Thoughts from One of Baseball's Broadcasting Greats
Mike May, SGMA’s Director of Communications, interviewed Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell when they met during a past National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Awards weekend in Salisbury, North Carolina. During Harwell’s career, he witnessed the ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ by Bobby Thomson, he saw many performances by a young Willie Mays, and he once covered the Masters golf tournament on a bicycle! Enjoy Ernie’s reflections of his life behind the microphone:
Mike May (MM): Many people associate you with the Detroit Tigers, but actually you’ve had an affiliation, as a broadcaster, with many other ball clubs. Will you please tell me about that?
Ernie Harwell (EH): Well, it started when I came back out of the Marines. I became the permanent announcer for the Atlanta Crackers, which was my old home town team. I thought that was just great. I worked there in ’46 and ’47. In 1948, (broadcaster) Red Barber became ill and Branch Rickey, his boss, contacted my boss, Earl Mann, and said he’s like to have Ernie come up and replace Red. Mr. Mann said, “I’ve got him under contract. But, if you really want him, I’ll make a trade. You send me your catcher, Cliff Apper, from Montreal and I’ll send you Ernie.” So I was traded for a minor league catcher to get to the big leagues. I stayed with the (Brooklyn) Dodgers for two years which was at the height of the ‘Boys of Summer.’ Jackie Robinson was the National League MVP in 1949, my second year there, and the Dodgers won the pennant. Then, I got a pretty good offer from the (New York) Giants, so I went over there and worked for four years with Russ Hodges. I was there when Willie Mays broke in and when Bobby Thomson his famous home run. I was on NBC-TV (during that one-game playoff vs. the Dodgers when Thomson hit the home run) and the famous call you hear was Russ Hodges on radio. But, nobody recorded TV, so only Mrs. Harwell and I know I was on TV that afternoon. Then, I went to Baltimore (Orioles) in 1954, when they came into the American League. That was interesting because I was starting in on the bottom floor of a new team and everyone was excited about having a big league franchise in Baltimore. They didn’t have much of a team, but the people there were great. Then, Detroit came and got me in 1960, after the ’59 season.
MM: Besides Bobby Thomson’s ‘Shot Heard the World,’ talk about some of other great moments that you have witnessed during your career.
EH: I was there when Willie Mays broke into baseball. That was sort of a kick for me because I didn’t feel that it took a genius to know that his guy was going to be a pretty good ball player. He’s the best player that I think I’ve ever seen. With the Tigers, I was at the microphone at NBC radio when Jim Northrup hit a triple in the seventh inning of the 1968 World Series and beat Bob Gibson (St. Louis Cardinals). The Tigers went on to win the world championship that year against the Cardinals. In 1984, the World Series was great because the Tigers beat San Diego. In that series, Kirk Gibson hit a couple of home runs in the final game. I also did the one-game playoff when Bucky Dent hit the home run for the Yankees that beat the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in 1978 against (pitcher) Mike Torrez. That was a big thrill. Al Kaline got his 3,000th hit in his hometown of Baltimore, which was pretty interesting. It was a double down the right-field line. Those were all big thrills for me.
MM: I understand that you’ve done some other broadcasting work in the world of sports besides baseball, one of which is golf on radio. What was that experience like?
EH: In 1941, I was sent down to Augusta and I did interviews and reports for WSB, which was really the largest station at that time that was doing the Masters. My first year with WSB doing the Masters, we went ‘on the air’ that first night from Augusta and were stationed out at the tower. The only place to do the show was the tower, which was about 200-300 yards from the clubhouse. Well, it was raining real hard and Bobby Jones came out and walked through the rain with me and walked up the tower, which wasn’t an easy feat, and stood there in the rain and did the interview. He wouldn’t talk about himself at all. He wanted to talk about the other golfers who were playing the Masters tournament. He was a terrific guy. Then, the next year, NBC got the rights and they sent Bill Stern down (to help cover the event). Bill was on one nine and I was on the other nine holes. It was very primitive. We had an engineer with a bicycle and a basket. He put an antenna in the basket and he would roll the bicycle up and down the hills. We would get the signal from Stern and we’d call and say, ‘I’m Ernie Harwell at the fourth hole and Lawson Little, Ralph Guldahl, and Bobby Jones are coming on.” Then, we’d describe it and send it back to him at the tower.
MM: How have you coped with a career which takes you away from home a great deal, especially during the summer?
EH: My wife was just great about understanding that I was going to be on the road. We had a saying on the road, “Never call home because there will be a crisis.” She took care of everything when I was away. She’s been so supportive that I owe a great deal to her. I never objected to the travel like most people do. But I had people I’d see on the road. I’d have lunch with them and enjoy seeing them. Somebody was paying me to stay at a nice hotel, eat at a good restaurant and go to a ball game and see the game.