Tigers Broadcaster Harwell, 82,
Eagerly Takes Life Play-by-Play

by Jerry Green, The Detroit News

The night's game was more than 3 ½ hours in the future, and Ernie Harwell was at Comerica Park, eager as a rookie.

Most of the Tigers had not arrived. A few Yankees, curious about the new ballpark, had straggled into their clubhouse. Outside, the concession workers and other employees were waiting to be checked in.

But down in the bowels of Comerica, Harwell was starting the pregame routine for most of his seasons in Detroit since 1960.

"I don't really do much studying," Harwell said about his prebroadcast activities. "I've seen these guys. I've been around them. My job is mostly reacting to what happens on the field."

It was just another day in the life of Ernie Harwell, now 82, full of enthusiasm, stepping lively.

He had awakened early as usual at 6:30 a.m. and exercised. "I jump rope 300 times without stopping." he said. "If I stop, I just keep going."

He had eaten breakfast, checked the Internet for data on the Yankees and talked to Gary Spicer, his attorney, on the telephone.

Then he had lunch at his home, spent time with his wife, Lulu, and taken a brief nap. At 3 p.m., he left for the ballpark, dressed in a checked sweater, slacks and a cap from The Desert Inn.

His first stop was the WJR Radio booth. Molly Light, from the Tigers' front office, greeted him with the daily batch of fan mail. He gave her his expense account. Howard Stitzel, the engineer with roots back to the 1950s when Van Patrick broadcast the Tigers, already was fiddling with knobs.

"Of course I've got to report to Stitz," Harwell said. "He usually has doughnuts for everybody. But..."

"They're gone," said Dan Dickerson, Harwell's play-by-play partner, a true rookie on Tigers broadcasts.

A few minutes after 4 p.m., Harwell headed for the elevator behind the press box and greeted operator Sara Simpson.

"Hello, Miss Sara," he said. "We're going to the bottom. To the Yankees' clubhouse. I have trouble finding my way around here."

Scott Brosius and Paul O'Neill were in the Yankees' clubhouse, seated at a table. "Welcome to Detroit," said Harwell, shaking hands.

He continued through the Comerica catacombs and emerged on the field.

"Hello Mr. Zimmer," said Harwell to a man with a craggy face seated in uniform in the Yankees' dugout. Don Zimmer reached out and gave Harwell a robust handshake.

Zimmer, 69, a Brooklyn infielder five decades ago, longtime manager, coach, baseball rover, and Harwell, who started in radio 61 years ago, are providers of the game's nostalgia.

"Can't see anything from the dugout," Zimmer said.

"I know you can't," said Harwell, pointing to the fence at the front of the cavernous dugout.

"Everybody gets up here."

Manager Joe Torre entered the Yankees' dugout at 5:20, his face serious, pursued by the expansive New York media corps. Harwell worked through the crowd.

"I was talking about you the other day," Torre said, "about growing up in New York. I listened to the Giants. I'll never forget you."

"All right, don't forget me," said Harwell, who called games for the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles.

Back in the Yankees' clubhouse, Derek Jeter, his middle wrapped in bandages, emerged from the trainer's room.

"I want to ask you one question," Harwell said to Jeter, who grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich. Jeter stopped.

"I've got to go to Kalamazoo to talk to the Boys and Girls Club," Harwell said. Jeter told Harwell what he wanted to know.

Roger Clemens was putting on his uniform.

"Hi, Rocket," Harwell said.

"Hello Ernie," said Clemens, who usually glowers toward everyone before he pitches.

Harwell returned to the elevator to go back to the press box.

He sat there talking baseball and about how he goes about his job.

"I might have a few anecdotes on a card that I take with me," he said, "and maybe I'll remember something that happens...The other day somebody asked about Christy Mathewson or (Rogers) Hornsby and I just answer them. Tell a few stories...

"I have this card file system that I use. I keep it up to date, the same thing that you get in the press guide. I do it so I don't have to lug the press guide around.

"But I travel very light. I come out here and I have a scorecard...

"To me, the play-by-play's the bread and butter, the score. That's what people want. They want to know what's happened, and the other stuff's a little frosting on the cake. You can't just say ball one, strike one, for two or three hours."

Harwell had one more trip down into the catacombs, to the umpires' locker room.

The umps - Charlie Reliford, Mark Carlson, Dana DeMuth and Doug Eddings - welcomed him into their sanctuary. They stopped their card game. Harwell chatted with each umpire, asking about his hometown.

It was back to the press box, getting close to game time.

As Harwell entered the press box, a fan introduced himself as Charlie Bergey and handed him a cap that was inscribed: "U.S. Marine Corps Veteran."

Harwell accepted the cap and put it on his head.

"Here, you take this," said Ernie and gave up his cap to his fellow Marine Veteran.

Harwell walked back to the booth, chatting as he went.

At 6:48, Harwell took out a grid-lined score sheet and jotted down the lineups.

There was a strange, dead silence in the WJR booth. Harwell, Dickerson and game analyst Jim Price, a catcher who played on the Tigers' 1968 World Championship team, prepared their notes.

"They were 7-5 against us last year," Harwell said, and the others nodded.

At 6:58, all stood for The Star-Spangled Banner. And at 6:59, as Price and Dickerson discussed the key to the game, Harwell bolted from the broadcast booth and returned with a cup of coffee.

"Stand by, don't get nervous," said Stizel at 7:04.

"Hello everybody," said Harwell, uttering his first words over the airwaves. "The Yankees are here for a three-game series, and here's Jim Price to bring you the lineups."

The game started at 7:07. Harwell mentioned the threatening weather and said: "Knoblauch will lead off. Chuck's batting .237."

An inning later, Clemens faced Rich Becker.

"There's a strike on the outside corner, and he stood there like a house on the side of the road," Harwell said.

Clemens has got a lot of intensity. I don't know if he's doing it tonight, but at times he'd wear a mouth guard to keep him from grinding his teeth...There's a high foul back of third and a man from Mount Clemens gets a souvenir."

Harwell worked the first three innings, then turned the play-by-play over to Dickerson from the fourth to the sixth. He strolled into the press lounge and conversed with weatherman Sonny Eliot, watching the game on TV as the Tigers got to Clemens fro four runs n the fourth.

In the bottom of the fifth, Harwell returned to the booth. He sat in silence, watching the sixth inning, his hands folded atop the Marine vets cap on his head. Before the seventh started, he went out fro more coffee.

When he returned on air, he read the out-of-town scoreboard, stood for the seventh-inning stretch and described the rest of the game. The Yankees threatened in the ninth. O'Neill hit a towering home run, "It's long gone..."

Then Jorge Pasada hit a fly to deep left.

"Becker has it at the warning track," Harwell said. "The Tigers win 9-7."

Harwell got up from his seat and left his microphone. It was 10:34.

"I'm out of here," he said. "I'm going home. If I get a good jump on them, I'm going home.

And he was gone, down the elevator, out of Comerica Park and to his car. Moments later, the thunderstorms hit with pelting rain and brilliant lightning. Harwell was nearly home by then.

The next morning, he said, "I was out of here so fast, I beat the rain." And he was back to go through his ritual for another day.

©1999 American Sportscasters Association, Inc.