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Ernie Harwell is a National Treasure

I managed to catch Studio 42 with Bob Costas tonight, as Ernie Harwell was interviewed.  Harwell, the long time announcer for the Detroit Tigers, has incurable cancer, and doctors have given him mere months to live.  His interview with Costas is a must see, and was very compelling and engaging hour.

Hearing anyone who has been around baseball for more than six decades is always a treat, but this interview with Harwell was especially rewarding.  The man once got Babe Ruth's autograph, played cards with Jackie Robinson, and interviewed fellow Georgian "Tyrus Raymond Cobb," as Harwell referred to him.  The 91-year old Harwell even recited from memory his "This is Baseball," from his Hall of Fame induction speech from over 28 years ago.

In 1948, Harwell was broadcasting games for the minor league Atlanta Crackers.  Meanwhile, legendary Dodger announcer Red Barber was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer and the club needed another announcer to fill in.  Branch Rickey wanted to hire Harwell, but he was under contract with the Crackers, so in exchange for Harwell the Dodgers sent minor league catcher Cliff Dapper to the Crackers, making Harwell the first and only broadcaster ever to be traded for a player.  It should be noted that Dapper has the highest batting average (.471) among Dodgers with 12 or more career plate appearances.  Harwell announced games for the Dodgers through the 1949 season.

Among the many highlights of the interview:

  • Harwell recalled a story of an exhibition series between the Dodgers and the Atlanta Crackers, before which the Ku Klux Klan threatened to shoot Jackie Robinson if he took the field.  It was said that Gene Hermanski quipped that all the Dodger players wear number 42, so the gunmen wouldn't know whom to shoot.
  • One of Harwell's famous called third strike calls: "He's out for excessive window shopping.  He looked at one too many."
  • Harwell recalling the old time broadcasting tradition of recreations, which meant announcers weren't at the game, but would call the game based on telegraph reports, embellishing and sometimes making up facts to fill the time.
  • There were an astonishing five radio calls of Bobby Thomson's home run, "The Shot Heard 'Round The World," but Harwell was the lone television announcer.  Sadly, there are no tapes of that 1951 NBC broadcast.
  • Here is a clip from the interview, of Harwell remembering Jackie Robinson
  • Here is a clip of Harwell reciting from memory his HOF speech

As a Dodger fan, I have been spoiled by having Vin Scully announce games for my favorite team for my entire life.  I am understandably biased when I state that Scully is the greatest baseball announcer of all time.  However, Harwell belongs in the discussion as well.  Before the advent of the MLB Extra Innings package, I never had much opportunity to hear Harwell, but my introduction to him came as he called some playoff games for ESPN Radio roughly a decade ago.  His conversational style, enthusiasm, and friendly nature really stood out to me at the time, and I made it a point to listen to Harwell as often as possible through the years. 

I'm glad I had the opportunity to listen to Harwell broadcast games, and I'm glad I had the chance to watch this interview.  Harwell was a great announcer, and he will be missed.