In this new feature we will be taking a look at moments from Tigers history, and remembering the people who helped shape it.
Modern Tigers TV viewers have developed a drinking game to go along with the regular quips of co-host Rod Allen, whose catch phrases include, “I see you, big fella” and “Oh no he didn’t!” among others. Radio listeners can delight in the unrelenting joy of a Dan Dickerson home run call that might just blow out your car stereo speakers.
But for 42 years, the uncontested voice of the Tigers was Ernie Harwell.
On this day, which would have been Harwell’s 100th birthday, we look back at the storied life and career of one of the greatest broadcasters in baseball history, and moreso the voice many still think of when they think of the Detroit Tigers.
Ernie, like Rod, is no stranger to the catch phrase game. “The Tigers are looking for some instant runs,” he might bemoan late in a game. Or, “he’s out for excessive window shopping” on a third strike looking. Even more delightful was the descriptive, “He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.”
What a word picture that paints, right? Well, there’s a little more to this catch phrase than just a flight of fancy on Harwell’s part. He actually had something of a lisp as a child, which he overcame with speech therapy. As part of his therapy, he was required to read the Sam Walter Foss poem “The House By the Side of the Road.” Evidently this oft-repeated poem stuck with Harwell well into his adult life and became a go-to phrase in his life as a broadcaster.
Poetry was incredibly important to Harwell throughout his life. First, helping him find his voice, then come back to end his career as part of his Hall of Fame induction speech. He brought up two quotes that August day in 1981, the first from Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez, saying, “I’d rather be lucky than good,” and the second from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” that said, “I am a part of all that I have met.” Harwell conceded in his speech, “I know that I’m a lot luckier than I am good. I’ve been lucky to broadcast some great events and to broadcast the exploits of some great players.” He even called back to his early difficulties when he concluded his speech saying, “Baseball is a tongue tied kid from Georgia growing up to be an announcer and praising the Lord for showing him the way to Cooperstown.”
That road to Cooperstown was full of a lifetime of adventure and accomplishment for Harwell. He began his baseball career as a batboy for the Atlanta Crackers when he was only five years old. His reporting career started at age sixteen, when he began writing for The Sporting News. After graduating from university he continued to work as a sportswriter, moving on to the Atlanta Constitution.
He has the unique distinction of being the only broadcaster to ever be traded for a player. Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, shipped catcher Cliff Dapper to the Atlanta Crackers in exchange for Harwell’s contract. (Technically the trade was for the Crackers to cancel Harwell’s contract with the intent that Rickey could then sign him as a broadcasting “free agent.”) Harwell wasn’t with the Dodgers for long, which worked out okay for all involved, since Harwell worked with the team through 1949 and the Dodgers wicked up some character named Vin Scully in 1950. Amusingly, Cliff Dapper and Harwell would meet for the first time in 2002, when Dapper was the one selected to present Harwell with a farewell tribute tape.
Harwell spent time with the New York Giants, the brand new Baltimore Orioles, and even did some golf and football broadcasting work before returning to his first love: baseball. He joined the the Tigers radio team and from 1960 to 1991, Harwell (alongside Paul Carey from 1973-91) was, without a doubt, the voice of the team. In 1991 Harwell’s contract was not renewed by WJR radio, sending fans all over Michigan into a state of outrage.
It was the Tigers new owner, one Mike Ilitch, who brought Harwell back to Detroit, where Ernie would work both as a radio and TV broadcaster until his retirement on September 29, 2002 (notably avoiding the worst Tigers season in history in 2003). His co-hosts at the time, Jim Price and Dan Dickerson, continue to be the radio voices of the Tigers to this day.
Over the course of his long and storied career, he wrote several books about his career, including Life After Baseball, Tuned to Baseball, and Breaking 90: Nine Decades Young and Still Loving Baseball. He was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame, and the Radio Hall of Fame. He was set to received the Vin Scully Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports Broadcasting in 2010, but passed away one day beforehand, at the age of 92.
His was, without a doubt, one of the most tremendous lives and careers to touch baseball in general, and the Tigers specifically. He has his own statue at Comerica Park, alongside those of the Tigers greatest players. His impact to the team and the fans cannot be understated, or even properly summarized in one post. He was, and remains still, The Voice of the Tigers.
As we wait out these final dark winter days before spring training comes, let us be comforted by Harwell’s own poetics, as he spoke of the sport he loved so deeply: “Baseball is just a game, as simple as a ball and bat, yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport, a business and sometimes almost even a religion.”
And we can’t forget his recitation of “Voice of the Turtle” which should be mandatory listening every spring.
Happy 100th birthday, Ernie.