Harwell 'a true legend in Baseball, in life'Georgia native was iconic voice of the Tigers for 42 years
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
05/05/10 4:50 AM ET
DETROIT -- The man who will forever be the voice of the Tigers is gone, and the Baseball community is left silent in remembrance. Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell passed away Tuesday at age 92.
Harwell succumbed to cancer of the bile duct, and passed away at his home in Novi, Mich. Doctors diagnosed the condition as an aggressive form in August, and Harwell and his family decided against surgery at his age. He explained his situation with an extraordinary sense of peace, both to his friends in the community and to fans at Comerica Park when he made one last visit in September.
"I've got a great attitude. I just look forward to a new adventure," Harwell told the Detroit Free Press when he disclosed his illness. "God gives us so many adventures, and I've had some great ones. It's been a terrific life."
It was a new journey, Harwell said, and he was ready for it. Still, many who knew him weren't quite ready to say goodbye.
"We lost a true legend today -- not just in Baseball, but in life," said Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc, in a statement. "Ernie was one-of-a-kind. He was warm, passionate and had an unmatched love for the game of Baseball... and he also loved Detroit and entire State of Michigan. We were lucky to have Ernie in our lives; he will surely be missed by Baseball fans and anyone who has ever had the privilege to meet him."
Everyone knew this day was coming, but it didn't make it any easier to handle.
"He'll be sorely missed," said former Tigers great Alan Trammell, who appeared with Harwell at a charity event in December. "A lot of people will be mourning, but he didn't want any of us to feel that way. A great life, 92 years old, and I think we all could hope we could live that long. He did it with class, with dignity. It's sad. We shed a tear tonight. He's a great man."
Born Jan. 25, 1918, in Washington, Ga., William Earnest Harwell grew up an aspiring sportswriter, working as a paperboy in Atlanta and as a batboy for the Minor League Atlanta Crackers.
"This son of Georgia was the voice of the Detroit Tigers and one of the game's iconic announcers to fans across America, always representing the best of our national pastime to his generations of listeners," Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.
Harwell was just 16 years old when a letter he sent to The Sporting News led to a freelance job as its Atlanta correspondent. He spent his high school and college years working on the desk at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
He was on his way to becoming a sportswriter, but as he explained later on, life would put him on an unexpected path soon after he graduated from nearby Emory University. With writing jobs in Atlanta hard to find, Harwell auditioned for WSB radio in 1940 and earned a job hosting a sports show. His persistence landed him one of Baseball's most coveted interviews at the time when he won over the reclusive Hall of Famer Ty Cobb.
Soon after, he broke into play-by-play broadcasting with the Crackers, his start in what ultimately became his profession.
"I'm a failed newspaper man myself," he recalled last fall. "I wanted to be a sportswriter when I was younger, working on the [Atlanta] Constitution, doing everything that nobody else would do. Thought maybe I'd be the next Grantland Rice, but it didn't happen. God had another plan for me. Couldn't get a job on the paper, and I got into radio. Stuck with radio and television, and it stuck with me up until 2002."
Harwell honed his broadcasting style with the Crackers, where his conversational style and southern accent took on polish. But it took Baseball's only trade involving a broadcaster to break him into the Major Leagues. The Crackers let Harwell out of his contract to join the Brooklyn Dodgers as a fill-in for Red Barber in 1948 in exchange for Minor League catcher Cliff Dapper.
Harwell would stick in the Majors for more than a half-century. He went from behind the microphone of the Dodgers to the Giants (1950-53) -- Vin Scully succeeded him with the Dodgers -- then to the Orioles (1954-59).
He was a household name in the business well before the Tigers hired him to replace Van Patrick in 1960. In Detroit, however, he found a home, on and off the field. Though he had better than four decades of broadcasting left in him, he was done moving.
"Ernie Harwell was the most popular sports figure in the State of Michigan," Tigers owner Michael Ilitch said in a statement. "He was so genuine in everything that he did -- from his legendary broadcasting to the way he treated the fans and everyone around him. He was truly a gentleman in every sense of the word. Ernie has a special place in the hearts of all Detroit Tigers fans and the memories he created for so many of us will never be forgotten. Baseball lost a legendary voice this evening, and we have all lost a dear friend."
Harwell spent 42 seasons broadcasting in Detroit, where his Georgia tones became part of the sound of Michigan summers. Through Harwell, fans came to know Tiger Stadium by its location on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, recognized double plays as "two for the price of one," and home runs as "looong gone!" They still associate called third strikes with Harwell's phrase that the batter "stood there like a house by the side of the road."
"I thought that was one of the coolest things, to hear the phrase, 'Long Gone,'" said current Tigers catcher Alex Avila, who came to Detroit as a teenager in time for Harwell's last season in 2002. "I thought that was one of the coolest things about being a Tiger fan when my dad came over [as team vice president] and just kind of getting caught up in all that tradition. That tradition comes alive when you're listening to him."
Countless kids and more than a few adults wondered how Harwell knew the hometowns of so many fans who caught foul balls, whether Ypsilanti, or Sturgis, or whatever town Harwell wished to recognize.
"Ernie Harwell was the biggest professional influence on my career, and the reason I pursued a career in Baseball broadcasting," said Tigers television broadcaster and Michigan native Mario Impemba. "Ernie respected the game and his craft, and in return a whole generation of Tigers fans had a deep respect for Ernie."
The accolades deservedly followed over the years. He was honored with the Ford C. Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, earned induction to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1989, then the radio sports Hall of Fame in 1998. His songwriting skills, more of a side effort he enjoyed rather than a second career, led to more than 60 recordings by various performers.
"Ernie was so engaging," said David Dombrowski, president, CEO and general manager of the Tigers. "He had such a genuine gift of making people feel like he was your friend. Ernie made you feel good about life and brought a smile to everyone he knew. His passion and wisdom during each broadcast gave you insight to his love for the Tigers, and for the State of Michigan."
To those who came in contact with him, whether longtime friends, colleagues, players or fortunate fans, his legacy as a broadcaster is matched by his legacy away from the microphone. He got to know many Tigers players over the years not only through his job, but through an active role with the Baseball Chapel.
"What a gentleman, what a great person," Trammell said. "It's a sad day for Baseball, not just for the people in Detroit or Michigan. He treated everybody with a quality that very few have -- everybody was the same, whether you're the president or somebody on the street. That's a quality not too many people have."
Tigers manager Jim Leyland remembers meeting Harwell when Leyland was a player in Minor League camp for the team. He talked to him again last fall.
"Ernie Harwell treated me like I was a Major League Tiger for a long time," Leyland said, "and I was never a Major League Tiger. I was over there 18 years, and he treated me like I was a big leaguer, and I was never a big leaguer."
Said former broadcasting partner Jim Price: "If you met Ernie for the first time, you'd walk away and felt like you were Ernie's best friend. I mean, that just says it all."
The way he treated his situation, too, touched many.
"I hope that we all can be as at peace with ourselves as much as Ernie was," Leyland said Tuesday. "That's pretty good. I hope I can be like that. Like I said, I look at it like a celebration. He had a full life. He did so many things. He was so respected. He basically had a chance to say his goodbyes. That's a blessing. And we all had a chance to say our goodbyes."
Even those who had never met him until recently, until his illness brought him back into the spotlight, were in awe. The grace and the gratitude with which he stood and faced his condition was one more example for many to admire.
"What a tremendous man," said shortstop Adam Everett, who had the chance to visit Harwell at his home.
As Harwell talked with fans one last time from behind home plate at Comerica Park on Sept. 16, standing tall with his hands politely behind him, he turned his fate into a storybook ending in a way only he could.
"In my almost 92 years on this Earth, the good Lord has blessed me with a great journey," Harwell told fans, "and the blessed part of that journey is that it's going to end here in the great state of Michigan. I deeply appreciate the people of Michigan. I love their grit. I love the way they face life. I love the family values they have. And you Tiger fans are the greatest fans of all."
As Jack Morris said last fall: "He doesn't want people to feel sorry for him. I've never been an outwardly spiritual kind of guy, but I believe. He's going to get there first, and I hope he saves us a seat."
Harwell is survived by Lulu, his wife of 68 years, sons Bill and Gray, daughters Julie and Carolyn, seven grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be at the Comerica Park on Thursday. The viewing will begin at 7 a.m. and continue until the last person has a chance to see him. Complementary parking for the viewing will be available in Lots 1, 2 and 3.
Per Harwell's request, there will be no public memorial, just a private service. Memorial donations will be used for the Detroit Public Library and to fund college scholarships, and can be sent to the Ernie Harwell Foundation, c/o Gary Spicer, 16845 Kercheval Avenue, Grosse Pointe, Mich. 48230.Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.