Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ernie Harwell - Interview with the legendary Detroit Tigers broadcaster

One of the legendary voices of baseball, Ernie Harwell, died on May 4, 2010 at the age of 92 after fighting a lengthy battle with cancer. Harwell began his major league broadcasting career in 1948 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, acquired from the Atlanta Crackers for backup catcher Cliff Dapper. He worked for the New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles until 1960, replacing Van Patrick in Detroit. Harwell would remain the voice of the Tigers through 2002, providing the soundtrack to many wonderful memories of baseball fans everywhere.

I had the opportunity to interview Harwell in 2008 and I can say that Harwell is everything that people said about him and more. A true gentleman, he called me in response to a letter that I had written him and started off the phone call by saying, "I'm glad we finally got together."

For a man who has met so many in his travels as a baseball luminary, he made the 30 minutes that he gave me on the phone seem as important as any interview he had conducted. While our conversation went in a few different directions, I wanted to provide a few excerpts that served to reveal Harwell's character.

We discussed his World War II service, and Harwell explain how the war helped to shape people's attitudes towards integration.

"I think World War II helped progress integration," he said. "I've always looked at it [integration] being helped by three things, music, jazz music, baseball and WWII. They all stem from one thing, you can judge a man on his ability rather than the color of his skin in each one of those. If a guy can play a great saxophone, you can recognize it and he can keep his job. Same thing in baseball, if he hits .350 you know he's pretty good. The same thing in combat, if a guy can save your life for you, you don't have to worry about what color he is. There are so many other jobs have nuances and politics, but, in those three categories, there is a pretty good accurate measurement that you can apply to all three."

He related another story regarding his early experiences of integration at Emory University in Atlanta during the late 1930's. Harwell was able to recruit an African American band to play at one of the dances that he chaired in the middle of the heavily segregated South.

"The big thing down there was dancing," he said. "We didn't have any intercollegiate sports except tennis and swimming. Dancing was a big thing. I was chairman of the dance committee. We were getting these bad bands that couldn't play very good because we didn't have any money and we couldn't pay to get a Glen Miller or Tommy Dorsey or anyone like that. I said [to the others on the committee], 'a lot of these black bands are very good and they'd make a great orchestra for us.' We have a three day thing where the bands would play different dances and it would last two to three days, and nobody objected. The band we got was Andy Kirk and the Clouds of Joy out of Kansas City and they loved them. There was never any protest at all, and this was in 1939! For some reason, nobody objected. There weren't any marches, no signs. They played and everybody loved them and that was it. You're talking about where the Marines wouldn't take black people [Atlanta]. I went into the Marines in 1942 and they didn't take African Americans until the war got going a little bit."

While Harwell was never championed as a crusader for civil rights, these anecdotes give a glimpse into the mind of a progressive younger Harwell, living in the deep South showing racial tolerance and acceptance in a place where it was uncommon to do so.

At the end of our talk, I had queried Harwell about his willingness to give interviews after spending so much time behind the microphone. Harwell answered in a way where he not only welcomed the opportunity, but relished it.

"I do a lot of radio interviews," he said. "They can't get ballplayers, so they call me and I'm happy to do it. It's enjoyable to me, I don't mind it at all. I'm glad to do it if anybody who is interested enough. I don't want to be an old guy sitting in the corner who forces himself on people talking about the old days. If someone has a question or a puzzlement that they want to solve, I'd be happy to."

Harwell left me saying that it was "his pleasure," to do the interview and wished me luck with my project. After re-examining our conversation today, Mr. Harwell, the pleasure was all mine. May you rest in peace.


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