An Interview With Broadcasting Legend Ernie Harwell (Part 2)by Brian Borawski
January 18, 2007
I’ve never been a huge fan of audiobooks. If given the choice between sitting down and reading a book or listening to a book on CD, I’d normally opt for print. For once though, I’ve found an exception.
Hall of Fame radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell recently released an audio scrapbook. If you’ve ever wanted to sit down with someone who’s had conversations with the likes of Ty Cobb, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, then this little trip through time is a special treat. The audio scrapbook takes you through the early life of Ernie Harwell as well as his broadcasting days with the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Baltimore Orioles and finally, where his career spanned some 42 years, with the Detroit Tigers. This is a guy who’s been broadcasting baseball since the 1940s, and after having a conversation with him, you soon realize that he’s forgotten very little.
If you’re interested in purchasing the audio scrapbook or want to learn more, you can stop by Ernie Harwell’s website and check it out for yourself.
In addition, I had the privilege of talking with Ernie Harwell on a wide variety of topics including the audio scrapbook. This is part two of a two part interview and today you’ll read about what Ernie Harwell did (or didn't do) before a game to get ready for his broadcast, how tough it is to call games when the team on the field is bad and much more.
Brian Borawski: What is it about baseball, more then any other sport, that translates so well to radio?
Ernie Harwell: I think the lull in the action brings out the stories and the anecdotes, and the announcer can use his personality a lot more on a game that doesn’t have the strict heavy flow that basketball or hockey or football do. You know, you call the play and that’s about it. You can’t do a whole lot other than that as a play by play man, and I think that the fill-in is what makes the announcer, because anyone can say “Ball One, Strike One” or “Home run” or whatever happens, but most announcers who do all sports say that baseball is the toughest because of the fill-in material that is required.
I think too, most everybody in America, boy or girl, has played a little bit of baseball, whereas you can’t say that about football. Basketball is pretty close and hockey to some degree but a lot of people don’t play football because it’s too intense and it's too physical. But baseball, everybody has played, at least softball or baseball, and they understand the game a lot better than they understand football and basketball. Of course baseball goes beyond the play-by-play. It’s a little more cerebral than the other sports, plus there are stories connected to it. And I think the fact that you have a definite diagram in your head about a baseball diamond makes it easier. You know where left field is and you can imagine a guy hitting a ball to left field, whereas in basketball maybe you know “out beyond the circle” is not quite as definite.
Football is a little better because you have yard lines but the positions have changed so much in football. It used to be a quarterback and a fullback and a left half back and a right half back and a right end and a left end. Now they’ve got all kind of names, especially on defense, secondary and so forth. I think that’s probably another possibility. And then there are probably a lot of others. Baseball is a more leisurely game. People can listen day to day. I think that’s another factor. I did a lot of football and people never paid any attention, you know. I’d be working in New York, for instance I’d be doing Giants football or maybe Yale or Fordham in the winter time and people say “I know you broadcast the New York Giants games, but what do you do in the winter time?” I think that one of the reasons is that there is so much football on the air, so many different guys are doing different games, and it's only once a week; whereas in baseball its on everyday, and you know what time the game is going to start and you just look in the paper and see where they are and you tune in on the station. It’s a lot easier for the listener to listen to baseball from that standpoint than it is the other sports.
BB: You called some games in some pretty historic ballparks like Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds and since those times, the stadiums have been torn down. It looks like Tiger Stadium might be torn down this year. How does Tiger Stadium rate amongst the stadiums where you’ve watched baseball?
EH: I think right up at the top. At Tiger Stadium, I know even before I got into broadcasting I was such a fan. As a kid, I always read about what a beautiful ballpark Briggs Stadium was and how well kept that Mr. Briggs insisted that it be, and it was sort of the epitomy, the standard, that everybody held up for the other stadiums. And when I came here I really enjoyed the fact that we were so close. As I always say we could hear them cuss and see them sweat we were so close. And it was a lot to me like Ebbets Field and Griffith Stadium and the old ballparks where they put the spectators right down on top of the players.
Another thing about Tiger Stadium is that the enclosed feeling gave it a little more intimacy than a real open situation like you have at Comerica now. You got the sound and the thing was just sort of condensed and focused in that one point right at the diamond, which made it pretty impressive to work in. It’s one of my favorite places to work. Of course I’m prejudiced because I worked there so long and it was my team, but I think guys that came in here from other cities always enjoyed broadcasting at Tiger Stadium. And they always commented on the fact that you were so close and you to had to dodge those foul balls and stuff that came back at you.
BB: Let's just pick a random day, a summer day in 1980. You are going to be calling a game in the evening. Did you do any sort of preparation? Was there any routine you went through?
EH: Not after I got to the Major Leagues. My idea was to get out there about three hours before the game or two and a half hours and sort of sit around and sort things. I didn’t make a real effort most of the time to go to people and interview them. I might have one specific question for a guy, you know, “Why did you do something last night” or “Are you changing something?” But generally I didn’t bother the players at all. I’d just say “hello” and maybe if there was a conversation I’d listen in or somebody would say something and I’d use it on the air. I’d usually drop by to see the umpires all the time and the manager and, you know, just sit around and talk. I might just say “hello” but I wasn’t the kind of a guy that … I didn’t feel like I wanted to interrupt the players' routine and sit down and talk to them for 30 or 40 minutes. I felt like that was an intrusion.
I pretty much stayed away from that, but I wanted to be on the scene. I didn’t want to be on the freeway, you know, with a flat tire and miss the game. That was one factor that for some guys they get out there four or five hours before the game. I never could understand that. I think you lose it if you stay around that long, and it’s just too long. An experienced announcer could come in the last 10 minutes before you went on the air and still do the game pretty much as well as you could the other way, but I just wanted to be prepared. I didn’t go over stats like a lot of guys do or make notes off the stats because I tried to eschew as many statistics as I could.
I used only the basic stuff that I felt like somebody needed, maybe a batting average or if it was significant, a home run total or something. But there is so much filler that they give you now that it’s ridiculous. Like you might hear a guy that’s hit safely in 12 out of the last 18 games, which is meaningless to me. If he’s hit safely in 18 straight games or if he hasn’t in 18 straight games, that’s another matter. A lot of it is just crutch stuff that people use.
BB: 2002 was your last season with the Tigers and in a lot of ways, I don’t know if it was luck, but 2003 must have been a pretty rough year because the Tigers lost so many games. How hard is it to get up and do the announcing for a team that’s playing so bad? Is there any different approach? Do you have to do anything different?
EH: Well there’s a different approach in a way. I think when your team’s going well, everybody’s happy and if you make a mistake nobody really bothers about it. It’s the same old thing when you’re losing. Everything falls into place and everybody’s happy, I mean when you are winning. When you are losing, it’s just the opposite. The same thing with the team. If the team is losing everybody jumps on something; they’re out playing golf when they should have been practicing or they had too much of a layoff or they work too hard or they don’t relax. There are all kind of excuses, but the same thing goes with an announcer.
I always had the feeling that you were a lot happier when your team was going good and everybody’s happy and whatever you do is great. When you are losing you have to be a little more suspect I think, a little more careful about things. What I did and my philosophy about a losing team was, I went to the game with the idea that I’m going to do the very best I can. I’m going to be just like an outfielder; when the ball is hit I’m going to try to catch it or when I’m pitching I’m going to try to strike out a guy. I’m just going to use this as sort of a game within a game and I’m going to say, "Instead of playing golf today I’m going to try to do the best broadcast I can regardless of the score."
I also didn’t believe in giving the team alibis. I didn’t believe in downgrading the team, but I did think that you have to be honest about how they’re playing a bad game. I mean without beating a dead horse you can say the shortstop, Alan Trammell, made five errors today and that’s the most errors he’s ever made or something like that without saying, “Why can’t he catch a ball, he’s paid to do that and so forth.” I never wanted to denigrate the players because they are the very best in their business no matter whether they play good or bad.
So that was pretty much the philosophy I had. Just lay the game out there and do the best you can and try to report anything that is going to be in the paper or anything that you think affects the game that’s not even in the box score. Like if a guy misses a cut-off throw or something like that. That’s not going to be in the play-by-play but it’s important to the game. But I wanted to stay away from the extraneous stuff like reporting that a guy was out last night and he came in at 3:00 in the morning. That’s not my business.
BB: It must have been a pretty tough year for Dan Dickerson and Jim Price. Did you give them any advice that year?
EH: I think Dan sort of adopted the philosophy I have. We talked about that, about trying to just do the game regardless of where you are in the standings, because there are a lot of people listening in and you’d be surprised how much interest there is in a team even when they have a bad team.
My dad is an example of that. He was an invalid in Atlanta and each day really revolved around the broadcast of the Atlanta Crackers game. And he’d tune in and because he was a shut-in he’d look forward to the game whether they were in last place or whatever. And there are a lot of people like that and you owe your best to them.
BB: And now just three years later, the Tigers are in the World Series. How did that turn around, that three year turn around from 2003 to 2006, how does that rate? Is that one of the best ever? I know they fell short in the World Series but it’s hard to be disappointed in how the Tigers played in 2006.
EH: That turnaround is one of the greatest in baseball history. I know the Braves and Minnesota went from last to first in the 1991 World Series.
The surprise about the Tigers was that they had been so far down for so long. They weren’t on the cusp of having a decent year like they were in ’67 right before ’68 and right before ’84. They just came from not having a good team since the early '90s to getting into the World Series, so I think that made it even bigger and sweeter than other years for everybody.
BB: Are there any other things that are baseball related that you are doing these days?
EH: Usually when the season starts I write a column for the Free Press every week. And then I do about 26 or 27 vignettes for Fox Sports Detroit that they use on the Tiger Weekly, and other than that I’m with Blue Cross/Blue Shield out speaking, and of course, my speeches are usually more about baseball than anything else. And then I do different things like that or do a commercial or something. But I keep pretty busy.
BB: And to wrap things up, do you have any words of wisdom for any prospective radio announcers out there?
EH: I think the main thing is you have to be yourself, because in baseball especially, you’re on so much and if you try to fake it, it’s a lot harder to do that. I always felt like a bad original is better than a good copy. And you know, you can pick up things from guys listening and so forth, but when you begin to broadcast you just have to be yourself and I think a style will sooner or later evolve without working to hard at it.
For more information on Ernie Harwell's audio scrapbook, be sure to check out the website set up for the audiobook for more information.
Brian Borawski is a member of SABR's Business of Baseball Committee and writes about the Detroit Tigers at his own website, TigerBlog. He welcomes comments, questions and suggestions via e-mail.