09/15/2002 10:05 am ET
Harwell: Doing more with less
Listeners took to legend's relaxed style, consistency
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
DETROIT -- Ernie Harwell was behind the microphone for a national broadcast in 1978 when the Yankees and Red Sox had their famed one-game playoff for the American League East title. In that game, of course, Bucky Dent hit one of the most dramatic home runs in Yankees history to put New York into the playoffs.
The next time Harwell ran into Dent, he handed him a copy of the call along with an apology.
"I got a tape and I gave it to Bucky," Harwell recalled. "And I said to Bucky, 'I want to apologize. What I say on the tape is it's a fly ball to left and it's a home run. And he said, 'Well, that's what it was.' The ball really wasn't hit very well -- just a little short fly ball that barely got over the Monster."
That story summarizes Harwell's broadcasting greatness as well as any. He didn't become a Hall of Famer on longevity alone. The man who has always been overly generous with his time, wisdom and smiles became great behind the microphone in part for his thriftiness of words. He describes more of the game while using relatively little of his airtime, even if it doesn't put dramatic calls on history's highlight reel.
Ernie Harwell called Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" that lifted the Giants over the Dodgers in the 1951 National League playoff. He worked the television broadcast. His partner, Russ Hodges, called the radio side. Hodges described it by repeating, "The Giants win the pennant!" Harwell summed up the same home run in two words: "It's gone."
Hodges' call went down in history because a Dodgers fan listening at home taped it and sold it to Hodges. Harwell's call, well, went into obscurity; video recorders hadn't yet been invented.
One play, two different broadcasters, two different styles.
"I think once you start as an announcer, you have to decide what kind of approach you're going to have," Harwell said. "I decided very early that I was going to be a reporter, that I would not cheer for the team. I don't denigrate people who do it -- it's fine -- [but] I think you just have to fit whatever kind of personality you have, and I think my nature was to be more down the middle and that's the way I conducted the broadcasts."
Keep in mind that Harwell began his career as a print reporter -- as a teenager when he served as an Atlanta correspondent for The Sporting News. He remains a gifted writer who has a regular column in the Detroit Free Press that will continue after his retirement. When Cubs broadcaster Pat Hughes wondered how to handle Chicago's 0-14 start in 1997, he turned to Harwell for advice.
"He said, 'Don't make excuses for them. Just lay it out there and the audience will be able to determine,'" Hughes said.
Harwell also happens to be a songwriter who knows the value of tone of voice and its effect on the listener.
"He has a nice, relaxing manner about his reading," said Hughes. "He wears very well. You have to wear well because you're there every single day. You're there in the backyard. You're there at the picnics. You're there in the car. You have to wear well. You can't be grating."
"You can never give the score too many times. He never put himself above the game. For a lot of guys now, it's become a show business-type thing. Ernie always kept the focus on baseball."
-- Mario Impemba
Some broadcasters fear dead air; Harwell crafts it into his work. Instead of silence, the background sounds of the game will enhance the mental picture. Sometimes it's the faint sound of a hot dog vendor. Other times, it's the murmur of an anxious crowd. But it's never really dead air, even if it's quiet.
"He's always saying something that makes you think," said Tigers television voice Mario Impemba, who grew up listening to Ernie in Detroit and suburban Sterling Heights. "[The pause] almost requires you to do that sometimes."
When the pause is done, then comes the score, even if it seemed like you just heard it. Harwell tries to give the score at least once a minute, an incredible rate even for radio broadcasters.
It sounds like old-school broadcasting, but Fox did the equivalent on television when it added a score box in the corner of the screen. That was hailed as innovative for a network to realize that not everyone tunes into a game for more than a few minutes at a time.
Harwell knew that all along.
"You can never give the score too many times," said Impemba. "He never put himself above the game. For a lot of guys now, it's become a show business-type thing. Ernie always kept the focus on baseball."
Ernie's traditional catch phrases don't become stale because they don't intrude on the broadcast. Not every batter "stood there like a house by the side of the road" on a strikeout, nor is every double play "two for the price of one." He can go an entire game without giving out the hometown of someone who caught a foul ball.
It's not about the memorable phrases, but how they fit into that mental picture he provides. He's done that and given the score year after year, big games and small -- more small ones than big -- close games and routs. And the city identified.
"I think you have to take Ernie's career in context with the city," said Dan Ewald, a onetime reporter and later a Tigers public relations director. "The city is a blue-collar city primarily. That being said, that means there are a lot of core values. I know that sounds like a cliche. Detroit is not a New York, it's not a Chicago or a San Francisco. Normally, I think that means people look for consistency.
"Ernie has been consistent in that if anyone were to have studied his style, they'll discover that he has been the same over the years. He didn't try to go in one direction one year and a new direction the other year. And that consistency kind of created, whether intentional or not, the expectations of the fans.
"By not varying his style, he established a loyal following. Detroit was a staple for the game. [The Tigers] were very well-known for the quality of the organization. That's kind of what Ernie was. He called the game by what he saw."
For his words, not just his years, Harwell will always be a staple.
Jason Beck covers the Tigers for MLB.com and can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.