Tigers' longtime broadcaster Harwell dead at 92

Late Tigers play-by-play broadcaster Ernie Harwell calling the final out at Tiger Stadium (September 27, 1999).
By Matt Schudel
Thursday, May 6, 2010

Ernie Harwell, 92, a beloved broadcaster who brought the triumphs and struggles of the Detroit Tigers to generations of baseball fans in the Upper Midwest, died May 4 at a retirement home in the Detroit suburb of Novi. He had cancer.

Mr. Harwell, the only broadcaster ever traded for a player, spent more than 50 years behind a major-league microphone and, in 1981, was the first active announcer elected to the broadcasters' wing of National Baseball Hall of Fame.

He worked for the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles before making his way to Detroit in 1960 and flourished in an era when broadcasters' daily presence on the airwaves wove them into the fabric of a region. He covered Detroit's World Series championship seasons of 1968 and 1984 and remained the voice of the Tigers until 2002.

A Sports Illustrated article in 1988 described Mr. Harwell as "probably the most revered figure in Michigan," but two years later the owners of the Tigers and its flagship radio station deemed the 72-year-old Hall of Fame announcer too old and said he would have to retire after one more season. One of the architects of Mr. Harwell's dismissal was former University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, who had become president of the Tigers under owner Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino's Pizza.

The move was a public relations disaster. Fans organized boycotts of Domino's, and the once-revered Schembechler became persona non grata around the state.

"Ernie Harwell is one of the three or four finest announcers in the 70-year history of baseball broadcasting," former White House speechwriter Curt Smith, the author of a book about baseball announcers, said at the time. "This is an abject insult not only to every Tiger fan but to any person in this country who loves baseball."

Within a year, Monaghan sold the team, and the executives associated with Mr. Harwell's ouster -- including Schembechler -- were dismissed. The Tigers' new owner, Mike Ilitch (the founder of Little Caesars Pizza), restored Mr. Harwell to the announcer's booth, where he stayed for 10 more years.

Mr. Harwell often appeared on television throughout his career, but he much preferred radio, where he could capture the pace and color of a game with his resonant, Southern-inflected baritone.

"In radio, they say, nothing happens until the announcer says it happens," he said in 1988. "Plus, we have the imagination of the people at home. They can picture what we're saying, maybe make better pictures than you can see on TV."

He described the events of a game without overtly cheering for his hometown Tigers and, over the years, developed a few signature calls.

A double play was "two for the price of one."

If a player took a called third strike, he was guilty of "excessive window shopping," or "he stood there like the house by the side of the road."

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