Ernie Harwell, who spent more than a half century calling play by play in the big leagues — the vast majority of which were spent working Detroit Tigers broadcasts, passed away Tuesday after a prolonged battle with cancer. Harwell’s 1948 big league debut was engineered by Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey, who traded catcher Cliff Dapper to the minor league Atlanta Crackers in order to obtain the announcer’s services. Though you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone in baseball or broadcasting with anything bad to say about Harwell, let’s recall the almost unthinkable occasion when Tigers GM Bo Schembechler told his club’s longtime radio voice “we really don’t want you to come back.” From The Boston Globe‘s Jack Craig (December 21, 1990) :
Harwell doesn’t have a clue why it happened, but the former fearless football coach of the Michigan Wolverines, Bo Schembechler, who swung the ax, explained it was done as part of a “new direction” for the ball club.
Speaking of new directions, Schembechler switched from a lifetime in football to become president of the Tigers last season with baseball credentials composed primarily of two years as a lefthanded pitcher for Miami of Ohio 37 years ago.
Harwell was not rendered a lame duck because he had lost his fast ball at the age of 72. “They said they had no complaints from anyone. I wouldn’t stay if I had lost it,” he said. He wasn’t axed for purposes of health. In 43 seasons as a big league announcer Harwell never missed a game because of sickness, although Schemblecher expressed on Wednesday wariness of being caught short if Harwell did become ill.
Vern Plagenhoss, Tigers beat writer for the region’s Booth newspaper chain, called the dismissal of Harwell an incalcuable PR blunder. “Ernie is more important than Alan Trammell and Jack Morris. This is a blazing inferno because it is so tasteless, talk about loyalty,” Plagenhoss said.
Tom Gage, Tigers beat reporter for the Detroit News, termed the firing and the explanation almost laughably stupid. “He is so popular. It’s leading TV news. It’s in columns, it’s crazy,” he said.