This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in June 2002.
HARWELL, AND A LITTLE HISTORY
PHOENIX — Baseball has been blessed with an abundance of great storytellers since the inception of the broadcast era.
The names of the game’s announcing greats — Red Barber, Mel Allen, Harry Caray, Vin Scully, Jon Miller and Ernie Harwell — roll off the tongue as quickly as a child says “mama.”
None of those legendary announcers has matched the longevity of Mr. Harwell, who’s now in his 55th season of broadcasting Major League Baseball games. That’s right 55 years.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Harwell in the Detroit dugout before the Tigers-Diamondbacks game on Saturday evening at Bank One Ballpark to discuss his amazing career. Easygoing, polite, articulate and funny, Harwell instantly made me feel like we had been friends for years. By all accounts, that’s one of his signature traits — he is kind to everyone he meets. (A day later, he greeted me in the elevator and remembered my first name. Incredible, eh? How many thousands of names has he uttered in his career?)
Like countless boys, Harwell, 84, grew up yearning to be a professional baseball player. Athletically, he didn’t have the talent to make it. That didn’t stop him from finding another way to be around the game.
Confident, perhaps a bit daring, and motivated, Harwell first pitched his case to become a journalist to one of the prestigious sports magazines of his youth.
“In 1934, when I was in high school I wrote a letter to The Sporting News and told them I should be the Atlanta correspondent,” he said smiling.
“They didn’t know I was only 16 years old. They gave me the job.”
That job entailed covering the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association. It led to a six-year stint at The Atlanta Constitution “doing stuff nobody else wanted to do while I was in high school and college,” he recalled.
After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Harwell was unable to find a job at a newspaper. So he went for an audition at radio station WSB in Atlanta. He’s been in radio ever since, except for four years during World War II when he served in the Marines and held the post of sports editor for Leatherneck Magazine.
“It was sort of accidental. I was a failed sportswriter,” he quipped.
Print journalism’s loss has been broadcast journalism’s gain. Since becoming a play-by-play voice for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, Harwell has worked for New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles. He has been with the Detroit Tigers since 1960.
Remarkably, Harwell has only missed two games in 55 years.
“I’ve been very lucky,” he said.
Neither of those absences was due to illness: He missed the first game to attend his brother’s funeral; he missed the second game to attend National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Salisbury, N.C.
Instead of hanging around too long, Harwell decided to retire after this season while he’s still a respected announcer.
“I felt the time was going to come sooner or later when I had to hang it up,” Harwell said, “and I decided this year would be my last one. … I felt like I could really go another four or five years, but I didn’t want to stay around long enough for people to say, ‘Why didn’t that old guy quit?’ I wanted to stop before everybody told me to.”
Harwell said his No. 1 thrill as an announcer was calling Bobby Thomson’s famous “Shot Heard Around The World” homer in the 1951 playoff that propelled the Giants into National League pennant winners.
Old-timers remember Russ Hodges’ unforgettable “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” call. Well, Hodges and Harwell alternated between TV and radio that year. Harwell was assigned to the TV telecast that day, Oct. 3, 1951.
“I just said, ‘It’s gone!’ and then the pictures took over,” Harwell said.
Fortunately, Harwell’s legacy will live on.