Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ernie Harwell, 1918-2010. R.I.P.

Ernie Harwell, the voice of the Detroit Tigers for more than four decades, has signed off. Harwell passed away this evening after a year long battle with cancer. He was 92.

Harwell began his broadcasting career in the Southern Association with the Atlanta Crackers in 1943. When Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber suddenly took ill in 1948, the Dodgers traded catcher Cliff Dapper to acquire Harwell's services.

In 1950, Harwell moved across town and to join the New York Giants broadcast team. He would broadcast the first live coast to coast game on TV on October 3, 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard round the world off Ralph Branca. However, it was Russ Hodges call on the radio that everyone remembers. Harwell would often joke that his wife Lulu was the only one who saw him call Thomson's homerun.

When the St. Louis Browns moved east to become the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, the new club would hire Harwell as its first broadcaster where he would remain through the 1959 season.

But it is in Detroit where Harwell made his legend beginning in 1960. Harwell saw the Tigers through good times and bad. He was there when they won World Series in 1968 and 1984. He was there when Mark Fidrych took the world by storm in the summer of 1976. He was there when the Tigers enjoyed 12 straight winning seasons. He was there when the Tigers endured nearly a decade worth of last place finishes. He retained his sunny disposition even on the cloudiest of days.

When I think of Harwell I think of when the Tigers opted not to renew his contract following the 1991 season. I was living in Thunder Bay, Ontario at the time and we received our American TV stations from Detroit and boy did Harwell's firing touch a raw nerve. Replacing Harwell was like replacing Coca-Cola. It left a bad taste in peoples' mouths. Tigers President Bo Schembechler (who had been the long time head coach of the University of Michigan Wolverines) got the lion's share of the blame and would eventually resign.

Harwell was brought back into the Tiger fold by Mike Ilitch after he bought the team in 1992. He would call Tiger games on both radio and television until 2002. But even after his retirement, Harwell would be brought back on special occasions by FOX and ESPN to call games through 2007. He would have the opportunity to call an inning of Game 1 of the 2006 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals.

In 1981, Harwell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He remains the only inductee into Cooperstown to have read a poem as part of his acceptance speech.

Until death did them part Harwell was married to Lulu for 68 years. He is also survived by four children.

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