He’s older than any radio station and spoke before movies did. My legendary friend Ernie Harwell will be 90 years old soon.
I should say 90 years young. Anyone who can jump rope 300 times and walk two miles daily isn’t old.
Broadcasting baseball through seven decades, Harwell has called well over 10,000 hits and 100,000 outs. Besides working for the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers, he was the main man behind the microphone for several All-Star Games and World Series.
Harwell teamed with Joe Garagiola for the 1963 World Series in which the Dodgers swept the Yankees. The Series was memorable for Jewish fans as Sandy Koufax went the distance twice against Whitey Ford to account for half of Los Angeles’s four wins.
Harwell grew up following his native Atlanta Crackers minor league club and loved to write. He was Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell’s paperboy and as a teenager would send articles about the minor league players he saw to The Sporting News, which was baseball’s weekly paper at the time. Ernie honed his interest in radio by starting at the bottom in a small station in a small southern town before joining the Marines in World War II.
He gained radio and writing experience while in the service and landed the play-by-play job with the Crackers after the war. A Dodgers scout passing through the area liked what he heard and informed the top man in Brooklyn about the great young announcer.
Rickey eventually came to Atlanta in 1948 to look over some of his young talent when Brooklyn’s Mobile, Alabama, club played the Crackers. He also took a listen to Harwell describing some of the action. Rickey asked Atlanta owner Earl Mann if he could hire Harwell. Mann wouldn’t let Harwell out of his contract but offered Harwell in an even swap for a veteran good-hitting catcher Brooklyn had on its Montreal farm team.
So Ernie Harwell became the only broadcaster ever traded for a player. The player, Cliff Dapper, had seen action in eight games with the 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers. He did well with Atlanta and also managed the club.
The timing was perfect, as Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber was hospitalized with a perforated ulcer and the team had a spot open in the Ebbets Field broadcast booth. It was Harwell’s first trip to Brooklyn and he stayed at the Bossert Hotel until his wife arrived and they could look for other lodging.
Harwell quickly got to know the quirks of Ebbets Field and the quirky people who inhabited it.
“The broadcast booth was so close to the field, it was possible for the batter in the on-deck circle to listen to us,” he recalled. “Below us in a little cut-out area on the home plate side of the Dodger dugout (first base side), sat public address announcer Tex Rickard. He was a great old guy who always wore a Brooklyn cap and a white sweater with the name DODGERS written across it.
“Our sponsor at the time was Old Gold cigarettes, and when a Brooklyn player would hit a home run, we’d lower a carton of cigarettes down the screen to Tex and he’d hand it to the player as he trotted to the dugout.”
(Rickard made several memorable announcements. On one hot day, many fans sitting in the first row had taken off their jackets and hung them along the railing. The umpires were afraid the jackets would get in the way of players trying to catch foul balls and asked Tex to make an announcement. “Will the people sitting along the railing please remove their clothing,” was how it came across the loudspeaker. Another of Tex’s famous pronouncements was, “A little boy has been found lost.”)
After living in Long Beach, the Harwells found a larger place in Roslyn Heights. And then the Giants came calling. Ernie was pleased that New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham and his broadcast sponsors wanted him for the 1949 season, but loyalty to Branch Rickey kept him teamed with Red Barber and Connie Desmond.
But the Giants persisted and Ernie moved to the Polo Grounds booth a year later to partner with Russ Hodges. Ernie’s Ebbets Field spot was given to a young man by the name of Vince Scully.
The 1951 season was a memorable one as Harwell described the debut of Willie Mays and the Giants’ remarkable comeback from 13-and-a-half games behind in August to tie Brooklyn at season’s end, forcing a three game playoff.
Harwell was tagged to do the NBC television broadcast of the tie-breaking final game of the playoff on October 3, while Russ Hodges did the radio play-by-play. Any baseball fan with a sense of history knows Bobby Thomson hit a game and pennant-winning three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth in what would be known as The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.
Unfortunately, there was no videotape of Ernie’s home run call. Hodges’s famous excited utterance of “the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, they’re going crazy” lives on only because a Brooklyn fan, certain of a Dodger victory, set up his reel-to-reel tape recorder next to the radio and pressed “play.”
The perennial cellar-dwelling St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954 and hired Harwell as their number one voice. Two avid fans of Ernie’s broadcasts were the mayor of Baltimore and his daughter – who grew up to be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
When the number one spot opened in the Tiger Stadium broadcast booth in 1960, the Harwells moved to Detroit and are still here. Ernie gave up the daily full-time grind of a play-by-play man a couple of years ago, but still does guest spots when ESPN comes to town. His strong voice can still be heard often doing commercials on local radio and prior to Tigers telecasts.
Ernie busies himself with varied interests and has written lyrics to over 50 songs that have been recorded by singers or groups. Probably the best known to baseball fans was “Move Over Babe, Here Comes Henry.” That hit the charts when Hank Aaron was about to break Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record back in the 70′s.
Ernie watches what goes into and out of his mouth. He doesn’t eat fried foods and starts the day with cereal and grapefruit. Lunch is a soup or salad and meat is only once or twice a month, but never hot dogs or hamburgers. He eats fish several times a week; I believe he had his first piece of gefilte fish in my house over 30 years ago. His language is devoid of swear words and words that might harm others.
In addition to our love of baseball, we share a love of our respective religions. A couple of decades ago, Ernie had a tape of a Seattle Mariners post-game commercial sponsored by a Christian organization and played it for me in his Tiger Stadium office. The message at the end of the commercial was that you won’t go to heaven unless you accept the Christian messiah as your lord and savior. Ernie wondered if the advertisement offended me.
I told him it didn’t, because I knew that’s what that Christian group believed and that we Jews believe we go to heaven based on our own merits and not because we accept a certain someone as lord and savior.
Our conversation changed neither Ernie’s religious views nor mine, but at least we were able to have such a conversation. Whether it’s baseball, religion, or other subjects, a conversation with Ernie is a real treat. Listening to him is even better.
I’ve been paid the highest compliment on several occasions as an after-dinner speaker. “Next to Ernie Harwell,” people tell me, “you’re the best and most interesting we ever had.”
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I met a very interesting fellow recently – Dr. Yisrael Ury of Los Angeles. His daughter married one of Detroit’s finest young men and we talked a little baseball after sheva brachos a couple days later.
Dr. Ury recalled an article he read in the Wall Street Journal by Carl Bialik, the numbers guy. As serious baseball followers know, “K” is the symbol for strikeout on scorecards. Bialik’s article says that research shows that batters with K initials strike out more often than other players.
My own research revealed that big Dave Kingman really helped the K cause. While with the Mets in 1982, he led the league with 37 home runs but batted only .204. His league-leading 156 strikeouts contributed to his low average. In fact, over a 16-year-career, the 6-foot-6 Kingman whiffed 241 more times than he had hits.
When you watch games this year, keep an eye on how the K guys make their outs.
Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring as a department head in a major league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at firstname.lastname@example.org.