If this is spring, it must be time for Ernie Harwell. Go ahead, tune him in. See if the world isn't stable and orderly and sane once again. You see, that's the meaning of Ernie Harwell. He has been the voice of the Tigers for 27 years. But more important, he's the antithesis of change.
"He's an eternity," says Detroit News columnist Joe Falls. "If you're 35 or 40, Ernie Harwell is all you've known. He comes back into the lives of people each spring, and he's exactly the same as he's been every year. When he returns, we know that everything in life is going to be all right. We're all going to live forever because of Ernie Harwell."
Harwell, 69, is probably the most revered figure in Michigan, politicians being ineligible for that distinction and Gordie Howe having moved to Connecticut. Besides his immutability, at least three factors account for his popularity. He has remained exclusively on radio since 1965, which means that his voice is heard during countless more traffic jams, backyard barbecues and assembly-line shifts than it would be if he were on TV. He avoids controversy like the black death, giving fans nothing but runs, hits, errors and wholesome Tiger lore. And he's an uncommonly kind and self-deprecating man, a devout Christian who neither is bashful about his beliefs nor wears them on his sleeve.
Harwell is something of a dinosaur in baseball broadcasting, his career dating back to the 1940s. Because he rarely talks about himself on the air, his listeners probably don't know that he is an inventor (he holds a U.S. patent on a bottle/can opener); an actor (films he or his voice were in: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Paper Lion, Aunt Mary and Tiger Town); and a lyricist (I Don't Know Any Better by B.J. Thomas, for one). He's also the only baseball announcer ever traded for a player; he went from the Atlanta Crackers to Brooklyn in exchange for Dodgers farmhand Cliff Dapper in 1949. In the foreword to Harwell's 1985 book. Tuned To Baseball, his wife, Lulu, further revealed that he was Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell's paperboy in Atlanta, succeeded Marty Marion at second base on the Northside Terrors, shot a hole in one, had a racehorse named after him, sang a duet with Pearl Bailey, appeared on a TV platform with Billy Graham and was baptized in the Jordan River.
For years Harwell labored in the shadow of Red Barber, Mel Allen and other notable play-by-play announcers. Exhibit A of this is that Russ Hodges's call of Bobby Thomson's historic 1951 homer ("The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!") is the one that has survived the years. Harwell, Hodges's partner with the Giants, also called the homer, but no one except Lulu remembers him doing so; he had switched from the radio to the TV booth two innings before.
"What happened is that there was a Dodger fan in Brooklyn who had a tape machine, which wasn't very common in those days," Harwell says. "Naturally, he hated the Giants, and after they got behind 4-1 in the eighth, he recorded from the radio, hoping to catch Hodges crying a little bit. Thomson hit the homer, and the next day the Dodger fan sent the tape to Hodges. Hodges paid him $10. And Chesterfield cigarettes, our sponsor, put out a record of the tape. It became probably the most famous sports broadcast of all time.
"My philosophy is that the listener tunes in to hear the game. He doesn't tune in to hear Ernie Harwell."
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In Michigan, they say, people tune him in just to feel comfortable. You can read books listening to Ernie Harwell, or go smelt fishing listening to him, or pick mushrooms in the woods with him in your ear. So what if he doesn't tell you the bullpen has been dog meat 10 times in a row. He's a happy seasonal circumstance, one of the comfort zones of spring.
Says Falls, "I know a gas station owner in Clarkston, Mich., name of Dick Morgan, 71 years old. He's been on the same corner for more than 50 years.