kell, left, was most responsible for helping lure Ernie Harwell
from the Baltimore Orioles. They shared the radio and TV booth in
1960-63. (Detroit Public Library)
Posted: March 11, 2010Ernie Harwell's first call with Tigers hits 50
BY BILL DOW
FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER
Fifty years ago Friday -- it was a wintry day in Detroit, with temperatures in the 20s -- fans for the first time heard Ernie Harwell describe Tigers baseball in his soft Southern drawl.
At 1:25 p.m. on March 12, 1960, if you tuned to WWJ-AM (950) or WKMH-AM (1310), you would have caught the opening game of the Grapefruit League season from Lakeland, Fla. In the broadcast booth at Henley Field that day were Harwell, partner George Kell and engineer Howard Stitzel.
The Tigers, coming off a 76-78 fourth-place season, were playing the perennial cellar-dweller Washington Senators. The Tigers rallied to win, 8-6, thanks to the hitting of Al Kaline and Steve Bilko and strong relief pitching from Hank Aguirre and Pete Burnside.
Harwell's first call described Senator Billy Consolo -- later a coach on the Tigers' '84 champions -- grounding out to future U.S. Senator Jim Bunning.
With that, Harwell, then 42, began more than four decades with the Tigers.
If not for a future Hall of Famer and Detroit's best-known beer, Harwell would not have been in the Tigers' broadcast booth in Lakeland for the first time 50 years ago Friday.
The man largely responsible for Harwell coming to Detroit was George Kell, the former Tigers third baseman. For the 1959 season, the Tigers had hired Kell to announce games with Van Patrick following the death of Patrick's partner of three years, Mel Ott.
Harwell, as voice of the Baltimore Orioles, had introduced Kell to the broadcast booth in 1957. During a 10-day stint on the disabled list, at Harwell's invitation, Kell provided color commentary on Orioles broadcasts. Two years later, Kell started his remarkable 37-year broadcasting career with the Tigers.
After the '59 season, the Tigers changed their beer sponsorship from Goebel to Stroh's. Because Patrick long had been identified with Goebel, he was fired. Stroh's and Tigers management then asked Kell for a recommendation to replace the popular announcer, who had been on the job the past eight seasons as only the third radio voice in team history.
In his 1985 book "Tuned to Baseball," Harwell wrote that Kell called him at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York during the last weekend of the 1959 season to tell him he had been recommended for the Tigers' vacancy. Harwell quickly responded:
"Well, I like Baltimore. And I can stay there," I said. "But Detroit's always been a favorite spot for me. Tell Mr. Sisson I'd be glad to consider the job."
On Oct. 12, 1959, the Tigers (and executive vice president Harry Sisson) announced that Harwell, after 12 seasons with the Dodgers, Giants and Orioles, would join Kell as a play-by-play partner.
Their first broadcast would be five months later, at the start of the Grapefruit League season.
Shortly before their debut, Harwell would bury his father and mother.Voice of the Turtle started later
March 12, 1960, could have passed for almost any extended winter Saturday in a great sports town like Detroit. Fans could have watched the CBS telecast at 2 p.m. from Boston Garden, where the Red Wings were trying to lock up the fourth and final playoff berth. Fans could have attended the Pistons' playoff game with the Minneapolis Lakers, moved to Grosse Pointe High because the Ice Capades occupied Olympia. (The NBC broadcast at 2 p.m. was blacked out to help the local gate; still, only 1,938 attended.)
For the record, tickets to the Pistons were $3 for adults and $1 for students. The Ice Capades charged $2, $3 or $4.
That night, at the State Fair Coliseum, heavyweight champion Pat O'Connor was wrestling the Sheik of Araby. (Alex Karras vs. Bulldog Brower was on the undercard.) Tickets were $1, $2 or $3.
In theaters, the hot movies included "Ben-Hur," "Sink the Bismarck," "Suddenly, Last Summer" (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn) and "Who Was That Lady?" (starring Tony Curtis, Dean Martin and Janet Leigh).
In Detroit, the temperature reached 27 degrees. The digits were reversed in Lakeland at game time.
Spring training had been relatively uneventful for the Tigers. But not for Harwell.
He had to leave Lakeland just as training camp started when his father, Gray, died in Atlanta on Feb. 15. He had suffered from multiple sclerosis for decades. The new Tigers announcer was back in camp just one day when he learned that his mother, Helen, died on Feb. 21.
In the broadcast booth at Henley Field -- Joker Marchant Stadium was a few years in the future -- were Harwell, Kell and engineer Howard Stitzel. The Voice of the Turtle was not there -- Harwell didn't start his spring ritual of reading the Song of Solomon until several years later.
"I can't specifically recall that first game with Ernie because they kind of all run together, but I must say that working with him was one of the greatest things in the world," said Stitzel, who started with Tigers announcer Harry Heilmann in 1948 and at 92 lives in Southgate with June, his wife of 62 years. "As the engineer, I liked to say that I'm the only one in the world who could tell him to shut up, because when my hand went up, he had to shut up. I told him that once, and he smiled and said, 'Oh, no, Miss Lulu does that.' "
Against the Washington Senators, the Tigers scored three runs in the bottom of the first inning. Jim Bunning, the future Republican senator from Kentucky, then surrendered five runs in the top of the second. But when the Bengals rallied during his three-inning stint -- eventually winning, 8-6 -- Bunning had his first Grapefruit victory as a Tiger. He had lost 11 straight since 1955.
According to the Free Press account, Bunning and relievers Hank Aguirre and Pete Burnside did not allow a ball out of the infield from the third inning through the eighth. Al Kaline, then 25, hit a home run. Steve Bilko hit a two-run double, scored twice and, at first base, made the best play of the day.
Harwell and Kell shared the radio and TV booth in 1960-63. Kell took a year off; when he returned in '65, he strictly handled TV play-by-play through 1996. Kell, inducted into the Hall of Fame as a third baseman in 1983, died last March at 86.
Stitzel retired from the booth in 2000, two years before Harwell and 19 years after Harwell became the fifth broadcaster to win the Ford Frick Award bestowed by the Hall of Fame.
(Harwell, who turned 92 in January after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer last summer, declined to be interviewed for this story. In recent months, Harwell has been overwhelmed by media requests, which he politely declines as he conserves strength and spends time with his wife, Lulu, and his family.)First regular-season opener: 15 innings
If you're wondering about Harwell's regular-season Tigers debut, it was April , 19, 1960, in Cleveland, and it was an Opening Day that Harwell would never forget.
Because of a packed press box, Harwell and Kell had to broadcast outside in the upper deck at a makeshift table behind home plate -- for 15 innings.
In a 2002 book, "Ernie Harwell: My 60 Years in Baseball," Harwell told author Tom Keegan:
"It was a bitter cold day. A biting wind was coming off Lake Erie, and it was about 35 degrees. All I wanted to do and all George wanted to do from the first pitch was get back to the hotel."
The game lasted 4 hours, 54 minutes and stands as the longest in Opening Day history. The Tigers finally won, 4-2, after Kaline laced a two-run single in the top of the 15th.
Three days later, Harwell and Kell announced the home opener at Briggs Stadium under ideal conditions. With the thermometer nearly reaching 80, the Tigers defeated the White Sox in the ninth, 6-5, after Lou Berberet singled in Kaline.
During the broadcast, Harwell told listeners that the team was changing the ballpark's name to Tiger Stadium following the '60 season.
For the next four decades, the voice of summer became forever linked with Tigers baseball and the ballpark he affectionately called "The Corner."