Ernie Harwell: My 60 Years in Baseballby Tom Keegan
For many fans, their lifetime of experience with the Detroit Tigers ensured them that when their team roared, it would be Ernie Harwell's smooth southern voice that would be heard above the din. After 42 years as the "Voice of the Detroit Tigers," the 2002 retirement of Harwell signaled the end of an era. This profile on the famed broadcaster provides the… See more details below
For many fans, their lifetime of experience with the Detroit Tigers ensured them that when their team roared, it would be Ernie Harwell's smooth southern voice that would be heard above the din. After 42 years as the "Voice of the Detroit Tigers," the 2002 retirement of Harwell signaled the end of an era. This profile on the famed broadcaster provides the lesser-known details on the background of a Detroit institution. Known for his voice and talent for calling games, fans will be able to know the man himself and what brought him to—and kept him in—the Motor City. The only play-by-play broadcaster to cover games across seven decades, Harwell saw (and accumulated accompanying stories about) everyone from Babe Ruth to Ichiro Suzuki, many of which are shared in this entertaining biography.
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My 60 Years in Baseball
By Tom Keegan
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2002 Ernie Harwell Tom Keegan
All rights reserved.
1. A Gentleman Wronged
The proud woman is showing her visitor pictures of her blond granddaughters, each blessed with a clock-stopping face, each one prettier than the last. The neatly bagged clothes and hangers, soaps, and shampoos are lined up near the front door, ready for the Salvation Army pickup.
Outdoors, on a muggy, summer of 2001 afternoon in suburban Detroit, those hard-shelled Japanese beetles are attacking Lulu Harwell's roses. It's always something preventing perfection in the garden, which is as it should be, for a perfect garden would need no gardener. This rose garden needs Lulu every bit as much as she needs it.
In a few hours, Lulu Harwell will begin her nightly ritual of listening to her husband, legendary baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell, paint baseball games with gentle words delivered with a powerful projection softened by a trace of the South.
Mrs. Harwell, sweet Mrs. Harwell, is the definition of serenity as she makes her way over to the couch, near the lifelike stuffed tiger. She sits and smiles a smile so full it borders on laughter.
And then her visitor utters two words, four syllables: Bo Schembechler.
In the blink of an eye, her youthful face ages. The softness in it drains quicker than a popped water balloon. Just an instant ago, her expression was a lake so placid as to be mistaken for a pane of glass. Now it's a tempest, unsafe for passage, even for an aircraft carrier.
"If I saw Bo Schembechler today, I would hope I had a rock in my pocket," she says, her words measured and devoid of humor. "I'd take it out and throw it at him." Lulu Harwell was born and reared in Hazard, Kentucky. She knows a thing or two about throwing rocks.
The sentence hasn't spilled far enough out of the lovely woman's mouth even to reach the carpet and it's as if she can hear the calming voice of her husband, the voice people all over Michigan recognize on elevators, letting her know there will be none of that talk now. Never mind that he is at Comerica Park. Sixty years of marriage means a spouse's presence isn't required for communication to take place.
"Ernie's forgiven everyone, you know," she says. "That's his strong faith. He always tells me I have to forgive everyone too. I guess I have to, but it's hard."
For one thing, it's difficult to know whom to forgive for what. Schembechler, according to most of those on the Tigers' scene at the time, was guiltier of excessive pride and stubbornness in refusing to reverse the decision than of being behind it in the first place, a decision that started with WJR radio and was carried out behind the scenes largely by Jeff Odenwald, the Tigers' marketing director.
"The hurtful thing about it," Lulu says, "is whoever did it, they wouldn't admit it."
Still won't. Schembechler wouldn't return messages left for him at the University of Michigan, where he still keeps an office. Odenwald would not return phone calls left at his home and place of work in Tucson, Arizona, and therefore couldn't be reached for his denial that he played a major role in the short-lived, ill-fated attempt to turn the voice of the Tigers into a shuffleboard player.
Schembechler took the heat for his perceived role as the Grinch Who Stole Summer days before Christmas of 1990, when he let Harwell know that the Tigers were "going in a new direction" in the broadcast booth after the 1991 season.
Miss Lulu — that's what her husband calls her — had plenty of company in decrying the most unpopular decision in the history of the Detroit Tigers.
Irate fans who knew no other voice of summer than the soothing sound of Harwell phoned bomb threats into Domino's Pizza outlets throughout Detroit, a means of letting Tom Monaghan, owner of Domino's and the Tigers, know what they thought of Schembechler's latest misdirection play. Boycotts of Domino's were organized.
Schembechler, a revered football coach at the University of Michigan, became reviled by many overnight. Protesters dumped garbage on the lawn of his suburban home. Newspaper columnists carved him up. Bumper stickers that played on the hottest sports marketing slogan at the time, "Bo Knows" (as in dual-sport star Bo Jackson), cropped up all over Michigan. They said: "Bo Don't Know Ernie."
More than a decade later, looking back on a low point in Tigers history and trying to put the pieces together has the makings of a whodunit.
The central characters:
Jim Long (deceased): The general manager of Tigers flagship station WJR at the time, Long was a quiet, pleasant sort who didn't share his thoughts on important business decisions with many. Whether of his own doing or under orders from corporate headquarters in New York, Long presided over an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-young movement at the station. He was a staunch University of Michigan football fan.
Jeff Odenwald: Odenwald, who was the Tigers' marketing director at that time, had worked for the Reds, Mariners, and Cubs before joining the Tigers. A human suit. There has been a Jeff Odenwald at every business in every industry in America. Slick. Master of the universe. His magic trick: able to use one eye to look at the person to whom he was talking while the other eye scanned the room in search of a more important person to lock in a conversation. When throwing them back at the bar, his imagination flew all the way into the general manager's chair, where he was certain he would end up. Saw new team president Bo Schembechler's inexperience in baseball as an opportunity to accelerate his own scaling of the all-important corporate ladder by "helping" Schembechler to execute difficult decisions.
Bo Schembechler: Hard-nosed, authoritative, and a born winner, despite a 2 — 8 record in the Rose Bowl, Schembechler won the hearts of rabid Michigan football fans by turning the Wolverines into a perennial Big Ten power. He scored more points for loyalty to Big Blue when before the 1989 NCAA Tournament he replaced basketball coach Bill Frieder with assistant Steve Fisher because Frieder had negotiated a departure to Arizona State that was to go into effect at the end of the season. "I want a Michigan man coaching Michigan," Schembechler said, words that gained immortality when Fisher coached the Wolverines to the national championship. Detractors consider Bo an egomaniacal bully. Supporters laud his integrity. He had the unenviable task of informing Harwell late in the 1990 season that he would be offered a one-year contract and then would be shown the door.
Jim Campbell (deceased): Despite being stubborn and demanding on employees, he was the universally well-liked chairman and chief executive officer of the Tigers. Prior to gaining that promotion, he had served the organization as general manager. He was popular with the media and Tigers employees and a longtime friend of Harwell until the Christmas season of 1990, when he became extremely protective of Schembechler.
Tom Monaghan: Then owner of Domino's Pizza and an acclaimed philanthropist, Monaghan once made his private plane available to the Harwell family so they could all attend the ceremony for Ernie's induction into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1989, one of only two times Harwell missed a game during his career (the other was for his brother's funeral). Monaghan was often quoted as saying Harwell was an important part of Tigers history.
Ernie Harwell: Anyone who had a grandfather admired for kindness and gentleness and for how capably he handled his job knows Ernie Harwell. He is that grandfather. He is your grandfather. To so many listeners, he is much more. At the time of the controversy, Harwell had broadcast Tigers games for 31 seasons and was told his 32nd would be his last.
The wild reaction to Harwell's firing speaks to more than his longevity, though that certainly played a part in his popularity. That Harwell would be the center of so much attention had a touch of irony to it; his no-frills style of announcing baseball games ensured the listener's attention forever was trained on the diamond — on the actors in the play — not on the narrator. The voice is part of the appeal.
"The Southern accent is perfect for the pace of a baseball game," says Bob Miller, once a member of the Tigers public relations staff, now working for a publicity firm in Detroit. "There aren't a lot of announcers who grew up in the South, but there are many who would like you to think they did."
Harwell hooked the baseball fans of Detroit by relating interesting tidbits from baseball history and teaching the finer points of the game by drawing on anecdotes from the sport's rich past. He hooked them with words that painted the picture of what he was watching, not what he could read on a sheet of statistics. He hooked them as much with what he didn't say as what he said.
Listen closely to a Harwell broadcast and it's possible to hear the vendor's cry between pitches: "Hot dogs! Hot dogs! Hot dogs! Free mustard!"
The pitcher, the batter, the count, the score, the way the fielders are shading the hitter, those are never mysteries during a Harwell broadcast. Even his pet calls, which have endeared him to listeners, are triggered always by the action on the field.
A double play is "two for the price of one." A home run is "long gone." A foul ball becomes a souvenir caught by the lucky man from Novi (or Windsor, or Bad Axe, or Kalamazoo). A batter taking strike 3 either "stood there like the house by the side of the road," a nod to a poem he recited as a boy while ridding himself of a speech impediment, or "was called out for excessive window shopping." An umpire "gets the family look," from a player or manager, "like when you're a kid and someone takes the last biscuit, you give him the family look."
Harwell's broadcasts are so rich with straight description of the game that these welcome curves stand out. His goal is to make his voice the listener's eyes, and most would agree that few have done it as well.
Frank Rashid, quoted in a column by Jack Lessenberry, perfectly captured both Harwell's style in the booth and others' lack of wisdom in firing him. He spoke in the past tense, believing at the time that Harwell's career as a Tigers announcer had ended for good, not knowing it would actually be a beginning to a new, more lucrative career than an end of a Hall of Fame career. Harwell would be rehired after a year away, and would spend one year in the radio booth and five in the TV booth before returning to a 162-game radio schedule in 1999. He is signed on for the 2002 season, where he again will team with partners Jim Price and Dan Dickerson on WXYT.
"He was like one of that older generation of symphony conductors who tried not to get in the way of the piece," Rashid said. "His words brought you the game, not the hype. That the Tigers didn't know what a treasure he was showed just how much they were out of touch with their fans."
Based on their reaction to the firing and the absence of complaints about Harwell's performance before it, we know one group that did not support the decision: the WJR listeners who followed their Tigers through the voice from the South.
Harwell's contract was scheduled to expire November 1, 1990. Normally, he reached agreement for a new settlement six months before his contract expired. He hadn't heard anything by late September, so he stuck his head in Schembechler's booth and suggested they meet to talk about his future. Harwell said he would like to bring his friend, attorney Gary Spicer, with him. Schembechler scheduled a September 24 meeting that was general in nature. Harwell took notes on that and subsequent meetings and here is what those notes reveal:
"What are your retirement plans, Ernie?" Schembechler asked.
"Well, I would like to keep working, but nothing's certain, of course," Harwell answered.
The men agreed to meet again.
Schembechler phoned Harwell on Friday, October 12 and scheduled a meeting for Monday, October 15.
"I want to warn you, Ernie," Schembechler said over the phone, "it'll be a contract for one year at $200,000."
"That's a little low," Harwell said. "And I might want to work past that one year."
"We're thinking we would like you to announce your retirement on the winter Tiger tour," Bo suggested.
"No, I really don't want to retire," Harwell said. "So I couldn't say I was retiring."
"OK, then, Ernie, you make the call on how you would like to announce it," Bo said.
When Harwell and Spicer showed up for the Monday meeting at Schembechler's office, Long was there, which made sense because Harwell worked for both the radio station and the Tigers. Just as the meeting was about to begin, Odenwald entered and took a seat on a couch in the back of the room. It seemed an odd gathering for a marketing director to join.
Schembechler ran the meeting and opened it by informing everyone that WJR and the Tigers wanted to keep Harwell for one more year at $200,000, after which time a new broadcast team would be hired. Harwell's partner of 19 years, Paul Carey, earlier in the year already had informed Long of his intention to retire after the 1991 season, though he kept it a secret.
Odenwald chimed in that they wanted to go in a "new direction," a phrase straight out of the manual for modern marketing under the heading "What to Say When You Don't Want to Say Anything." Sportswriters abhor the term almost as much as do the readers of the stories they write.
Harwell to Schembechler: "Bo, how could you know that I'm good enough to do the job in 1991 and not in 1992? That's like using a quarterback for the first half and telling him ahead of time that he would not be good enough for the second half. I don't want to retire."
Harwell and Spicer pointed out that they had heard no complaints about his work. No negative mail, no critical letters to the editors, no buzz on the radio sports talk shows, no alarming newspaper columns.
"Jim, have there been any complaints to the station?" Harwell asked Long, who shrugged off the question.
Harwell said his health was good, his voice was the same, and his energy level was better than ever. Spicer cited examples of Harwell's loyalty to the franchise and dedication to his trade.
After asking if they had a successor in mind, Harwell was told they did not and was encouraged to help them select one. As Harwell and Spicer were about to leave, Long said that he would have a contract drawn up and would get back to them. Two weeks later, Harwell received a letter from Long stating, "I may be wrong, but I thought you and your agent were supposed to get back to me." Harwell wrote him a letter telling him just the opposite was the case.
Harwell waited for his contract to arrive in the mail and finally received it December 15. He contacted Tigers public relations director Dan Ewald and told him he would like to hold a press conference to announce the decision. If the Tigers preferred, Harwell offered, he could have it away from Tiger Stadium. Ewald said he felt it should be at Tiger Stadium. Harwell told Ewald to invite Schembechler and said he would invite Long. The press conference was set for December 19 in the Tiger Room.
December 18 was WJR sports director Frank Beckmann's first day back at work after back surgery. Long called him into his office and this is how the conversation went, according to Beckmann:
Long: "Ernie's having a press conference to announce this will be his last year. I don't know what Ernie's going to say, but we're going to carry it live and I need you to be there to cover it."
Beckmann: "What, did he make this decision?"
Beckmann: "Hold on. You mean you're firing Ernie Harwell?"
Long: "He's just a baseball announcer."
Beckmann: "You're not firing a baseball announcer. You're firing everybody's grandfather. You said you don't know what he's going to say? I know what he's going to say. He's going to say he got hosed."
"I left the newsroom with a buddy and tied one on," remembers Beckmann, who later was approached about becoming the No. 2 man in the radio booth but was not interested in taking you're-not-Ernie heat unless he could take it as the No. 1 man.
Schembechler and Long did not show for the press conference that would go down as a dark day in Tigers history. Not far into his opening statement, Harwell put his hand over his brows, scanned the room and said, "Bo Schembechler has been invited here and I don't know whether he is here or not. I can't see him and I can't see Jim Long. Bo? Bo? Jim?"
Harwell came to the press conference armed with the most powerful of all weapons: the truth. He shared what went on during the meeting with Long, Schembechler, and Odenwald and was careful not to put down anyone from WJR or the Tigers.
Samplings of questions and answers from the press conference:
Q: Ernie, do you feel you are getting discriminated against because of your age?
A: That's a hard question. I feel I'm healthy and I can do the job and my mail certainly has not reflected any lapse in my ability and I haven't read anybody writing that Ernie Harwell should be off the air. So, I guess you just have to draw your own conclusions.
Excerpted from Ernie Harwell by Tom Keegan. Copyright © 2002 Ernie Harwell Tom Keegan. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Tom Keegan is the baseball columnist for the New York Post. He has worked previously in Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and has been covering major league baseball since 1985. He lives in Norwalk, Connecticut. Al Kaline is a former Major League Baseball right fielder for the Detroit Tigers, and current front office official with the same team. He is a 18-time All-Star selection and a 10-time Gold Glove Award recipient. He was part of the team that won the 1968 World Series, a game which was broadcast by Ernie Harwell. He is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He lives in the Detroit area.
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