For Harwell, the last call is a fond one

Tigers announcer, 84, is bringing his career to close after 60 years

August 15, 2002|By Mike Penner | Mike Penner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Late Orioles game: Late night's game between the Orioles and Twins in Minneapolis, which went into extra innings, ended too late to be included in this edition. A complete report can be found in later editions or on the Internet at http://www.sunspot.net.

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Ernie Harwell did not know Chick Hearn. Never met him, never heard him. And, being Ernie Harwell, he almost apologizes for that shortcoming.

"Of course I knew of his great reputation and the hold that he had on this region here," Harwell said Monday evening at Edison Field before pulling on the headset for the Detroit Tigers' latest defeat against the Anaheim Angels. "I never was fortunate enough to hear him."

Harwell, however, can relate to the void that has low-bridged Southern Californians since Hearn's passing last week. He understands how a media capital supposedly as savvy and cynical as Los Angeles can break down, let its guard down, and devote head-of-state-type coverage to the death of a local basketball announcer.

"I think when a guy comes into a region like Chick did, and they're here for [a number of] years, people get used to them," Harwell said. "People get used to the way you call a game, and you become like an old slipper that they put on. People feel comfortable with them.

"And then they take you to the mountains and the beaches and picnics. Especially with radio, you become the background of their lives. It's almost like a sports Muzak. You're in the background, you know, and you're there and they're not listening closely a lot of times, and then when you say something, maybe they pay attention for a while and then drift away. You become a part of the family. And you're a conduit between the team and the public.

"The players change - especially now - and come and go, but the announcer stays around. He becomes sort of an anchor that they can hold onto. They really embrace the guy. He becomes a part of their lives."

Harwell speaks from experience, having witnessed his own memorial service of sorts nearly a dozen years ago. Hall of Fame broadcaster and best friend to millions of Tigers fans he never met, Harwell was fired by Tigers management after the 1990 season, told to take a farewell tour in 1991 and call it a career after that.

Then 72, after 31 years with the Tigers, he was told he was too old, his easy-listening style too outmoded for the fast-track, ironic, sensory-overloaded 1990s.

It became the biggest baseball public relations blunder to have absolutely nothing to do with Bud Selig.

Tigers fans revolted, with major Michigan media outlets leading the charge. After a season's worth of outrage, coupled with a change in team ownership, Harwell returned to the Tigers' broadcast booth in 1993, more or less on demand.

Harwell's hold on that region surprised even him.

"I didn't think we'd ever have the uproar that they had," he said. "I thought, you know, somebody would call the ballpark in a couple of weeks and say, 'Hey, what happened to that guy who used to do the games?' It was gratifying to me to see people [cared] ...

"I never thought I'd come back. Once I got fired, that was it. ... Lucky for me, Mike Ilitch bought the team from Tom Monaghan and the first thing he told me, he said, 'I want you to come back and you can stay as long as you want to.' I really appreciated the confidence he had in me. That's probably the most important thing to have happened, certainly in the latter part of my career."

Now 84, Harwell is currently in the midst of Farewell Tour 2, which he laughingly calls "a little more embarrassing" than the first. And, no doubt, happier. This time, Harwell is going out on his own terms. Given the chance to stay as long as he wanted, Harwell decided this spring he'd stay until the final out of the Tigers' 2002 season, bringing a 60-year broadcasting career to a close.

"I sort of felt I could work another four or five years," he said. "But, you know that old gag: 'I heard your last show - and it should have been.' I didn't want anybody to say that. I wanted to quit while I was still doing it pretty well.

"I didn't mind the travel like a lot of guys do. My health's good. All these things pointed to working some more. But I think you've just got to make up your mind and arbitrarily say, 'This is it.' So I just happened to pick this year, rather than wander down the line another year or two."

It hasn't been a good year for the sports broadcasting industry. Hearn and Jack Buck passed away. Harwell is nearing retirement. Vin Scully continues to hold the fort at Chavez Ravine, but an entire era, the golden generation of sports announcers reared on radio before television changed the craft forever, is fading away before our ears.

In their wake: a new generation of announcers who, with few exceptions, sound virtually indistinguishable from each other.

"When I started, everybody was sort of flying by the seat of their pants," Harwell said. "We didn't have too many models. Now, Vinnie's so good, everybody imitates him. And you've got a lot of guys that sound alike. And they have a lot more trained voices than we had.

"When I came along, there were a lot of guys who were coming out of different occupations like lawyers and newspaper guys. Guys like that became announcers. They're getting back to that with the analysts, but the play-by-play guys now are mostly university-trained and they have their radio station school and they listen to guys all the time.

"And I think there is probably a sound-alike syndrome that we have now that probably didn't happen when Bob Prince and Mel Allen and [Red] Barber and those guys were working."

Mike Penner is a writer for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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