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Detroit legend soon signs off

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002


Nine thousand times, in 55 seasons, Ernie Harwell has signed off after broadcasting a ballgame. Thirty-three to go before the stylish, 84-year-old voice of the Detroit Tigers says goodbye.

Baseball's better times keep slipping away. In a sport played by many of history's most prodigious artists, even as the game grimaces because of wavering public interest and nauseating financial gymnastics, the grand Harwell soliloquy smoothly ebbs.

Vin Scully, Harry Kalas, Jon Miller, Skip Caray ... so few play-by-play announcerswith high authoritative grace and stout impact carry on. Through the decades they have informed and entertained with sporting summer audio. Sadly, only echoes remain from Red Barber, Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Bob Prince, Mel Allen, Russ Hodges and Jack Brickhouse.

Harwell's team is locked into last place, well removed from glory times of Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline and gifted bad boy Denny McLain, but August and September are bringing memorable curtain calls, rich with cheers earned by a skinny Georgian with a style that made him a Motown legend.

In 1968, as McLain won 31 games and the Tigers ruled the World Series, social unrest was festering. Detroit was a city primed to racially explode. Through it all, the calm, near-universally respected Harwell was a mass voice of reason that did wonders in a search for calm as well as change.

When ballparks are built, there are usually statues and other monuments, honoring notable jocks, managers and owners. But, at the front of Comerica Park, a fresh edifice in downtown Detroit, there is a gigantic likeness of Harwell. A spiritual man, the tough little Marine from World War II was baptized in the River Jordan.

A grand-slam radio slugger.

Oh, the old guy could be feisty in his youth. Harwell's autobiography, Tuned to Baseball, relates an uncharacteristic episode from the '50s when an argument between Harwell and mouthy Giants manager Leo Durocher led to the two wrestling on the floor of a train bringing the team home from Chicago.

Difficult to imagine.

As his au revoir tour continues, Harwell is celebrated at almost every stop, soaking concluding hurrahs with old-fashioned humility in Boston, New York, Baltimore and other old baseball towns where legendary baseball voices are deeply appreciated.

"It's a little embarrassing," said Harwell, with an ego far smaller than his legacy. "You can't duck under a table. It's warming, hearing so many kind things from media, players and a lot of famous people, but it is opinions from fans that are most gratifying."

Harwell grew up in Atlanta. As a kid, he delivered the Atlanta Georgian, throwing daily newspapers on a route that included the home of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind.

He is everybody's pal.

Tampa Bay has been blessed, having the Harwells as offseason residents of Dunedin. I keep learning Ernie stuff, like movie cameos in Paper Lion, the George Plimpton fantasy, as well as the Oscar-gobbling masterpiece, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Harwell, with Jack Nicholson.

After breaking into radio, Harwell was so solid on Atlanta Crackers minor-league games that a 1948 inquiry came from Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn general manager who had shattered tradition a season earlier by making Jackie Robinson the majors' first black player of the modern era.

Florida graduate Barber had been drydocked with ulcers and the Dodgers came after another grand southern voice. Earl Mann, crafty owner of the Crackers, demanded compensation. He got a catcher from the Brooklyn organization, the only player-for-announcer trade ever.

Harwell was on the Dodgers mike for Robinson's best season in 1949 when the second baseman led the National League with a .342 batting average and was named MVP.

Harwell soon jumped across town to the New York Giants, working their games in 1951 when Willie Mays broke in. In relative obscurity, Harwell described the homer "Heard 'Round the World," when Bobby Thomson broke Brooklyn's heart with bottom-of-the-ninth 1951 playoffs heroics.

You have heard a thousand replays of Hodges' description of Thomson's act, as a Ralph Branca pitch was flown into Polo Grounds seats, bringing repeated radio shouts of, "The Giants win the pennant!" from Hodges.

Harwell was working that game on a still-infant medium -- television -- and now says, "Only my Lulu remembers what I said." Lulu Harwell has been his loved and enduring sidekick, dating to Atlanta. This is their 62nd year of marriage.

Young thinkers, both of them.

"More than anything, after my final game in Toronto (Sept. 29)," Harwell said, "we'll do what Miz Lulu wants. I'll grow some flowers, do a little writing, but the radio show will be over. But the first choices belong to her. It's time."

Workers from Detroit auto assembly lines will cheer, then wipe tears, as Ernie's era ends. Retirees remember listening to Ernie in their teens. Michigan generations matured to his words. When an ill-advised Tigers owner planned to fire Harwell a dozen seasons ago, people rallied so impressively the idiocy was overcome and Harwell went on doing baseball.

Leaving now, on his terms.

-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail mmizell02@earthlink.net or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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