Listening to Ernie Harwell, 'you never wanted it to stop'

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Washington Nationals broadcaster Bob Carpenter still remembers the first time he met Ernie Harwell, the longtime voice of the Detroit Tigers who died last week at the age of 92. Carpenter, then a young play-by-play man doing Texas Rangers games on television, walked up and introduced himself to the Hall of Famer in 1986 in the cozy press room at old Tiger Stadium.

Harwell motioned for him to sit down, and they had the first of countless shop-talk conversations that continued almost every time Carpenter came to the Motor City and needed to be brought up to speed on the Tigers.

"He was just one of those guys the first time he'd meet you and you'd talk, and the second time you saw him he remembered your name," Carpenter recalled the other day. "The first time I approached him, and the second time it was, 'Hey Bob, great to see you,' and by then he even knew a few things about me. He was the kind of guy who would always have the time of day for you. No airs, no sense of superiority, just a regular guy who came to the ballpark in a nice shirt and slacks and just rolled up his sleeves and went to work."

A Georgia native who first broke into broadcasting calling games of the old minor league Atlanta Crackers in 1943, Harwell handled radio and television play-by-play for major league games for 55 years, 42 of them with the Tigers.

Generations of Michiganders grew up and then grew old listening to his lyrical Southern lilt and his paint-a-masterpiece radio descriptions of the action. National audiences also got to hear him more than occasionally on playoff and World Series games, as well as the Masters and college football.

"He had a wonderful voice, an understated approach," Carpenter said. "The sign of a great broadcaster is a guy who will always tell you what you had to know, but when the game was over, he still leaves you wanting more. I grew up listening to Jack Buck and that's how I always felt about him. That was Ernie, too. You never wanted it to stop."

Harwell broke into the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948 and had a four-year hitch with the New York Giants until he was hired away by the Baltimore Orioles in their debut major league season of 1954. He once said of the Orioles, who managed only 16 home runs that first season, "We used to call them the Kleenex team. . . . Pops up one at a time."

He moved to Detroit in 1960 to start a passionate love affair that briefly broke up when the Tigers' misguided management, led by team president and obstinate former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, decided that the 1991 season would be the last hurrah for Harwell, then 73.

That dumb decision immediately set off a firestorm of fan and media criticism, but the club turned a deaf ear toward its furious fan base and decided to stay the course with a new broadcasting team in 1992, much to the dismay of Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom.

He described Harwell's dismissal as "one of the most shameful acts I have ever witnessed from a sports franchise. They took a man who is a national treasure and told him to start packing. They took a man who has taught baseball to hundreds of thousands of fans, summer after summer, and they told him he was too old, his time is up. They fired Ernie Harwell. Is that allowed?"

It was, at least for the '92 season, when Harwell worked as a part-time broadcaster for the California Angels. But when the Tigers were sold to new owner Mike Ilitch the next year, one of his first priorities was to get Harwell back where he belonged, behind a microphone in the Tiger Stadium press box. He returned for the '93 season and occupied that perch until the end of the 2002 season, when he retired on his own terms.

In 1993, Harwell came to Washington to speak at a Smithsonian-sponsored lecture, regaling an audience of 600 at the Department of Interior auditorium with tales from his storied career. During the question-and-answer session, one man stood up and said, "Mr. Harwell, I grew up in Michigan and I just want to thank you for 30 years of poetry."

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