Ernie Harwell: The Voice of Summer

Happy birthday, Ernie Harwell! The late great Detroit Tiger Broadcaster was born on this date in 1918.

For 55 seasons, 42 of them with the Detroit Tigers, described the action on radio and/or television. The American Sportscasters Association ranks Harwell 16th on its list of Top 50 Sportscasters of All Time.

Ernie Harwell grew up in Atlanta. He fell in love with baseball as a youth, becoming the visiting bat-boy for the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association at the age of five. By the time he was sixteen he found work as a regional correspondent for The Sporting News.

Ernie earned his college degree at Emory University, where he helped edit The Emory Wheel. After graduation, he worked as a copy editor and sportswriter for the Atlanta Constitution. His first play by play job was at age 25. He became the Crackers play-by-play announcer on WSB , before spending four years in the United States Marine Corps.

Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey heard Ernie riding WSB’s 50,000 watt signal and tapped him to fill in for Red Barber, when the legendary Dodger announcer was recovering from a bleeding ulcer. Rickey traded catcher Cliff Dapper to the Crackers in exchange for  Harwell’s contract. It’s the only time in baseball history where a player was traded for a broadcaster.

Harwell broadcast for the Dodgers through 1949, the New York Giants from 1950 to 1953, and the Baltimore Orioles from 1954 to 1959. Harwell was the lead broadcaster on Orioles broadcasts on WCBM-AM and WMAR-TV in 1955, working alongside Chuck Thompson. The next year Thompson moved on to Washington D.C. to broadcast the Senator games until returning to the Orioles in 1962.

Detroit Tiger broadcaster George Kell helped Ernie land his long term gig in the Motor City. Ernie later remembered, “George called and said, ‘I recommended you and the Tigers asked me to get in touch with you.'” Harwell said. “I came and that was it.”

Ernie Harwell called tiger games until 1990 when station WJR declined to renew his contract. Such was fan outrage that Mike Ilitch brought Harwell back, when he bought the team in 1993. During spring training in 2002, Harwell announced his planned retirement at the end of the season. He broadcast his final game on September 29, 2002.

Harwell did occasional broadcast work in retirement, returning briefly in 2003 to call a Wednesday Night Baseball telecast on ESPN. In 2005, he called an inning on the Fox network’s coverage of the All-Star Game. And appeared from time to time on Fox Sports Net Detroit. His unique voice was heard in Game 3 of the 2006 American League Division Series between the Tigers and New York Yankees, and would sporadically appear as a guest commentator on the Tigers’ radio flagship WXYT.

In September, 2009, Ernie Harwell announced that he had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer, deciding against treatment. On September 16 of that year, he gave a farewell address between innings of the the Tigers and the Royals game to fans at Comerica Park.

Ernie Harwell died on May 4, 2010, at his home in Novi, Michigan. His wife of 68 years, Lulu, and three of their four children were at his bedside.

The press box at Comerica Park is named the “Ernie Harwell Media Center” in his memory.

Today in History:

The Hotel Pennsylvania – NYC

1915 Alexander Graham Bell in NY calls Thomas Watson in San Francisco
1919 The Hotel Pennsylvania, at the time the world’s largest, opens in Manhattan
1924 1st Winter Olympic Games open in Chamonix, France
1937 1st broadcast of Guiding Light” on NBC radio”
1945 Grand Rapids, Michigan, becomes 1st US city to fluoridate its water
1959 1st transcontinental commercial jet flight (LA to NY for $301)
1961 Walt Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” is released
1961 1st live, nationally televised presidential news conference with JFK
1964 The Beatles scored their first No.1 best seller in the US when ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ reached the top of the Cash Box Magazine music chart. The Fab Four would eventually rack up 25 No.1’s in America.
1967 The Beatles made a last-minute remix of ‘Penny Lane’ before the pressing of their next double A sided single ‘Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane’. Both songs were originally intended for the forthcoming Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
1970 M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman, starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, is released
1974 Led Zeppelin appeared at the Market Square Arena, Indianapolis, Indiana to over 17,000 fans. Tickets cost $8.50.
1975 The Carpenters went to No.1 on the US singles chart with their version of The Marveletts 1961 hit ‘Please Mr. Postman’.
1993 Sears announces it is closing its catalog sales department after 97 years

Today’s Birthdays:

Actor Dean Jones

1874 Somerset Maugham, novelist and poet (Of Human Bondage and Cakes & Ale) (d.1965)
1882 Virginia Woolf [Adeline], British author (Jacob’s Room, To Lighthouse), born in London, England (d. 1941)
1918 Ernie Harwell, American baseball sportscaster, born in Washington, Georgia (d. 2010)
1927 Antônio Carlos Jobim [Tom Jobim], Brazilian singer-songwriter & composer (Getz/Gilberto), born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (d. 1994)
1931 Dean Jones, American actor (Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, The Love Bug), born in Decatur, Alabama (d. 2015)
1936 Diana Hyland, American actress (Peyton Place, 8 is Enough), born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio (d. 1977)
1938 Etta James [Jamesetta Hawkins], American singer (Roll with Me, At Last), born in Los Angeles, California (d. 2012)
1951 Steve Prefontaine, American runner (5K 1972 Olympic 4th), born in Coos Bay, Oregon (d. 1975)
1973 Geoff Johns, American comic book writer, born in Detroit, Michigan
1981 Alicia Keys [Cook], American singer-songwriter (Fallin, Where Do We Go From Here), born in NYC, New York

Ernie Harwell courted controversy when he invited José Feliciano to sing The Star Spangled Banner during the 1968 World Series. Jose’s rendition seems tame by today’s standards.

Thanks for listening!

Scott Westerman
Host and Producer – Rock and Roll Revisited
Author: Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit