Ernie Harwell’s passing on Tuesday at the age of 92 was a big story in places other than Detroit, where he spent almost 40 years broadcasting the games of the Detroit Tigers.
The reaction, which has included tributes on ESPN and in newspapers across the country, is just another example of how baseball lends itself to a very personal relationship between broadcaster and fan. Moreso than any other sport – particularly any other professional sport – listeners identify with the guy behind the microphone. Even people who aren’t fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, know and probably admire, the broadcasting skills of a Vin Scully.
Harwell, born in Washington, Ga., in 1918, was one of several mellifluous-voiced Southerners who ventured North to become famous as baseball broadcasters in the 1940s. Others in that group included Mississippian Red Barber (Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees) and Alabama-born Mel Allen (Yankees).
Harwell, who began his sports media career as a newspaper reporter and copy editor, called games for the Dodgers, New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles before becoming the voice of the Tigers in 1960. He continued in that role before a brief forced retirement in 1991. Popular demand literally brought him back in 1993 and he stayed with the Tigers until he stepped down in 2002, with occasional guest appearances after that on Fox and ESPN baseball broadcasts.
He was scheduled to have received the Vin Scully Lifetime Achievement in Sports Broadcasting Award in New York City yesterday. Former Tigers’ star Al Kaline accepted the award for him. The award seems fitting as Scully is now the last living member of that “Greatest Generation” of radio/TV baseball broadcasters.
Will any of today’s MLB announcers have a legacy like that of Harwell, Allen, Barber, Pittsburgh’s Bob Prince, St. Louis’ Jack Buck or Philadelphia’s Harry Kalas, who died about a year ago? (I would also include Harry Caray based on his work with the Cardinals and the Chicago White Sox, before the final years with the Cubs which are unfortunately immortalized in Saturday Night Live parody by Will Ferrell. He actually was a masterful announcer in those earlier years.)
In this day and time where the mass audience is disappearing and fragmentation is the rule, it remains to be seen if any individual can develop that same kind of fan base. But in baseball, when you have 162 opportunities to be invited into someone’s home, as the old saying used to go, maybe it’s still possible.