|Wednesday, July 31
Q & A with Ernie Harwell
By Bryon Evje
Special to ESPN.com
After 55 years in the major leagues, Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell will turn off his microphone for the last time at the end of this season.
He broke in for the Brooklyn Dodgers in midseason of 1948 after Red Barber's legendary ulcer acted up, and he's missed only two broadcasts since.
Harwell has been the voice of the Atlanta Crackers (1943; 1946-48), Dodgers (1948-49), New York Giants (1950-53), Baltimore Orioles (1954-59) and Detroit Tigers (1960-91; 1993-2002). Now, in his final season, he can look back on a career that many feel made him the Walter Cronkite of the radio booth.
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Harwell: Probably going to Brooklyn. Everybody in the minor leagues -- if you're a player, an announcer, whatever -- wants to be in the big leagues. At the time I was announcing for the Atlanta Crackers in the minor leagues. And I got a break because Red Barber got sick. I also got a big break with the Sporting News because I was just a kid at 16 years old, and that got me into the media in 1934. When you're in the media, you make a few contacts and I think that was helpful, too.
ESPN.com: What is the most memorable interview you've ever conducted?
Harwell: I think one I had the most fun with was Dick Allen in 1972. Dick Allen was a great player with the White Sox at the time. He was having a great year after switching over from the National League. He was the White Sox' No. 1 star. He was sort of a guy unto himself. He made his own rules. I had been trying to get him for my pregame show. He was always late, he never showed up on time. I waited around for two straight nights when [the Tigers] were in Chicago, but I couldn't keep waiting because time ran out on me. I didn't get to him during that series.
So, I tried again the next week when the Sox came to Detroit. This time I caught him in the clubhouse as he was dressing for the game. It was close to game time. All the other players were already in uniform. During the taping, he kept looking for a lost sweatshirt. "I had a sweatshirt, but I can't find it," he said. I just let the tape roll. He kept turning away from the mic to look for the sweatshirt in his locker. So I started the interview anyway. "Richie, which American League pitchers have been the roughest on you?" He says, "I don't think you can say any of 'em have been rough. But if you'd asked me who the best pitchers in the league are, I could name you several." "OK," I said. "Who are the best pitchers in the American League?" His answer floored me: "I don't think I could name any."
ESPN.com: What is the most memorable game you've ever broadcast?
Harwell: It would be the Bobby Thomson home run. It was on NBC TV. We didn't have replay in those days and television couldn't record, so nobody today knows I was actually there. Only Mrs. Harwell knows that I did that telecast.
ESPN.com: You've covered Jackie Robinson for the Dodgers, Willie Mays for the Giants and Al Kaline for the Tigers. Who do you consider the best player you've ever covered regularly?
Harwell: I'd say Willie Mays without a doubt. I think Willie could do everything. Those other guys were very talented. And I saw Brooks Robinson, too, make his debut in Baltimore. He was an excellent player.
ESPN.com: You've missed only two games in 55 years as a Major League Baseball announcer. How have you done it?
Harwell: God's given me good health. I think that's the main thing. I've more or less tried to take care of myself. I can't take much credit for that. I think every announcer that works in this business shows up whenever he can. I think if you checked the attendance records of all the announcers you'd find a lot better record than you would of anybody else in any other business because we love the game and have a passion for it. It's not really like work. And you have to be there because the day you miss it is the day they find someone better, and then they take the microphone away.
ESPN.com: I've read that your plans after retiring from the booth may include more work as an author and perhaps some television projects. Do you have anything in the works that you'd like to talk about?
Harwell: I'm going to do my column in the [Detroit] Free Press. That'll be once a week during the baseball season. I do about 36 pieces for Fox TV. And then I'm a spokesmen for Kroger Grocery Chain and for the Comerica Bank of Detroit. And I'm exploring the medical health field to see if I can get into that and help out in some way. Maybe I'll write a book or two. I'll keep pretty busy.
ESPN.com: During your Hall of Fame induction speech in 1981, you referred to two quotes. I'm going to read them to you, can you tell me what each one means to you?
"I'd rather be lucky than good."
Harwell: That's from Lefty Gomez of the Yankees. I think that's true; I've been a lot luckier than I've been good.
"I am a part of all that I have met."
Harwell: That's from the poem "Ulysses" by Lord Tennyson. And I think that's true with all of us. Everybody we meet has an influence on us and an impact -- good or bad. And I think that's why we have to be careful with the way we handle people because what we're doing is making an impact.
ESPN.com: I'm going to read two lines that you've used on your broadcasts. Can you tell me what inspired each one?
"He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by."
Harwell: That one is from a poem that I recited when I was a kid. A poem by Sam Foss called "A House by the Side of the Road." Originally, I think he took that line from Homer. It goes back that far. I recited that and it was probably in my subliminal when a guy took a third strike. "He's guilty of excessive window shopping."
Harwell: The excessive window shopping just sort of happened. I just happened to pick out a player one day who was caught looking and those words just came out. ESPN.com: As you make your final visits to various cities as a broadcaster over the next few weeks, what, if anything, will be different for you?
Harwell: I'll have a little feeling of nostalgia. I'll probably remember some of the things that happened in the various ballparks.
ESPN.com: What are the most significant areas in which the game has changed from the time you broke into the sports business back in 1934 to today?
Harwell: The biggest change on the field is the importance of the bullpen. The pitchers aren't expected to go more than five or six innings now, and there are no complete games anymore. Another change is the artificial turf, necessitated by the indoor stadiums. That takes away the aggressiveness of the outfielder. It puts a premium on the arm of an infielder but takes away his range. The only other change would be outside the diamond with all the problems we have with labor and so forth. That's one we have no control over.
ESPN.com: What's the one thing you'd tell an aspiring sports journalist today?
Harwell: The best thing anyone can do is be himself. Everyone was made different by God, and that's the way it should be. And if I were a writer or an announcer starting out, I don't think I'd imitate anybody. I'd try to be whatever I am. I don't mean that you can't listen or read other people, but I think you should go ahead and do it your way, and then a style will eventually develop.
Bryon Evje is a writer for ESportsNY. He can be reached at bevje at esportsny.com.