© 2009 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
09/04/09 8:30 PM ET
HOF broadcaster Harwell fighting cancer
Former voice of Tigers has incurable tumor in bile duct
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
DETROIT -- Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell, the voice of the Tigers for more than four decades and a Detroit icon well beyond his retirement from broadcasting in 2002, has been diagnosed with cancer. Harwell has an incurable tumor around his bile duct. He revealed the diagnosis in Friday's edition of the Detroit Free Press, for whom he has worked as a columnist for several years, and where he explained his outlook. It's an outlook that remains relatively positive, true to the nature he's displayed through 91 years. He called it a "new adventure" when he discussed his situation with the Free Press, some of the same words he used to describe his retirement when he ended his 42-year broadcasting career in 2002. "It's not goodbye," Harwell said on Friday in a telephone interview. "We don't know how long we'll last here. It could last a year or two, though it probably won't. You look forward to each day, and you live it." Harwell had never had any major health issues, but he said he became concerned when he started experiencing pains in mid-July. He was hospitalized for four days last month with a bile duct obstruction, but was released after doctors were able to relieve the problem. He returned to his home in suburban Detroit while doctors ran tests and was under orders to rest, though he remained pretty active with his work as he awaited news on what was causing the trouble. The tests came back on Monday, revealing "pretty conclusive" evidence, Harwell's representative S. Gary Spicer said, that the tumor had taken an aggressive form. He spent the past few days deciding how to release the news to his many fans and friends across the country. Harwell's spirit, however, has remained surprisingly strong, which he credits to his faith. "I think that when I heard the news -- that I had this cancer -- that I had a feeling of security and serenity," Harwell told the Free Press, "but I had a feeling of acceptance because of my belief in Jesus and the Lord." Harwell has elected not to undergo any surgery, nor chemotherapy or any radiation treatment. He will remain at home and spend time with family and friends. "The reasons were that the doctors all told me in this situation, it's very, very difficult to battle," Harwell said. "It's a tough little organ in the middle of your stomach. And the rate of success is almost nil. Surgery, too, would be a risky option at his age. "I felt, and the family agreed, that we should follow the advice of the doctors," Harwell said. It's not that Harwell didn't want to fight, but with the chances of success so slim and surgery so risky, he also didn't want to spend his remaining days in a hospital bed. That said, his faith still holds out hope for a miracle. Harwell's life and his ability to remain incredibly active into his 90s have become an example for people across the state through his role as a spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. He has long credited his daily workouts, including walking and jumping rope, for helping him work for so long on Tigers' radio broadcasts and defy the conventional limitations of his age well after he left the baseball airwaves. Until this year, Spicer said, "aside from taking a thyroid pill, I haven't been aware of any medical needs. He's been in fantastic medical condition, and his way of life has been conducive to good health." Now that Harwell has received a worst-case prognosis, he has been forced to cut back on a lot of those activities. He will close out his spokesperson engagements shortly and will write three more columns in the Free Press this month. Still, he said on Friday that he isn't in pain. He's working on a book compilation of his recent columns, and Spicer said Harwell has been actively adding to his collection of baseball artifacts and memorabilia, which is currently housed in the Detroit Public Library. "I feel pretty good," Harwell said. "I'm able to eat now pretty good. I've lost some weight." Spicer said Harwell has already received hundreds of calls and requests from well-wishers. He said that fans who wish to send Harwell a message can reach the broadcaster through his office, which will then forward the messages. Harwell spent 55 seasons broadcasting in the Major Leagues, the last 42 of them in Detroit. He became known as the radio voice of the Tigers through generations of fans, from the 1968 team that won the World Series to the '84 club that did the same. He was honored with the Ford C. Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, and was honored by the Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1989. All the while, his conversational style and Southern accent from his days as the voice of the Minor League Atlanta Crackers on radio during World War II became part of the sound of Michigan summers. Through Harwell, fans came to know Tiger Stadium by its location on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, and recognized home runs as "looong gone!" For several years, even after Harwell's retirement, the scoreboard at Comerica Park would celebrate a called third strike with Harwell's phrase that the batter "stood there like a house by the side of the road." Harwell broke into the big leagues in 1948 as part of a trade between the Crackers and Brooklyn Dodgers, who had to send Minor League catcher Cliff Dapper to Atlanta to get the Crackers to let Harwell out of his broadcasting contract with them. Harwell had the national play-by-play call when Bobby Thomson hit "The Shot Heard Round the World" in 1951 for the Giants to win their National League playoff against the Dodgers. Harwell signed on to do radio play-by-play for the Tigers in 1960 and, with the exception of one year, called Tigers games through 2002. Though he never played a game in a Detroit uniform, his ability to bring the game to fans has made him one of the most beloved sports figures in Detroit. "I'd like to thank them for their loyalty and support over the years, certainly, and their affection, which I don't know if I deserved or not, but I accept it," Harwell told the Free Press. The Tigers released the following statement Friday afternoon: On behalf of the entire Detroit Tigers organization and Detroit Tigers fans everywhere, we will keep Ernie, his wife, Lulu, and the Harwell family in our thoughts and prayers as he faces a courageous battle against a serious illness. Ernie continues to be a big part of Tigers history, and we look forward to him sharing in the 25th anniversary celebration of the 1984 World Series championship team later this month. Hopefully they can take some comfort through Harwell's upbeat nature. His words, again, are going out to Tigers fans. "I really feel good. I've got a great attitude. I just look forward to a new adventure," Harwell told the Free Press. "God gives us so many adventures, and I've had some great ones. It's been a terrific life. Of course, the best thing that ever happened to me was my wife, Lulu. I'm just happy that we were able to reach our 68th wedding anniversary."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.