At the age of 89, William Earnest Harwell seems as sharp and spry as he was during his days as a precocious teen in Atlanta, hustling up stories as a correspondent for the Sporting News in 1933.
It’s Opening Day, 2007, and though Harwell is five years removed from the radio booth, the voice of the longtime Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster remains full of excitement and energy, all of which is captured in the comprehensive, compelling four-disk audio series, “Ernie Harwell’s Audio Scrapbook”.
The compilation begins when Harwell was a boy living in the Georgia countryside, enduring the economic hardship of the Depression and his own social adversity of a speech impediment. In a casual, four-hour interview with the series narrator, Duke play-by-play broadcaster Bob Harris, Harwell waxes poetically through stories of his days as an aspiring writer, his first experience on the air doing sports updates on WSB in Atlanta and countless tales during his 41 years as voice of the Tigers.
While there have been numerous books and essays written on and in conjunction with Harwell, each of which seems to uncover another anecdote previously untold, Ernie Harwell’s Audio Scrapbook is unique because it brings to life many of these experiences. You can almost smell the peeling paint on the wood benches in the Fenway Park dugout while listening to excerpts of a Harwell interview with Ted Williams. And you want to get up and leave the room because of the pain and agony expressed by Ralph Branca as Harwell talks to him just moments after giving up the Shot Heard ‘Round the World.
“The strength of it was that you heard voices of the principals, you got to listen to Jackie Robinson, Connie Mack and Joe DiMaggio,” Harwell said. “And they’re actual voices, and some of the voices of the great broadcasters making calls of the great moments. And you couldn’t get this in a written book. It enlivened it as a book, as opposed to a book in print.”
Aside from reliving some of the game’s greatest events through the voice of Harwell, the audio series illustrates the remarkable ability he had to foster rapport with so many of baseball’s best players, players that have a reputation for being reclusive and anything but quotable.
Whether it was his relationships with Williams or DiMaggio, or even Ty Cobb, who invited Harwell into his home in suburban Atlanta long before Harwell had established himself as a grand man of the game, it’s evident Harwell had an innate ability to quickly disarm the most gruff, old manager and gain the respect of practically anyone he came in contact with.
When Joe Torre was asked to give a tribute to Harwell the summer Harwell chose to retire, Torre didn’t speak of Harwell’s great voice or his signature calls, but instead recollected fondly about the pleasant, engaging conversations he shared with Harwell about life, and family, once the recorder had been turned off.
He was the first active broadcaster to be elected to the Hall of Fame. He broadcast more than 8,000 games. And above all, he remains a friend to those who know him. And it’s those experiences and relationships that make this audio series such an engrossing listen.