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Wednesday, July 31, 2002
The voice of summer

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Bill Gates does not invite me to sit next to him while he writes computer software. Steven Spielberg does not ask me to sit behind the camera with him. Bono does not let me stand next to him in the recording studio.

Ernie Harwell
Ernie Harwell has been behind the microphone in Detroit for the last 42 seasons.
But Ernie Harwell let me spend Tuesday afternoon's Tigers-Mariners game with him in the broadcast booth. "Sure, why not?" he said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a true artist to invite an intruder into his studio.

And, he's right. Why not? After all, Harwell is likely the nicest person in baseball. And besides, people have been inviting him into their homes for more than half a century.

This is Harwell's 55th and final season broadcasting Major League Baseball and his 42nd broadcasting the Tigers. He was in the Detroit broadcast booth when there were eight teams in the American League and fins the length of foul poles on American automobiles. From Al Kaline to Kirk Gibson to Robert Fick, from the Ford Mustang convertible to the AMC Gremlin to the Lincoln Navigator, Harwell has been the official voice of summer for anyone within range of Detroit's WJR.

Tuning in his baseball broadcasts is like pouring maple syrup on a stack of pancakes. He makes a great thing all the sweeter.

Harwell is 84 years old, and he still reports to work every day. He broadcast his first minor-league game for the Atlanta Crackers before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and he is still in the game. He called Bobby Thomson's home run, and he's not only still on the air, he's still among the best in the business.

To sit in the booth and listen to one of the greatest broadcasters in American sports, soaking in a soft Georgia accent that is as refreshing as morning mist at Augusta ... what a wonderful way to spend a long afternoon (the game went 10 innings), though it would have been memorable enough if I had only been there long enough to hear Harwell introduce Detroit second baseman Hiram Bocachica.

Here we go -- the Brooklyn native, John Halama, is on the mound and ready to go to work.
Ernie Harwell
Just as Comerica Park replaced Tiger Stadium, Detroit will get a new broadcaster in 2003.

Harwell is so good that he makes speaking to several million people for hours at a time seem absolutely effortless. I listened to him for an entire game (Harwell does the first three and last three innings), and he stumbled over only one word; if he made any other mistakes, I didn't notice. He provided frequent scoring updates, concise recaps, tidbits of baseball history and simple, clear descriptions of the game, players and field, handling it all as smoothly as a Vegas croupier dealing a deck of cards. His cadence and tone are absolutely perfect for a game that fills the entire summer.

He's in the Hall of Fame for more than his longevity.

"I was going to be a sportswriter but I couldn't get a job so I took a job at WSB in Atlanta," Harwell said of his beginnings. "I'm a failed sportswriter, more than anything. It was great training for me as a broadcaster. Working on the copy desk and writing headlines taught me to appreciate brevity."

Harwell's career in journalism began in the early '30s as a paperboy for the Atlanta Georgian, delivering newspapers to, among others, "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell (he later covered the movie's premiere for Life magazine). He applied to be the Atlanta correspondent for The Sporting News when he was 16, signing his name as Earnest Harwell. "I thought that would make me sound older," he said. (It worked; they hired him.)

Ernie Unplugged
Best player he ever saw: "Willie Mays. I was lucky enough to see his debut in 1951."

Best game he ever saw: "The seventh game of the 1968 World Series. That was the championship game of the last real pennant race."

One event he regrets not broadcasting: "The Rose Bowl. I did a lot of football in those days, more than baseball. But I never really got into that network rotation."

Game he most would have liked to broadcast: "Don Larsen's perfect game. I've never done a perfect game."

Favorite stadium: "Tiger Stadium and Ebbetts Field because that's where I was my first year. Of the current ones, I like (Safeco Field)."

Best thing that has happened to baseball: "I would say the new ballparks. The improvement in the seating and experience for the fans."

Worst thing: "The disharmony between the players and owners and all the negative attention that attracts.''

On the difficulty of being on the road so much for 55 years: "I've had a very supportive and loyal wife all these years. She understood my career when we got married 61 years ago."

How many hot dogs has he eaten in his career: "I don't eat hot dogs. I like them, but if I ate them I'd weigh 600 pounds."

He broadcast all sports for WSB, including golf, calling the Masters when it was a small tournament of about 30 competitors with a top prize of $1,500. Golf on the radio. Golf is slow enough on TV. But on the radio? Surely no sport could present a more demanding challenge for a radio broadcaster.

"I did bowling, too," Harwell says with a grin. "Imagine that. Bowling on the radio. That was exciting."

You know something, though? I bet it was with Harwell behind the microphone.

Hiram Bocachica is the batter, and he takes the first pitch for a ball. He came to the Tigers from the Los Angeles team -- here's the set and the pitch, and he takes it for a ball, outside. Bocachica started out with Montreal. Now the 2-0 pitch is on the way. He fouls it off. Let's pause briefly for station identification on the Tigers radio network.

Baseball is the sport Harwell loved the most. He started broadcasting and recreating minor-league games for WSB. In 1948, he made the leap to the majors when the Brooklyn Dodgers traded catcher Cliff Dapper to the Crackers for Harwell. Think about that. Harwell is so good that a team traded a player to get him in its booth. Sure, Jon Miller is great, but did any team ever offer Damian Miller for him?

Harwell worked a few years for the Dodgers, then for the Giants. While Russ Hodges became famous for his "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" radio call on Thomson's home run, Harwell was doing the TV broadcast, the first coast-to-coast broadcast of a game. "I said, 'It's gone.' At least I think I did. I don't know for sure, because no one taped it."

After a few years in New York and Baltimore, Harwell moved to Detroit in 1960, and he fit the city as comfortably as rich Corinthian leather on a Chrysler Cordoba. It isn't spring in Michigan until the deeply religious Harwell reads from the Song of Solomon from Tiger Town in Lakeland, Florida.

"For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."

This is an era when broadcasters shout so loudly it's as if they're trying to reach listeners without the aid of radio signals. It's also an era when too many broadcasters are professional cheerleaders, referring to the team as "we" and "us" and repeatedly telling listeners how wonderful the players are and how they write their mothers every night and phone them every weekend.

Harwell is not like that. He describes the game the same way he always has. With restraint, dignity and occasional poetry. (I still recall his classic line after Randy Johnson completed his no-hitter: "The tallest man in baseball history stands a little taller tonight.")

Ernie Harwell
Even at age 84, Harwell hasn't lost his fastball.
"I'm laid-back, neutral," Harwell says. "I'm a reporter, not a cheerleader, not a screamer. I try to describe what happened. I'm not overpowering.

"But that's all right (for those that are loud). I've always said, 'Be whatever you are.' But if you fake it, that's a lot of hard work for three hours."

Ichiro steps to the plate. Ichiro takes very good care of his feet. He says the bottom of the feet are the second heart of the body, and he rubs a stick against them every day. He says that if the bottom of the feet get tight, you tend to get injured. He takes good care of his tootsies.

Harwell's voice is gentle, but it carries well enough that Ichiro went out of his way to meet him last year, telling the broadcaster he had done a lot for baseball as a broadcaster. He wasn't alone. Throughout the game, fans dropped by the game with notes for Harwell and requests to meet him. They were still greeting him as he left the booth following Detroit's 5-4 loss.

"I just wanted to thank you for everything," a fan told him. "You've meant so much to me."

"That man has a halo above his head," another said, gesturing toward Harwell.

What makes radio broadcasters so special to fans is that we not only invite them into our home, we take them wherever else we go -- the backyard, the beach, the office, long drives along darkened highways. They are anywhere there is a radio, but especially in our cars. I've had Seattle's great broadcaster, Dave Niehaus, as a companion in my car so many times he should kick in for my license tabs.

"I think Vin Scully is the best ever," Harwell said. "He's a lot better than Red Barber or Russ Hodges were. He has a great passion the game, he has a literary bent, he expresses himself well, and he has a great respect for the game and lets it plays itself out.

"My yardstick is whether a guy is working. After that, it's just a matter of style. A lot of it has to do where you grow up. A kid growing up in Seattle probably thinks Niehaus is the best."

The Tigers have not been to the postseason since fuel economy was an important consideration in the American auto industry and Detroit is on its way to its 10th consecutive losing season. Some have suggested that baseball rotate Harwell throughout both leagues in September, allowing him to broadcast games that matter and allowing fans nationwide to hear him. He has no interest in such a scenario. "That would be too much of a circus," he says. "And it wouldn't be fair to the local broadcasters."

Instead, he will stay where he has been for four decades, where he belongs, behind the microphone for the Tigers.

Then he will retire from the booth and someone else will take over. That's baseball. That's life.

And Harwell is right. Younger fans who grow up with Harwell's replacement as the voice of the Tigers will eventually come to think of him as baseball's best broadcaster.

But they'll be wrong.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at cuffscaple@hotmail.com.