2010.05.19 Ernie Harwell leaves behind a thousand stories

Written by David Green.

By RICH FOLEY

The recent passing of long time Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell has caused many stories to be told about him. And somehow, even though he was around baseball over 60 years, new stories keep popping up.

I had a relative who hated Ernie’s habit of announcing the hometown of fans catching foul balls, doubting that Harwell could have any clue as to where a fan was from. But I noticed that the stories after his passing contained anecdote after anecdote from ordinary fans who met Ernie at some point during his career.

In the 50 years since he became the Tigers announcer, he certainly had ample opportunity to meet many thousands of fans. So when that errant baseball was caught by a “woman from Morenci” or a “man from Fayette,” who can say for sure? Maybe Ernie did know where they were from.

Since so many other people seem to have had a chance to meet Ernie over the years, I won’t add my own stories to the mix except the one when I took my niece and nephew, ages nine and eleven respectively at the time, to a book signing at the Adrian Mall. Charmed by my niece, Harwell signed her book, “Love to Shannon, Ernie Harwell.” She then had to put up with days of teasing from her brother. “Ernie Harwell loves you!” he kept saying. “And he’s a hundred years old!” Actually Ernie was 68 at the time, but maybe that seemed like 100 to an eleven-year-old.

Ernie wasn’t always that old, of course. In his book, he told the story of how he got into sports writing. A Georgia native, he noticed that The Sporting News, the leading sports publication at the time, didn’t have a correspondent in Atlanta. This was 30 years before the Braves moved to town, but it was represented in the minor league Southern Association by the Atlanta Crackers.

Using the name “W. Earnest Harwell,” Ernie wrote the editor of The Sporting News and asked for the position of Atlanta correspondent. He left out the facts that not only had he never written anything, he was also only 16 years old.

The editor wrote back, saying he would be willing to look at a few sample stories, then make arrangements for Harwell to get the job if he found them satisfactory. Harwell sent off a few articles and knew he’d passed the test when one of them appeared in the next issue.

Still concerned about his age, Ernie paid for a ticket and covered the Crackers from the stands for nearly a year, lacking the nerve to approach the manager, players or team officials. Finally, an assignment to interview team president Earl Mann forced him to face his fears and reveal himself. Mann became one of Ernie’s biggest supporters and 12 years later, gave Harwell the radio announcer position for the team, starting him on his eventual career path.

Some of the stories after his death made Ernie sound almost like a saint, but he didn’t mind repeating tales that put him in less than a perfect light. My favorite of several in his book concerned an incident when he was announcer for the New York Giants, several years before they moved to San Francisco.

In those days, the radio booth at the Polo Grounds was a small, cramped wooden structure that hung down from the upper deck. Ernie described it as being very hard to get in and out of. Even worse, there was no rest room.

Since it would be very difficult to leave the booth to visit a public rest room during a game, Ernie and broadcast partner Russ Hodges came up with another idea. They got a supply of large paper cups and used them out of sight when nature called. Filled cups were then put on the floor, to be disposed of after the game.

The system worked fine until one day, a visitor to the booth kicked over a cup. Golden liquid began seeping through the cracks in the wooden plank floor, falling on the fans below. Barney O’Toole, head usher at the Polo Grounds, soon came to the booth.

“Hey, you guys,” he said, “we’re getting complaints from those people in the box seats. They said for you to quit spilling beer on ’em.”

“Barney,” Ernie answered, “if it’s beer, it’s used beer. We’ll be careful, but don’t tell those folks what really him ’em.”

Maybe that’s why Ernie was so popular. How could you hate a guy willing to tell a story like that on himself?

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