AP Photo/Detroit Free Press/Romain Blanquart
Ernie Harwell addresses the Tiger Stadium crowd at a game on Sept. 16, 2009, where he said goodbye after he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He was 92, and turned 93 in January.
It was a scenario we reserached 10 years ago, and bears some reflection again:
What if, in 1949, a 31-year-old Ernie Harwell didn’t leave the Brooklyn Dodgers’ broadcast booth and join the New York Giants, leaving the seat open for Red Barber to recommend the hiring of a 22-year-old Vin Scully for the spot?
What if Harwell, who’d only been with the Dodgers for a little more than one season, stayed with the team, followed them to L.A. 10 years later, and was still doing their games today? What if he was the voice of baseball in Southern California?
And what if Scully took that Giants job and eventually followed them to San Francisco? The Giants were the team Scully grew up with. He’d sit in the Polo Grounds from the bleacher seats – his favorite player was Mel Ott - and look in at the press box and think about how lucky those guys were.
Harwell was lured to the Giants, in part, because they offered him $20,000, which was about $5,000 more than he was getting from the Dodgers. He was also going from a three-man booth to a two-man, so he’d get more work.
Ten years ago, we put that scenario back in Harwell’s head.
“I think you always wonder,” said Harwell, 82 at the time. “But you have to look at the situation when it happens and decide what you think is the best path. At the time, given the circumstances, I think I made the right decision.
“My rationale was that I’d get more work with the Giants. At that point, it looked like Red would last a long time, but Connie (Desmond, Barber’s main partner) was second in line and there wasn’t any reason to think I’d inherit the mantle before he would.”
From May to October, 1949, Scully was working at WTOP, a 50,000-watt radio station in Washington D.C., where he was a summer replacement staff announcer. The station offered him a permanent job in February, 1950. Then the Dodger job came up.
“God only knows what would have happened (if Harwell stayed), but I suspect I would have worked for WTOP and I don’t know where that would have led,” said Scully at the time of that interview in 2000.
The first game Harwell did for the Dodgers was Aug. 4, 1948 – Jackie Robinson stole home in the first inning and Chicago Cubs pitcher Russ Meyer was so upset he shouted obscenities at the umpire and was ejected.
“And most of those curse words went out over the air inadvertently because of the parabolic field microphone,'” Harwell recalled.
In May, 2002, we had about an hour of time to sit with Harwell, as his new biography came out and the Detroit Tigers were in town to play the Angels. There was another “what if” question we were able to pose.
The last chapter of “Ernie Harwell, My 60 Years in Baseball,” co-authored with former Orange County Register baseball writer Tom Keegan, is titled: “A Gentleman Wronged.” In 1991, Tigers management decided it was time to force Harwell’s retirement. Bo Schembechler, the former Michigan football coach who became the team’s president in a somewhat quirky career change, was the one ultimately who had to tell Harwell of the move.
What if Schembechler never fired him, causing all the great reaction and outcry for him to stay?
“I’ve always felt most things happen for the good, and it was a traumatic time for me, but it helped my career in a lot of ways,” said Harwell, who did some Angels radio games during the one season he was “unemployed” before the Tigers rehired him in ’93. “I wasn’t just ‘that old guy who used to do Tigers games,’ but it was sort of humbling and exhilarating anyone cared that much.
“What it shows is that no matter who the person, after you’ve been in a region of the country, people get to know you and feel like you’re part of the family and the conduit. Just like Vinny does out here. It’s sort of like the office that the guy holds when he’s a broadcaster.'”
Another chapter is all about all the broadcasters he’s mentored over the years. One of them happened to be a Central Michigan graduate who was working in the San Fernando Valley as a college professor and baseball coach.
Dick Enberg contacted Harwell in the early ’60s and asked for a visit when he was in town. Harwell invited him to Dodger Stadium to sit in the booth for a Tigers-Angels game.
“I can do a better job than a lot of the announcers I hear today,” Enberg told Harwell. “I’m teaching now and helping coach our Northridge baseball team, but I still believe I can be a competent announcer.'”
Within a few years, Enberg was on the Rams telecasts for KTLA Channel 5. A few years later, he was offered the job as the Angels play-by-play man and consulted again with Harwell.
“I’m not sure I want to try it,”‘ Enberg told him. “With football, I haven’t been away from home very much, but the baseball schedule demands a lot of traveling. I have a good marriage and I don’t know what effect travel might have on it.”
Replied Harwell: “I certainly wouldn’t worry about travel. A good marriage can certainly withstand those difficulties. … Doing baseball day-to-day will be a great showcase for you. And it can lead to all kinds of success.”
Enberg’s career took off, but his marriage ended before that first baseball season was over.
“So much for my marital advice,”‘ writes Harwell, still hitched to his college sweetheart, Lulu.
Harwell, 84 at the time of that last interview, lasted another couple of years with the Tigers.
“I feel I could go another five years because I love my job, but you have to stop somewhere, and it’s better to do it too soon than too late,'” said Harwell, in his sweet Georgia sound. “There’s the old saying, ‘I heard your last broadcast and it shoulda been.’ I don’t want people saying that.”
Harwell, ironically, was to receive the Vin Scully Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports Broadcasting today in New York City, presented by Scully’s alma mater, Fordham University, but it was known weeks ago that Harwell would not attend because of his health. Former Tigers great Al Kaline is there to accept it for him instead.
By the way, Harwell went into the Baseball Hall of Fame broadcaster’s wing in 1981, the first active broadcater to be inducted. Scully followed him in 1982.
“I didn’t succeed him,” Scully once said about getting hired to fill the vacancy left by Harwell’s departure in Brooklyn. “I just happened to sit in his chair.”
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
Flowers and a sign hang on a fence at the site of the old Tiger Stadium in Detroit this morning.