This will be a nice, gentle piece about a nice, gentle man. There’s simply no other way to write about Ernie Harwell.
The Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster was in town over the weekend to push — gently, of course — a new set of four compact discs called “Ernie Harwell’s Audio Scrapbook.” (It’s available at www.eharwell.com; the price of $19.84 alludes to the year of the Detroit Tigers’ last World Series victory.)
During his visit, Harwell also chatted with injured war veterans at Bethesda Naval Hospital and reminisced about his long career with students and fans at George Washington University’s Media and Public Affairs Center. If you weren’t there, you should have been. It was a blast — a gentle blast, of course.
Not even the mention of Barry Bonds by moderator Michael Friedman, the university’s vice president of communications, could make Harwell rant and rave. It did, however, provoke Ernie’s only negative comments of the day. Otherwise, he even had nice things to say about fellow Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, baseball’s legendary enfant terrible.
“Interviewed him once when I was in Atlanta in 1940,” Harwell said of the Georgia Peachpit. “Everybody said he’d blow me off, but he was as warm and friendly as could be.”
Bonds didn’t fare as well during Harwell’s little gab session.
“It’s a black mark on baseball, but baseball is such a great survivor,” Harwell said of Bonds’ presumed steroids use and ongoing assault on Hank Aaron’s career home run record. “But he should be in the record book. Let it be an official record and let it go at that.”
In other words, let’s forget Barry baby until Alex Rodriguez or somebody else passes him. And if the Grouchy Giant chooses to take offense at Ernie, well, let him. Bonds might achieve another kind of fame as the only person ever to dislike Harwell.
Ernie is 89 now and five years removed from the last of his 42 years as the Tigers’ radio voice. Even before hitting Motown in 1960, he had been around a few baseball blocks broadcasting for the minor league Atlanta Crackers, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles.
Along the way, Harwell was a party to horsehide history. He is the only broadcaster traded for a player (catcher Cliff Dapper, when Ernie went from the Crackers to the Dodgers in 1949), and he was an eyewitness at the Orioles’ first game at Memorial Stadium (1954) and last (1991). But his most memorable day remains Oct. 3, 1951, at New York’s Polo Grounds, when Giant Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run off the Dodgers’ Ralph Branca created perhaps the most dramatic moment in sports history and plunged an entire borough into deepest despair.
Most fans of a certain age remember Russ Hodges’ classic radio yowl: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! …” Not so well known is the fact that Harwell, who shared the team’s radio and TV duties with Hodges, could have been the man behind that microphone.
“Russ said to me [before the final three innings], ‘I think it’s my turn to do the TV,’ ” Harwell recalled at GW. “I said, ‘No, it’s my turn.’ So I was on TV when Bobby hit the homer, and Russ made a great call on radio. At the time, I thought doing TV was a better deal because there were five radio broadcasts of the game, but I was only one telecast on NBC.”
And how did Harwell describe this epic moment?
“As I remember, I just said, ‘It’s gone!’ and let the pictures take over. Nobody can dispute that, because there was no kinescope [recording] that has survived.”
That low-key style marked Harwell’s work, just as it does his personality. Perhaps that’s why his career thrived for so long. He and longtime Washington Senators voice Bob Wolff are about the only survivors of the days when baseball broadcasters were like members of the family in their towns. Mel Allen, Red Barber and Harry Caray, et al, are gone. Harwell “jes keeps rollin’ along,” like “Ol’ Man River.”
A couple of weeks ago, Ernie did a guest shot on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” captivating play-by-play man Jon Miller, analyst Joe Morgan and a national audience with his humor and knowledge. Gently, of course.
“People get used to a broadcaster, good or bad, when he’s been around a while,” Harwell told his GW audience. “It’s a great marriage — baseball and radio.”
Bob Carpenter, the Nationals’ fine TV announcer, considers Harwell “one of the top five all-time broadcasters” and tells a funny one on Ernie.
“I came into Comerica Park several years ago to do an ESPN game and kidded Ernie about all the Blue Cross/Blue Shield billboards I’d seen with his picture [as a company spokesman],” Carpenter said. “He told me, ‘Bob, I’m 84, and they just signed me to a 10-year contract with a 10-year option.’ That’s Ernie. As opposed to some broadcasters who faded badly in their senior years, he was as sharp at 80 as he was at 50.”
Typically, Harwell greeted his GW audience by saying, “It’s good to see so many ole friends — and that’s ‘O-L-E,’ not ‘O-L-D.’ ”
Same to you, fella.