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Mike Up: Detroit broadcaster leaves legacy

He was born a simple boy from Georgia. He died a humble, happy old man in Michigan. What happened in between, however, was one of the most extraordinary journeys in sports.

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the death of Ernie Harwell, the longtime broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers. He never had an at-bat or played an inning in the outfield, but his impact as the “Voice of Summer” outlasts that of most of the “boys of summer” Harwell saw play during his seven decades in the broadcast booth.

To avid baseball fans, he was the most interesting man in the universe. He first got into baseball games for free at age 5, when he was a batboy for the Atlanta Crackers. At the young age of 16, Harwell began reporting on baseball — for The Sporting News, no less. He also squeezed in four years at Emory University and another four with the Marines.

Harwell entered Major League territory when Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey acquired him in exchange for a catcher. The transaction marked the only time a broadcaster has ever been traded. Besides signing Jackie Robinson to break the MLB color barrier — which Harwell later called “the most important event that’s ever happened in sports history” — trading for Harwell might have been the best decision Rickey ever made.

Two years with the Dodgers led to a four-year stint with the New York Giants, during which Harwell called the first nationally televised baseball game. That fateful afternoon featured the “Shot Heard ’round the World,” when Bobby Thompson’s home run won the National League Pennant.

Harwell next did play-by-play for the Baltimore Orioles as well as golf’s Masters. He even dipped into the realms of college and pro football. But his most renowned position was in the broadcast booth for the Detroit Tigers. Beginning his tenure in 1960, he saw the Tigers win two World Series before being fired in 1991, only to be rehired in 1993 by Little Caesars guru Mike Ilitch, who had bought the Tigers.

Harwell’s legacy extends far beyond the number of games he called. His voice kept thousands of young boys secretly listening to Tigers games long after bedtime. His brilliant, often comical, analysis brought the game to life. Many fans brought portable radios to the ballpark because even being at the game could not replicate the Harwell experience.

Reprinting his signature calls equates describing the Mona Lisa in a single tweet. He could have narrated biographies of James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, and no one would complain. He had enough baseball stories memorized to make former Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone sit still for a week.

I was blessed to meet Harwell at a Lutheran Social Services fundraiser April 30, 2007. I left with a signed copy of his autobiographical CD, but what stuck with me the most was a story he told about a turtle sitting on a fencepost. It was a metaphor for God-given help that accomplishes the impossible.

With the Tigers playing sub-.500 baseball and the Cleveland Indians once again in first place, it seems like Harwell should be in the broadcast booth. The anniversary of his death is especially poignant, but maybe it’s for the best. After all, heaven has a better broadcast booth than any ballpark can offer.

—Michael Stainbrook is a sophomore studying journalism. If you also grew up on Ernie Harwell, email him at

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