Last week, a package came to Bo Schembechler’s house. His wife, Millie, began to open it. Lifting a flap, she saw a wire. She froze. She thought about the mountain of hate mail they had received since Ernie Harwell was fired. She thought about the phone calls and even death threats. She stopped opening the box. “I hate to admit it,” she said Sunday, “but I actually thought it might be a bomb.”
Wait a minute. Hasn’t this gone a little too far? It’s one thing to be outraged at the dismissal of Harwell, a beloved Tigers announcer for 31 years. It’s another thing to fear for your life. There has been an enormous amount of misinformation about this story, misinformation that has spread like cancer. Some of the fault lies with Harwell and Schembechler, two decent men caught in uncomfortable positions. Much of it lies with the media — this newspaper included — which, admittedly, saw one of its own bleeding and rushed to his defense.
And an enormous amount of fault lies with one man, WJR general manager Jim Long, a timid executive who pushed the idea of ousting Harwell, without a nickel of severance pay, without a single year to say good-bye — and then, when the news broke, decided to crawl into a hole and let someone else take the bullets.
Enough. It’s time to clear this up — and, just as importantly, explain how it got so muddled in the first place. Schembechler is not some lone assassin, as earlier reports made him out to be. And Harwell is not some ungrateful wretch, at age 72, who should worry about his relationship with Sparky Anderson, as a Detroit News account suggested over the weekend.
Let’s face it. This is an emotional issue. All sides feel strongly. And there is no right or wrong; that’s the kicker. You may feel that any man who gives us 31 years of baseball magic should have the right to call his own farewell party, or you may feel that any man who gets to hold his job for 31 years should feel lucky and retire quietly.
There is no right or wrong.
But there are the facts. Reaction surprises Bo “I hardly know Ernie Harwell,” Bo Schembechler said Sunday, sitting in his living room at his home in Ann Arbor. “I’ve listened to him for years, but I never really knew him. And I had no idea the reaction would be like this. I mean, no idea. . . . “
We begin with Schembechler because, more than anyone, he got the slime dumped on him when the story broke. This was largely because he was available to be interviewed. Had he crawled into a hole, like Jim Long, critics would have lacked a visible target. Blame would have been spread. Instead, Schembechler stood up — he’s used to that — and instantly, he became the magnet for abuse. The questions he was asked could be summed up simply: 1) Why this terrible decision? 2) Are you the jerk who made it?
Now. You have to know Schembechler. If you swing at him, he swings back. So instead of telling people the whole truth — which was that Long and WJR had decided that Harwell was going downhill as an announcer, that they wanted to get rid of him this year, not next year, that Schembechler had fought for an extra season for Harwell and had gotten it — instead of saying that, he got defensive. He said, “Yes, I made the decision.” Here you have an ex-football coach who is used to taking the bullet for his team; he figured he was defending the Tigers, that it was part of the job. He also figured that maybe, somewhere across town, Long was answering the same questions.
Only he wasn’t. Long disappeared. He wouldn’t talk to anyone.
And the next thing you knew, there were bumper stickers saying “BO-ZO.”
“The truth is, I wanted to talk with Ernie before this contract stuff started,” Schembechler said. “I asked him to meet with me, alone, just for an informal conversation. He said he didn’t want to do that without his agent. If I’d had a chance to talk with him privately, and if he had told me of his situation, if he had financial problems or whatever, well, hey, I think you know me well enough, I’d have tried to do something. . . .
“Instead, I had a meeting with him and his agent. Now, at that meeting, I told Ernie we at least wanted him for one more year — but the truth of the matter is, I hadn’t told Long that. WJR didn’t want Ernie back at all. They felt his skills were diminishing, that he couldn’t see the ball like he used to, that he wasn’t as enthusiastic as he used to be. And I’ll be honest, I listened to him for much of last year, and I felt, who knows? Maybe they were right. I’m not a radio expert.
“But I did know this: I knew we had to give him at least another year at the highest pay possible, that it wasn’t right to just let him go. So I committed another year to him without WJR even knowing about it. I figured I would talk them into it.”
He obviously did. Could he have talked them into more? Two years? Three years? Possibly. But Bo admitted he didn’t push beyond one year. He felt that was fair — given WJR’s position. Was he wrong? Maybe I think so. Maybe you think so. But in Schembechler’s mind, he actually figured he was doing something good for Harwell, getting him a final year as a farewell tour. Bo said: “I thought we’d have Ernie Harwell Night at Tiger Stadium, things like that.” Once the news broke, however — via a press conference called by Harwell — doing Ernie favors was the last thing on Schembechler’s mind. He felt betrayed. He resented Ernie’s media blitz, which seemed to him to be
“calculated.” He felt that if a man signs a contract, as Harwell did, then he should stick by it and not complain. “Otherwise, why sign it?” Schembechler said. “Don’t sign it, then you can criticize all you want.”
Right or wrong, Bo became, in two words, ticked off. And you know what Bo can be like when he’s ticked off. The night this all happened, I called him at home and asked him to explain what was really going on. I told him the next day’s newspapers would not be kind. Knowing Bo the way I do, I found it hard to believe that he was the only one to blame here. “Tell me the truth,” I said. And maybe, under calmer circumstances, he would have. Instead, angry as he was, he defended the team’s actions. I wrote my story, along with everyone else in this town, and the avalanche began.
And the next morning, Jim Long picked up the papers, and he hid in his hole. That was unforgivable.
It also left Schembechler hanging on a rope.
“Everyone thinks I’m indestructible,” said Schembechler, admittedly upset that Long did not come forth. “Everyone figures I’m a big guy, I can take it.
“Hey. I’m bothered by this stuff. Come on. Who wouldn’t be? People think I’m the worst guy on Earth.
“I admit, I miscalculated the reaction. I should have thought back to when I was a kid. There was this announcer for the Cleveland Indians. I loved him. And if someone had let him go, I guess I would have been as upset as Tigers fans are.
“But that doesn’t justify what happened. . . . ” Too Long on retrospect Long returned the call Sunday night. Finally. He
“felt bad” that Schembechler had been taking all the heat himself. Yeah, I said. So why was he hiding all this time?
“That wasn’t my intention,” he said. “I felt saying anything after (the press conference) would have been inappropriate.”
Long admitted that not renewing Harwell’s contract was “my call.” He said, “I felt Ernie’s broadcasts were not what they used to be. We wanted to get someone new in there.”
He admitted that Schembechler did convince him to offer Harwell one more year. Would he have agreed to more years than that — even if Bo pushed?
Whose decision is it, his or Bo’s?
I listened to Long and I figured, here’s a radio executive. He has to have half a brain. So I asked whether he realized beforehand the fan value of Harwell, whose voice has been indistinguishable from the Tigers since the late
’60s. Isn’t this worth whatever shortcomings he might have sensed in Harwell’s broadcasts?
“Given what’s happened?” he said. “Absolutely, in retrospect.”
In retrospect? Everyone is smart in retrospect. But Jim, you get paid to act with foresight. So while I admire you for finally calling us back, I say right here that it is too little, too late. It didn’t help anyone.
The fact is, your actions in dismissing Harwell were shortsighted at best, stupid at worst. But your actions after the press conference — playing ostrich while Schembechler dangled on a rope — that was nothing short of cowardly.
In retrospect, Jim Long looks pretty bad.
In retrospect, he looks worse than anyone in this story. Severance pay? No way The crazy thing is, this all could have been avoided. And it wouldn’t have meant letting Ernie broadcast until the day he died.
According to Gary Spicer, Harwell’s agent, he and Ernie were willing to accept the suggestion by the Tigers and WJR that he give it up after this season. They were willing to do it jointly, a sort of let’s-hold-hands thing, if the Tigers and WJR would agree to one point: a severance package. It has been widely reported that Harwell received little pension for his years of service in Detroit. WJR gave him nothing because he was a “contract employee.” The Tigers did give him a small pension, which he collected at age 65 — “He was told to cash it in; he didn’t choose to, as the Detroit News reported,” Spicer said. Spicer said the amount came to roughly $36,000 after taxes for the 31 years Harwell called the Tigers games.
Obviously, with a wife and family, Harwell needed more than that for his future. Spicer suggested a severance package of “something around one year’s salary (approximately $200,000). If we had gotten that, I honestly think everyone would have been happy. Ernie would have agreed to step aside; he would have welcomed whoever they’d chosen to replace him with open arms. This whole thing could have been avoided.”
The answer from WJR: No.
“Absolutely no,” as Spicer recalled.
Now. It is not my place to decide what is and isn’t within some company’s budget. After all, I am not the treasurer. But I do try to use common sense, and common sense says if a guy works for you for 31 years, and he doesn’t complain, and he does a decent job, and some years, you haven’t given him a raise at all, sometimes for six or seven years in a row — then a one-year severance package isn’t all that expensive, especially considering the public relations disaster that could be averted.
“Maybe it would have been a good thing to do,” Long admitted, when I suggested this. “Maybe I could even check with (Capital Cities, which owns WJR) to see if it would be possible. I’m not saying it would be, but I could check.”
Why not do this earlier?
Instead of in retrospect? Emotion exploded But then, why not do a lot of things earlier? The mistakes in this story seem largely to do with emotion: Everyone reacted with too much.
The fans’ initial reaction was to explode in outrage — how dare they fire the man who, in many minds, was the Tigers? The media’s initial reaction was to explode in outrage — who’s responsible, who’s the scapegoat? Schembechler’s initial reaction was to explode in outrage — how dare someone turn on him like that, how dare the media, which had known him all these years, suddenly suggest he was an unfeeling jerk with no sense of loyalty?
And Long’s initial reaction? To cower in fear — which is understandable, considering the volcano he’d just helped to erupt.
Emotion. Passion. It burns hot. It doesn’t last. What lasts are facts, and the facts suggest that this was not a case of Bo Schembechler firing a gun at a blindfolded Ernie Harwell. It was much more complicated than that.
No, the questions have not all been answered. Why, for example, didn’t WJR and the Tigers tell Harwell at their meeting that they felt his skills were diminishing? Were they afraid of an age-discrimination suit? And why does Harwell deny that Bo asked to meet him alone? And why didn’t anyone foresee what Tigers fans seemed to know so well — that cutting out Erni