Interviewing Ernie – Part 1

For those who have lived in the metro Detroit area, there is one voice that is instantly equated with summer. That voice belongs to Mr. Ernie Harwell. Harwell called Tiger games from 1960 through his retirement in 2002 (except for a messy 1992 season). Prior to coming to Detroit, he worked for Baltimore, the NY Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

He’s called no-hitters, World Series’, Willie Mays debut, Bobby Thomson’s shot heard round the world, and has seen and experienced the game like few others have. He remains the only announcer to be acquired via a trade (Branch Rickey sent Cliff Dapper to the Atlanta Crackers in exchange for Harwell). Harwell’s distinctive voice and no frills attention to detail led to a longevity that made evenings at the cottage with Ernie a tradition and rite of summer.

Mr. Harwell was kind enough to spend a morning speaking with me over the phone. Here is part 1 of that interview:

DTW: How is your retirement going?

EH: Well, retirement is going beautifully. I just took another direction, I’m still as active as I was, I’m just not doing play by play. I’m the spokesman for Blue Cross Blue Shield. We signed a ten year contract with a ten year option so I’m going to have to live to be 106 to fulfill it. But I’m going to do it or die trying, one or the other. It keeps me busy. I do a lot of speaking, a lot of commercials. They use me on the billboards at Ford Field, Comerica Park and all over Michigan. It’s been pretty productive for us and it’s been a great association.

Also I’ll be writing my column for the Free Press. It starts next week and I’ve been doing it every summer for 15 years now.

And in addition to that I do about 27 vignettes on FSN Detroit that they use. Just sort of stand up and tell a story and reminisce a little bit.

And other than that I’m just sort of hanging around here. I don’t miss the play by play much. I did it for seven decades and 55 years, so I feel like that was enough. I did enough damage and I’m just going to let other guys do it now.

DTW: Do you still follow the Tigers closely?

EH: Yes I do. I went down to spring training. I got to schmooze around with them a little bit. I had dinner with Alan Trammell and some of the other guys. I keep an eye on them, more as a fan now than as a worker. But, I don’t follow them quite as closely, naturally, because I don’t travel with them. But I go down to the ballpark now and then.
DTW: Do you watch the games on TV or listen on the radio?

EH: I listen on the radio most of the time, but if there’s TV I might look a little bit at that.
DTW: Do you have a prediction for how they’re going to finish this year?

EH: Well, I think everybody’s optimistic, but that’s part of it being spring time you know? I feel everything is going good. I think they’ll be better. I’m not quite as optimistic as some people. So much depends on that young pitching staff. We’ve got to wait and see if they continue to be promising and see how they establish themselves as major league starters.
DTW: Speaking of spring training and optimism, you started a tradition of reading a verse from the Song of Solomon (2, 11:12), the Voice of the Turtle. How did that begin?

EH: Well, I had been in Detroit for quite a while before that started. I’d say it was probably in the mid 70’s or early 80’s. I don’t have any idea that I can put my finger on it precisely. But I was reading that in the bible and it sort of struck me that this reminded me a lot of spring training and Opening Day, and I began to use it and people picked it up so I kept on using it.
DTW: Before coming to Detroit you were with the Dodgers, Giants, and Baltimore. What was it about Detroit that made it your final destination?

EH: Detroit was always a favorite city of mine when I traveled in the American League when I went to Baltimore in 1954. The first two games the Orioles played in their new Major League situation were in Tiger Stadium. I used to come to Detroit with the Orioles and I really liked the town a lot, and made some friends here. Then when Van Patrick was out as the announcer after the 1959 season, the Tigers got in touch with me and wanted to know if I’d be interested in leaving Baltimore. I felt like I had a good job there, and I was very happy there but I’d be foolish not to listen to an offer. They made me a good offer and I decided I’d come.

The franchise at that time was a well established franchise. It was a great baseball town, Michigan had terrific support for the Tigers. All those things enticed me to come here.

DTW: George Kell was involved in you coming to Detroit, as the two of you had met in Baltimore, and he was currently with the Tigers. Do you still keep in touch with Mr. Kell? I know that he’s had a rough streak.

EH: He’s had a tough time. I’ve called him several times. The last time I called him he couldn’t’ get to the phone, but I talked to his wife Carolyn. He has had a struggle.

When he was playing he got hurt in Baltimore, and he was up and around the press box so I said come on, get on the air with us. He did a few innings on the radio with us and seemed to like it. Then he got a job with CBS on the pregame show. He landed a job here [Detroit], and when an opening came up he called me in New York right at the end of the season in ’59. He told me the Tigers were interested in me and asked if I’d come. So there was a little payback there and we had a great association.

DTW: One anecdote I heard about you in the booth is that you would set an egg timer to remind you to give the score. Is that true?

EH: I did that for a little while, but that was sort of a Red Barber thing. He did that in Brooklyn, and would give the score and then turnover the egg timer. But it took a little bit too long I think, to drain the sand out and I felt you ought to give the score a little more often than that. I really made that my number one priority. If you don’t do that the listener really can’t set himself or herself psychologically as to how to listen to the game. I believe that’s the first thing that an announcer has to do is to keep people informed about what the score is.
DTW: You called a number of significant moments, like pennant clinching games and no-hitters. Is there anything that you would do to prepare for those dramatic ninth innings?

EH: I never did that. I just thought it would be more effective if you just react to whatever happens. You can never anticipate how it’s going to happen. Sometimes, like Aaron’s homer you can look forward to, but it’s too contrived to prepare what you’re going to say. So I always just let it go and react in the way that it hit me when the event happened.
DTW: Calling the last inning at Tiger Stadium, you did something very uncharacteristic for you and ignored the action on the field to read a tribute. Were there any other times that you broke away from the game like that?

EH: No, I’d prepared a little bit of a speech there as I remember it. I felt like I had to do that. It was uncharacteristic, you’re right about that. I can’t remember another time. I think in Baltimore we came back and did something after the game was over. And I think in Toronto [Ernie’s final game] we did it right at the end of the game.
DTW: As part of the speech you prepared for the last game at Tiger Stadium, you referred to the stadium as , “My home, my office, my refuge…A timeless gift to the past.” What do you think should be done with Tiger Stadium and what do you think of it standing empty.

EH: Ideally I think they should make some kind of a shrine out of it. Maybe keep it alive and have sandlot baseball or something like that. But it seems like it is such a large problem to get money to maintain it, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think eventually it will either fall down or be the victim of the wrecking ball.

I know a lot of people in the years since the closing of the stadium had been imminent have had grandiose ideas about what to do but, nobody has come up with any money. They have a lot of neat things that they think should happen, but nobody comes up with the backing. I just don’t think it’s going anywhere.

DTW: At this point would you rather see it knocked down or have it sit there and rot?

EH: Well, I think so. It’s a matter of practicality. I think it would probably cost a lot more money to knock it down than have it fall down. Either way it is going to be a sad occasion, but I think the better way to do it would be to have the wrecking ball take over.
DTW: In your Hall of Fame induction speech, you read an essay you penned in 1955 called “Baseball – A Game for All America.” It’s been 50 years since you wrote that. Does it still hold true for you, and would you change it at all?

EH: Oh yeah, I’d bring it up to date. I’ve been tempted to do that. I think ESPN or CBS or somebody had a TV game opening the season and they asked me to change it a little bit and I did for that occasion. But I always felt that I should leave it as is. If I ever recite it I always say that times have changed and a lot of things have happened to the game, good and bad. But I really think the spirit of the game between the lines is pretty much the same as it was.

I’ve had people know it’s written in 1955 because you say things like Honus Wagner hit a triple 46 years ago [laughing], and there are a lot of great players that aren’t even mentioned in that. You have to be selective when you make it. For instance I didn’t mention Ted Williams although he was contemporary then. Then people that came later like Hank Aaron, and Roger Maris, and Barry Bonds aren’t even in there. That’s why I think it’s better to keep it the way it is and give a little preface.

Part 2 will becoming in the next day or two once I get a chance to transcribe it, and we’ll talk about the Hall of Fame, the Veterans Committee, and steroids in baseball.