He entered the room with his heart already broken, yet he forced a smile; he greeted the reporters, told them thanks for coming. A gentleman does not forget his manners, no matter how much dirt is thrown at him. This has always been the quality that separates Ernie Harwell from the dim bulbs in baseball. And so he squeezed his lip when it began to quiver Wednesday morning, and he squinted into the lights of this, his first and only news conference in 72 years on this planet.
“I’m told it was a business decision,” he said, when asked why the Detroit Tigers, had suddenly, after 31 years of the finest baseball broadcasting in America, told him he was out of a job after the 1991 season.
“The Tigers said they wanted to go in a new direction. . . . I would have liked to continue broadcasting, but . . . this is what they decided. I have to accept that.”
He refused to whine. He refused to grovel. Because he is a gentleman, he refused to slam his bosses for the lousy thing they had done.
Oh, you bet I’ll slam them. And behind me is a line from here to Alpena waiting to do the same. What the Tigers did Wednesday was one of the most shameful acts I have ever witnessed from a sports franchise, and, considering the company, that’s sinking pretty low. They took a man who is a national treasure and told him to start packing. They took a man who literally taught baseball to hundreds of thousands of fans, summer after summer, and they told him he’s too old, his time is up. They fired Ernie Harwell? Is that allowed?
It is if you run the team and the radio station. So for this brilliant act of sports management, we can thank Bo Schembechler, the new Tigers president, and Jim Long, the WJR general manager, and Jeff Odenwald, the Tigers’ new marketing man (everybody has a marketing man these days, right?).
These three wise men, in a single 45-minute meeting a few months ago, made the biggest bonehead move of the decade. They killed the voice of baseball. They fired Ernie Harwell.
Oh, they prefer to call it “forced retirement,” but that is a joke. Harwell, against his wishes, will be gone after next season — without a real pension, I might add, from either the Tigers or WJR. Nice move, huh? Just in time for Christmas.
Hey, guys. Why not punch Santa in the face while you’re at it?
Now, let’s be clear on something. There is nothing wrong with Ernie Harwell. No reason that he should go, other than this “new direction” the Tigers keep spouting. Harwell looks good, sounds as wonderful as ever. “I feel better than I felt 20 years ago,” he said Wednesday, looking quite fit in a blue sports jacket and a red tie. “My blood pressure is 100 over 70, my cholesterol count is 179, the doctor said my eyesight is like a 35-year-old .
I heard this, and suddenly, something inside me began to twinge. Ernie Harwell, in this dimly lit room, defending his health — surely this ranks as one of the lowest sports moments in recent memory. His blood pressure? Good god. Why should Ernie Harwell have to give us his blood pressure? He has earned the right to stay in the booth until his teeth fall out.
Let me explain why this is: Here is a man who has been broadcasting sports since the end of World War II. A man who rode the trains with the old Brooklyn Dodgers, and who counted players like Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson among his friends. He goes back to the days of re-creations, which he did for the road games of the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern League. He would stand next to a ticker-tape machine and recite the play-by-play as it came across, while a sound man made the noise of bats and crowd cheers.
So Ernie Harwell is living history. And more than that. For the last three decades, he has awakened Michigan in baseball season with a favorite line from the Bible, “For lo, the winter is past, and the song of the turtle is heard across the land.” He has broadcast our World Series champions in 1968 and 1984. His phrases and soft Georgia accent were imitated by children who now have children of their own, doing the same imitations. “Here come the Tigahs” . . . “He stood there like a house by the side of the road” . . .
“Thank-ya Mistah Carey . . . “
There are countless reasons why Harwell — and Paul Carey, his longtime partner, who announced that he too will leave after the 1991 season — must be considered the best in his business right now, not the least of which is the plaque in the baseball Hall of Fame that bears Harwell’s name.
That alone is reason to keep him. But on top of all this, Ernie Harwell also has a characteristic beyond baseball, something that most of us lose with our childhood: He makes people nicer. I have seen the crudest of athletes turn into choir boys when Harwell walks past. “Hello, Mr. Harwell,” they say.
“How are you, Ernie?”
How does he do this? By being a good man, an honest man, a man who, as long as anyone can remember, has never stooped to insulting a fellow human being.
People like this, you don’t fire. People like this, you pay off their doctors to keep them around. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
So this move by the Tigers and WJR is so awful, so blatantly stupid, that I felt compelled to turn to Odenwald during Harwell’s news conference and ask him why. I asked him five times. He never really answered me.
“We want to go in a new direction,” he kept saying.
“Why?” I said again. “Is Ernie too old? Do you want to reach a younger audience? Are you unhappy with the way he broadcasts?”
“We just felt we wanted to go in a new direction.
Odenwald was stammering, looking for words. At that moment, he reminded me of some oil company executive, trying to sweep all his sins under the carpet of “it’s not personal, it’s just business.”
But at least Odenwald showed up, which is more than can be said about Schembechler and Long. I think most readers know I have a lot of respect for Schembechler. But not on this. He gets one strike for the firing. He gets another if what Ernie says is true — and Bo says it isn’t — that the Tigers and WJR suggested Harwell “announce his retirement” during the Tigers’ press tour next spring, a cowardly thing to do.
Strike three comes with Bo’s explanation when he finally surfaced Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t want to get into all the factors,” he said when asked for one good reason why Harwell should no longer broadcast the games.
“It’s firm. It’s not going to change no matter how much clamor is made over it.”
Well now. There’s another bright statement from our baseball team. Who are they playing for — the fans, or themselves? Suppose the clamor turned to people refusing to buy tickets? Would they listen then? He was a mere employee
Let me tell you something else about Ernie Harwell, something that makes this “new direction” even more despicable. For all these years, Harwell never used an agent to negotiate his contracts. Usually, he just walked into former Tigers President Jim Campbell’s office, had a brief discussion, and waited for the contract to arrive. The Tigers and WJR — both of whom have been known to be cheap — would sometimes not even give Harwell a raise between three- or five-year deals. WJR made him work without an engineer; he and Carey would have to lug their own equipment on road trips. I once asked Ernie if he would let me write this fact and he said, “No, I don’t want to embarrass WJR like that.”
And yet his station never hesitated to call on him to schmooze with potential clients. Ernie, go talk with this clothing store. Ernie help us get this company to advertise. He never refused a request. What was he paid for this? Nothing. The truth is, while most people in Michigan saw Harwell as a treasure, WJR and the Tigers saw him merely as an employee. They squeezed him dry, like a dish rag. Now they want to toss him aside.
He never complained. He never demanded that money be put aside for his retirement. And now, because of this sudden dismissal, and because of the family he supports, he finds himself in a position where, most likely, he will have to work after his last Tigers season is over. Can you imagine? Ernie Harwell having to take a job with some other team, introducing himself to new players, maybe moving from his home? The Tigers offered him a limited role in 1992, maybe a pre-game show. But as Harwell said, “A play-by-play man does play-by-play.” Actually, if the Tigers had any class, they would take a million dollars they were going to give the next Willie Hernandez or Chris Brown and hand it over to Harwell, free and clear.
They won’t, of course. This is your baseball team, Detroit, and your radio station, WJR, the “home of the Tigers.” They want to go in a “new direction.” They want to be the Pistons.
They can go anywhere they want. This will never change: This day, this sunny Wednesday in the middle of December, will forever be a black mark on the history of this franchise. Ernie Harwell, who gave and gave, deserved to pick his own exit, to take his bows when he felt he was finished. The Tigers and WJR have denied him this. They have killed the voice of baseball. Even worse, they have robbed a gentleman of his dignity. And in doing so, they have lost all of theirs.
Shame on them.