09/14/2002 6:16 pm ET
Harwell a favorite of players
Broadcaster went out of way to welcome new guys
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
DETROIT -- Some of Ernie Harwell's greatest admirers don't hear him call a single pitch most nights.
Baseball players don't exactly find many chances to listen to the game once they reach the big leagues. They either hear about announcers' skills through word of mouth or receive tapes of their accomplishments, in either case not enough to gain the appreciation that many fans have.
So aside from listening to games as a kid or a minor leaguer, the most contact players have with radio announcers comes through daily travels -- pre- and postgame interviews, team travels and everyday encounters during the season. In that aspect, players appreciate the quality of Ernie Harwell as a person as much as fans appreciate the quality of Ernie Harwell as a broadcaster.
Ernie Harwell still has two weeks to go in his 42nd and final season broadcasting Tigers games, but the team will have its retirement party for him Sunday. Expect a bunch of gifts from the Tigers, a CD-ROM retrospective on Harwell's career given away to fans and more than a few tears for everyone involved.
"I usually am fairly stoic about things," Harwell said. "This is such a big thing for me that it might cause a little bit more of a breakdown than it normally would."
The stories about respect for Ernie are numerous, and many of those tales can be found in his recent book, "My 60 Years in Baseball." When the Tigers' team plane encountered turbulence one day, Dan Petry ran out of his seat and up the aisle to take an open seat next to Harwell. "If Ernie Harwell is going to somewhere now," Petry told longtime columnist Joe Falls, "I want to go with him."
For someone who has gone as many places, met as many people as Harwell, he is as down-to-earth as the blue-collar Detroiters who listen faithfully to his broadcasters on the night shift. So many visitors come to Tigertown or the ballpark with mere hopes of meeting Ernie, yet it is Ernie who often introduces himself to them. When Double-A Erie Seawolves broadcaster Rob Bressler visited the Tigers in Cleveland, for instance, it was Harwell who shook his hand and invited him into the booth for the game.
The same scene plays out each spring with Tiger rookies. Some grew up knowing his voice; others know of him through stories told by other players around the league.
"By him doing that, he broke the ice with a lot of people," said Dan Ewald, who covered the Tigers for five seasons before joining the club as PR director for more than a decade. "Some people who are well-known, they won't go up to people. They'd expect you to come to them. Ernie would never do that. That (rookie) player is probably scared being up for the first time. For an accomplished veteran broadcaster to go up and introduce himself to that player, that has to be a great relief and a thrill."
When Ichiro took the Majors by storm last season, Harwell was the first person he wanted to meet when he visited Comerica Park. He came to know of Harwell through the kindness shown to freelance writer Brad Lefton, who wrote about the final month of Tiger Stadium in 1999 for a Japanese sports magazine and ended up being invited by Ernie to the broadcast booth.
But then, many have learned never to doubt how far Ernie's connections reach. "I guess longevity pays dividends," joked Ewald. "He knows a tremendous amount of people. I was surprised even though I was going around to all the different cities. I knew people in every city we went to, but he had so many different people in so many different cities."
Part of these welcoming instincts come from Ernie's outgoing nature and honesty. After all, people welcome him into their homes, cars and offices every game day.
"That's his personality," said Tigers pitcher Steve Sparks. "He makes everybody feel important. Even when I was a visiting player, he'd come by and ask how I was feeling, how the family was doing."
That generosity also comes from Ernie's religious spirit, which has played a significant role in his life for more than 40 years. He doesn't force his religion upon people, but his good will toward his fellow man is obvious.
"When (players) first get to know him as a person, he commands that respect," said Sparks. "When they figure out where he gets that strength from, that piques their interest."
Harwell was involved when Detroit sportswriter Watson Spoelstra helped create Baseball Chapel to provide Sunday services for players at ballparks. He spoke at services for years and continues to attend as a listener and an occasional reader.
Now, imagine the voice of the Tigers reading Bible passages aloud. "When he reads, it sounds like Moses," Sparks said with a laugh. "It's awe-inspiring."
Finally, Ernie's generosity extends from a man whose wealth of experience and honesty to share it is a treasure for others around the league. The roster of broadcasters who have sought and received Harwell's advice is lengthy -- ESPN's Jon Miller, Cubs voice Pat Hughes, longtime TV voice Dick Enberg, even Harwell's onetime successor Rick Rizzs. Beyond that, Harwell is often the players' connection to an era that neither they nor their parents can know.
This is a broadcaster who worked with Detroit's great modern-era player, Al Kaline, and interviewed its greatest all-time player, Ty Cobb. Even back then, Harwell was on top of his game because of his nature. Cobb kept to himself, but he always made time for that young Atlanta sports show host who one day went out of his way to knock on Cobb's door.
That might have been first athlete won over by Harwell's sincerity. But not the last.
Jason Beck covers the Tigers for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.