Baseball lost a true giant tonight with the passing of Ernie Harwell, legendary Tigers announcer, at the age of 92. Even though we’ve all known this day was coming ever since he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer last September, it’s still a jolt.
I interviewed Harwell a few times over the year, and he was always gracious, helpful and humble. It’s a cliche, especially when someone dies, to say he was beloved, but Ernie truly was beloved throughout baseball. There was an aura about him of grace and kindness that just resonated. The last time I interviewed him was for a 2006 “Art of Baseball” article I did on broadcasting. When the story ran, I received an e-mail from Harwell telling me he enjoyed the story. That’s something I’ll always treasure. He was 88 at the time, but well-versed in modern technology.
When I heard the news today, I popped up to the ESPN 710 broadcast booth to get reactions from Dave Niehaus and Rick Rizzs. Two years ago, Niehaus joined Harwell as a winner of the Ford C. Frick Award, bestowed during the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Rizzs actually replaced Harwell as Tigers announcer in 1992 when the Detroit organization made the monumentally misguided decision to force him out as lead announcer. Some Tigers fans gave Rizzs a tough time because, through no fault of his own, he had the thankless job of replacing a legend, but Harwell was always a staunch champion of Rizzs. In 1993, when Mike Ilitch bought the team from Tom Monaghan, Harwell rejoined the broadcast crew, and Rizzs worked a season in the booth as Harwell’s partner before returning to Seattle.
Here’s what Rizzs had to say about his former partner:
“It was a joy working with him for the one year, 1993. I had a chance to work with one of the greatest announcers of all time. Very few announcers are so beloved, like our guy here in Seattle, Vin Scully in Los Angeles, and a handful of others, like Ernie was in Detroit. It’s one of the saddest days in the history of the Tigers franchise.
“He was a great story teller, with that wonderful Southern drawl that he had, the way he could weave the stories in that wonderful voice he had, that the fans became so familiar with. Obviously, he was one of the greatest announcers of all time. The first time I sat in the booth, Opening Day of 1993, he started talking and I said, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s Ernie Harwell.’ I’d heard that voice many times as a visiting broadcaster for nine years in Seattle coming to Detroit.”
“He was just an amazing guy that had one of the most outstanding careers in the history of baseball for a broadcaster. Fans loved him, and he loved the fans, and it showed, every day he was on the air. It’s a very very sad day for everyone in Detroit, and Michigan, and really throughout the game of baseball because he had one of those careers that stand out.”
In the 2006 story I did on baseball broadcasters, I had a small segment on Rizzs’s ordeal replacing Harwell. Here’s what I wrote:
When Harwell was foolishly forced out in 1992 by new Tigers president Bo Schembechler — that noted baseball man — it caused an uproar in Detroit, creating an untenable atmosphere for whoever his unfortunate replacement happened to be.
It was none other than Niehaus’ partner, Rick Rizzs, who never stood a chance. On opening day that year, a plane flew over Tiger Stadium trailing a banner that said, “Bring back Ernie.” Fans held up Harwell masks to register their disgust with the move.
“That was one of the toughest jobs in broadcast history, I think, in the last 40 years,” Rizzs said.
Said Harwell, “People were a little bitter about my dismissal. It didn’t bother me as much as most people, because I knew that announcers don’t last forever. I recommended Rick. It was tough for him, no question. He’s a professional. I thought he did a real good job.”
That’s typical Harwell, showing both his humility and his loyalty.
And here’s the reaction of Dave Niehaus on Harwell’s death.
“I go back a long, long time with Ernie, because he was there for so long. I’ve been broadcasting so long, I remember even going into Detroit for so long with the Angels.
“One of the funniest thing I’ll remember with Ernie Harwell, he kept me in shoes for years. Every broadcaster who ever went through there was always a pre-game guest of his. He had a sponsor by the name of Sibley Shoes, and he’d give everybody a certificate, whether you went on or not, he’d give you a certificate for shoes. So you always go out and get shoes your first trip into Detroit.
“He was one of the nicest guys, and I’ve also found out he was the one of the biggest backers of me getting into the Hall of Fame. He was a fan of mine for many, many years. To get the Ford C. Frick award, he called me on that occasion, and he called me on several occasions to congratulate me.
“He’s one of those guys, he’s an icon. To this day, you can hear his voice before you go into Tiger Stadium; as I recall, his voice is out there telling you about the Tigers. I don’t know anyone who says anything bad about Ernie Harwell. He’s just one of the giants of our business, and it’s a sad day. Just a wonderful man.”
(Photo by Associated Press)