Harwell still speaking volumesErnie Harwell must have the...


May 07, 1993|By RAY FRAGER

Harwell still speaking volumes

Ernie Harwell must have the biggest hands in baseball. On Monday night in Washington, he held 600 people in his palm.

Those folks, seemingly every one a Detroit Tigers fan -- at least for the night -- were attending Part 3 of the Smithsonian Institution's "Voices of the Game" series.

Early in the program, a call came in from NBC's Bob Costas. He recalled sitting in the family car as a child on Long Island, N.Y., tuning the car radio to Detroit's WJR to listen to Harwell. Then Costas spoke of what drew the crowd Monday night.

"In these times of baseball, when so much has changed, the lone base is the local baseball man," Costas said. "It's that voice that you've been with year after year. They may be dinosaurs, the last link to the way things used to be."

Maybe most of the people in attendance knew Harwell's story, but they took obvious delight in its recounting.

How the teen-age Harwell bluffed his way into a job as The Sporting News' Atlanta correspondent, in part by writing to the editor and identifying himself as W. Ernest Harwell, which sounded much older than 16. How he became the voice of the Atlanta Crackers minor-league team. How the Crackers wouldn't let him go to the Brooklyn Dodgers until the Dodgers gave Atlanta a catcher in return. How Harwell moved on to the New York Giants, then the Orioles and finally the Tigers in 1960. How Harwell was fired by Tigers president Bo Schembechler (pause for boos) in 1991. How Harwell is back and Schembechler isn't (pause for cheers).

Speaking of his firing, which sparked much protest around Detroit, Harwell displayed typical, self-deprecating wit.

"When I was told I wouldn't be back as Tigers announcer," he said, "I thought there might be a little ripple. I thought somebody might call the ballpark and ask, 'What happened to that old guy?' "

When Harwell joined the Dodgers in 1948 -- substituting for an ailing Red Barber -- he brought New York's Southern-fried announcing contingent to three: Harwell of Georgia, Barber of Mississippi and Mel Allen of Alabama. What was it about Southerners?

"We talked about that," Harwell said, "and our answer was that we were too lazy to earn a living."

But seriously, folks: "We grew up in an atmosphere of storytelling."

Harwell had moved over to the Giants by 1951, and he was there when Bobby Thomson hit the home run immortalized by Russ Hodges' call of "The Giants win the pennant!" cubed. Harwell made the call, too, but he was working on television that day, and no one recorded it.

"Only Mrs. Harwell and I know I did that game," he said.

When the Orioles went major-league in 1954, Harwell came to Baltimore. That first season, the Orioles lost 100 games.

"We had a terrible-hitting team that year. They called them the Kleenex team -- pops up one at a time."

Harwell was inducted into the broadcasters' wing of the Hall of Fame in 1981, and, during the program, his former partner, Paul Carey, kidded him via phone: "How does it feel to be among all those relics at the Smithsonian?" But, even at 75, Harwell is no museum piece. Just ask any of the 600 in attendance Monday night.

Harwell dismisses talk that baseball is losing its grip on young people.

It still is, as he wrote nearly 40 years ago, "The Game for All America."

"Baseball is a sport we all can identify with," he said. "We all played baseball. It's all out in the open, and baseball has so much lore, so many characters. It's really part of America."

And so is Ernie Harwell.

Now read the book

The host for "Voices of the Game" is Curt Smith, a former speech writer for President Bush who wrote the book from which the series gets its name. You don't have to be a Republican to love "Voices of the Game" -- though it helps sometimes -- but the encyclopedic book is a must for the true baseball fan.

Eye on O's

The Orioles make their season debut on CBS tomorrow (1 p.m., channels 11, 9) as part of the network's Game of the Not Quite Every Week, But Check Your Local Listings While Hoping That Another Network Gets Baseball Next Season.

Tim McCarver, CBS analyst, Deion Sanders water-bucket target and overall astute observer of all things baseball, offered this view of the Orioles' rough start:

"The expectations often don't pan out for a lot of reasons. . . . It's not just one thing.

"When teams like that get off to bad starts, they might not have the talent to come back."

Asked if the Orioles could be feeling the pressure of high expectations, McCarver said: "Different teams handle it in different ways. Arrogance may be a good thing. Arrogant teams handle adversity better."

McCarver's thoughts on some individual Orioles:

* Ben McDonald: "McDonald remains erratic and still remains something of an enigma."

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