Harwell, legendary voice of the Tigers, wants finale without fanfare BASEBALL

July 04, 1993|By Bob Raissman | Bob Raissman,New York Daily News

The road routine was the same Tuesday as it has been for years. Up at 7 a.m., a little stretching exercise, coffee, breakfast, read the papers, conduct business over the phone, out for lunch, back to the hotel, catch a short nap, listen to the radio and out to the ballpark.

For 31 years this was Ernie Harwell's day as the radio voice of the Detroit Tigers. Before that it was with the Orioles, New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers and Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association. The career spans five decades with only one slight interruption.

Before last season, former Tigers owner Tom Monaghan and his henchman, a football guy named Bo Schembechler, decided Harwell was too old to fit the new image they sought for the Detroit organization. These two hammer-heads, showing the mentality of men who would paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa, fired Harwell -- thus robbing Detroit of one of baseball's premier painters of word pictures.

When Mike Ilitch bought the Tigers, one of his first pronouncements was a vow to bring Harwell back. He kept his word. You ask Harwell about all this and he kind of downplays the whole thing. He's 75 now. The voice is strong and Southern fried. He padded around barefoot in his room at the Grand Hyatt early Tuesday morning, before settling into a chair.

It wasn't so much him, he told visitors, that led to the outcry from Detroit fans when the suits axed him. No, this was all about baseball.

Baseball on the radio.

"It was an example of how much people really care about radio and baseball," Harwell said. "I just happened to be part of it. It wasn't me so much as it was the fact that people were interested in the Tigers and I was the conduit."

There was also the inescapable perception of age discrimination. "I think people identified with me because of my age," Harwell explained. "They saw an old guy being laid off and identified with me. Guys would come up and say, 'I was with GM for 25 years, they did the same thing to me.' I said it was somethin' that was a business decision. Somethin' I had no control over.

"As a guy who followed baseball I knew everybody could be replaced," Harwell continued. "Great announcers like Mel Allen and Red Barber have been fired. Certainly the ballplayers move along. They have their turn and somebody takes their place. Nobody lasts forever. It's just a fact of life."

But with guys like Harwell, you wish reality could be put on hold. Arguments persist over which generation of players is better. With radio voices, the answer is clear. The Harwells, Allens, Barbers, Murphys and Scullys produced magic in the air the current crop of voices has not been able to duplicate. For the most part, today's voices are a homogenous lot.

Some look to use radio as a steppingstone to television. Others use radio to show off their own personality rather than putting the game first. And there are those who sulk through a broadcast, unable to crank it up when their team is losing.

The Lords of Baseball say their game is in trouble. Perhaps they should take a hard look at each of their radio teams. Radio attracts the inner core of baseball fans -- past, present and future. Are today's voices capable of hooking the young fan and launching the kind of baseball dreams the old guard did?

"I wouldn't want to denigrate anyone's performance, but I do think a lot of guys look on radio as sort of the second medium," Harwell said. "I think, in a sense, it's still the first medium because it's got the continuity television doesn't have."

Nor the freedom. On TV, viewers are at the mercy of the director. If he wants to put the camera on a guy blowing bubbles in the dugout, you're stuck with his decision. "On the radio a guy has more chance to show his personality than he does on TV because he's not sublimated to the picture," Harwell said. "But you can't gild the lily. There's a challenge for each announcer, to relate the game within a game. What's the best way to make the call? To me the best way is the simplest way.

'Here's the pitch, there's the swing. Fly ball to left field. [Dan] Gladden's under it, he makes the catch.'

"Then, if there's any embroidering, you do it after the play's over," Harwell said.

This simple philosophy has led to a career few broadcasters will touch in terms of longevity or quality. This will be Harwell's last year; he leaves on his own terms. "There is a time when you want to go out while you are doing a fairly decent job," he said. "You don't want people to say the guy is hanging on."

Harwell leaves a legacy that should inspire others to do it the right way. He wants to go out quietly, without fanfare or the publicity surrounding his forced departure. Let his work speak for itself.

"I think I'll just ease back in the woodwork," Harwell said, "and that will be it."

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