|Ernie Harwell grew up a long time ago in Georgia with a lilt in his voice and a perfectly even temperament, and has managed to maintain both. As the radio voice of the Detroit Tigers, he no doubt finds it helpful to be optimistic and cheerful, although he would never say that. The Tigers arrived in Baltimore for this weekend's series with the Orioles in last lace in the American League Central Division, 25 games out of first. Last season, they finished 25 games out of first. They haven't had a winning team since 1993. But their long-moribund state could never be detected in a conversation with Harwell, who is completing his 42nd season broadcasting their games yet sounds as fresh as when he started. This is Harwell's last trip as a broadcaster through Baltimore, where he did Orioles games from 1954 through 1959. At age 84 and after 55 years of calling big league games, he is retiring after the season.
This comes as more bad news for baseball, already deeply troubled by its perilous financial structure. More than any sport, baseball has been defined in part by its distinct voices. There was a time when almost every major league team had one calling the games: Harry Caray, Jack Buck, Jack Brickhouse, Bob Prince, Red Barber, Mel Allen and on and on. Some, like Baltimore's Chuck Thompson, have retired. Several remain: Philadelphia's Harry Kalas, who was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame this summer; Vin Scully, who followed Harwell in Brooklyn and went with the Dodgers to Los Angeles; Jon Miller, in his prime in San Francisco; and a few others. But the best voices are continuing to fade out in greater numbers than there are worthy successors. The way to look at this trend, perhaps, is with gratitude that so many had such great runs. As Buck, who died this summer, said to Harwell not long ago, "One thing good about you, Ernie, you'll never die young." Harwell has spent his life selecting words carefully. He is a writer of nonfiction, fiction, poetry and song. Have you heard him sing his Tiger Stadium ditty? Didn't it bring a tear? On radio, there's a hint of the South in his voice as he paints a minimalist ortrait of each baseball game, letting his listeners fill out the picture in their minds.
He supplies the salient facts; he draws on his experience for instant perspective. He adds touches of humor and irony; it's his nature. He never overwhelms his audience with statistics or mere talk. Basically, he works with a scorecard. That's it. He sounds as if he has ambled over to the park, listened to a few stories around the dugout, climbed to the broadcast booth and casually reacquainted himself with listeners -- which is what he does.
And that's how he will leave after the season, ambling from a ball park one last time with an upbeat word and a melody in his heart. He would have us think he is leaving before his bosses catch on to the good life he's been leading. "Look at it this way: Somebody's paying me to live in a nice hotel, eat good meals, go to the ballgame and see my friends in each city. So that's not too bad," he said with a laugh. He pulled his hotel room draperies against a harsh afternoon sun, having landed in Baltimore with the Tigers at dawn after a flight from Anaheim. But he gave no indication of weariness. A small, slender man, he said, "I've got a lot of energy. I don't get tired. I felt like I could work another four or five years. I just wanted to quit before everybody suggested I quit." That, of course, would never have happened.
Ernie Harwell is an American treasure. He is an inventor (a bottle-can opener, a World Series "fact wheel"). He's an actor, having appeared in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Paper Lion." He was a Marine in World War II. As a boy, he delivered news papers on a route that included the home of Margaret Mitchell, who wrote "Gone with the Wind." He shot a hole-in-one, he had a racehorse named after him, he sang a duet with Pearl Bailey. He was baptized in the Jordan River. All of that is in his 1985 autobiography "Tuned to Baseball," an out-of-print gem. But he didn't tell us those parts. They were included in a delightful foreword written by his wife, Lulu. Ernie and Lulu have been married 61 years, and he believes they're going the distance. "She's getting used to me," he said.
Harwell catches himself com letely out of character in the book's o ening scene, from the early 1950s. The New York Giants' overbearing manager Leo Durocher has goaded him into a fight, and the two are rolling around on the floor of a train heading home from Chicago. The fracas didn't amount to much, Harwell said as he looked back half a century. "Inertia broke in and sto ed it," he recalled.
In 1948, Branch Rickey brought Harwell to Brooklyn to team with Connie Desmond, and Barber after he returned from an ulcer attack. To lacate the minor league Atlanta Crackers, for whom Harwell had been doing lay-by- lay, Rickey sent them a catcher, making Harwell the only announcer ever traded for a layer. Barber was a " erfectionist," not always as laid-back as he sounded, but he was "the first reporter-baseball broadcaster -- he knew everything," Harwell said. He learned from Barber. And Harwell was there for Jackie Robinson's best season, his1949 most valuable layer year when he led the National League in hitting at .342 and the Dodgers won the pennant.
The next season, Harwell was doing Giants games. He was there for Willie Mays's debut in 1951, and later that year for Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world." Russ Hodges made one of the most famous calls in broadcasting when Thomson hit the home run at the olo Grounds that beat the Dodgers and ended the season: "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" At the time, Harwell was working television, then the less-prestigious medium. "Only Mrs. Harwell and I know I broadcast it, too." What he said the instant the ball left Thomson's bat was: "It's gone."
"And then I had this second thought," he recalled with a grimace. "'What if it isn't?'"
Sometime along the way, Ernie began wearing berets to the ballpark. He took to them on a trip to Spain, but since has given them up. Possibly exaggerating, he said, "I've found that if you wear a beret, people think you're either a cab driver or a producer of dirty movies."
Now he prefers either a fishing hat or a baseball cap. "Here," he said, "let me show you." He pulled down one of each from his closet shelf. He'll pick as the spirit moves him before ambling off to the park to do the play-by-play as he always has: "Every game to me is an entity. Let the game carry itself. Give the score as often as you can. The game's the thing. That's why people tune in. They don't tune in to hear an announcer."
But, of course, he cannot expect us to believe that. We know better, those of us who have turned a radio dial through the static at night, hoping to hear the voice of Ernie Harwell.
Washington Post 18 August 2002