After 46 years in booth, Harwell calls good game First voice of O's bidding farewell

September 26, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

While working at a radio station in Southern California a few years ago, Fred Manfra finally got to meet Ernie Harwell, the man who talked him to sleep as a child growing up in Baltimore.

"I was going to grade school in the late '50s and my parents would tell me that I had to go to bed at 8:30," said Manfra, now part of the Orioles' radio announcing team. "So I'd sneak the transistor under the covers in bed and listen to Orioles baseball and I would fall asleep with the radio on."

Harwell, who will retire next week after 46 years of baseball announcing, was the voice of the Orioles for six years after the franchise arrived here from St. Louis in 1954, and served as the introductory sound of big-league baseball for thousands of Baltimore kids such as Manfra.

"The first time I met Ernie, I walked up to him and said, 'Mr. Harwell, you put me to sleep many a night when I was a kid,' " said Manfra. "Ernie looked at me quizzically, but I told him I meant that as a compliment."

Harwell, inducted into the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, remembers Baltimore as fondly as those first Orioles fans remember him.

"That was a big kick for me because here was a new team coming in for the first time since 1901," he said. "The Browns didn't have much of a team, but the fans had a lot of enthusiasm. And it was fun to be on the ground floor as they began to build that team.

"People were good fans here and they really appreciated the game. The people here were great to me. It was a terrific place to live and I love it."

For all but one of the past 33 years, Harwell has been the radio announcer for the Detroit Tigers, and during the course of his career, which spans 10 presidents and seven baseball commissioners, his love of baseball has not waned, though the circumstances around the game have changed.

"I enjoy it as much. There are more distractions. There's a lot of emphasis on the money and contracts and things like that. . . .

"And the emergence of television has made people get away from just covering the result of the game and they have to dig a little bit more. People have an inordinate amount of interest in money, especially when it's big money and people want to satisfy their curiosity."

In a selected number of cities, one man comes to be recognized as the voice of baseball for a generation or more. In Los Angeles, Vin Scully is that man. Fans in St. Louis have grown up with Jack Buck, and Chuck Thompson has introduced baseball to millions in Baltimore.

All three are enshrined at Cooperstown, just as Harwell, who has also called games for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, is for his work in Detroit.

"That's due to the continuity," Harwell said. "You're on every day. . . . People really get to feel that the announcer is the conduit between the team and the public. They are more familiar with him than anybody else that's connected with the game."

Harwell says the major change among his listeners is that they know more about the game, thanks mostly to television.

"Overall, it's helped educate the fan and change the makeup of the audience, especially on the radio broadcasts, because the audience is more sophisticated and a lot more knowledgeable than they used to be. They have so many sources. . . . There's such a flood of information that people know a lot more when they turn the radio on than when I first started 40 years ago."

Harwell's run in Detroit was interrupted unceremoniously last season, when Tigers management decided not to return him, in favor of two younger announcers, Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun.

The fallout was swift and predictable.

"Ernie was baseball in Detroit," said Manfra, who worked there for a time. "A baseball season just would not sound as it should, like last year, without him. You would go to cookouts there during the summer and his presence was there through the radio."

Said Rathbun: "Both of us [he and Rizzs] were trying to fulfill lifelong goals and we walked right into a hornet's nest. We knew that we hadn't had anything to do with it, but it was very tough."

Harwell, who did CBS Radio network games last year, returned to the booth this year for a farewell tour that ends with next Sunday's game with the New York Yankees.

And Harwell, who is 76, says that he'll leave with a lot of pleasant memories and few regrets, though he'll miss the contact with players and friends in the media.

"That's the most fun to me, that and trying to concentrate on doing the game and reacting as an announcer to each play just like the players do," said Harwell.

"I didn't think I'd last this long, 46 years in the big leagues. I don't think anybody has any idea of what's going to happen. You just hope you can work for a year or two and get it going."

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