If anyone can find me an egg timer in the broadcast booth at Comerica Park, or any Major League Baseball playground, for that matter, I’ll buy you a pop. I’ll even spring for Towne Club – if we can find it.
I’m not worried, though. I doubt you’ll find such a gizmo in the quarters where the radio and TV guys hang out. Oh, but so many of them need one!
The speaker was Ernie Harwell, and I stood enraptured as he told me how he knew when to give the score of the ballgame he was broadcasting.
“Red Barber taught me,” Harwell said in that lilt in the “green room” of our cable TV studio in Taylor. It was circa the late 1980s, early 1990s – when I cobbled together an income producing and directing television programs Downriver. “You keep an egg timer in the booth, and every time you flip it over, you give the score.”
The score of a ballgame in three-minute intervals. Imagine that. It’s obvious some of the hacks who blab into microphones nowadays clearly haven’t grasped the concept.
The Tigers are relevant again, which means more and more folks are becoming glued to their TV sets and tuning in the game on the radio. In recent years past, you tried like the dickens to avoid watching or listening to them whenever possible. What was the point, really – when the losses outnumbered the wins by an almost 2-to-1 ratio most of the time? In 2003, the ratio was nearly 3-to-1, for goodness sakes.
I’m swamping the radio dial and stealing the remote quite a bit myself lately. I’ve subjected my wife and daughter to the old, “I just want to check the score” bit – and then end up doing more than that, for as long as I’m allowed.
But as smooth as Mario Impemba and Rod Allen are on Fox Sports Detroit – and Allen is actually one of the game’s best analysts, if you want to know – they’re not George Kell and Al Kaline. And radio’s Dan Dickerson and Jim Price are not Harwell and Paul Carey.
No crime there – and I haven’t told you anything that you (or they) don’t already know.
I’ve been listening to Harwell a lot lately – courtesy of an old tape a former co-worker made for me. It’s an audio cassette recording from the album “Year of the Tiger,” which was put out shortly after the Tigers clinched the 1968 pennant – but before the World Series was played, for whatever reason. The album is a stirring journey through that wonderful, exciting season – told mainly thru the actual game calls of Harwell and Ray Lane, along with their in-studio narration.
“Here’s the set – and the pitch – swing and a base hit to right! And it’s allll over! Kaline scores, Don Wert singles … the Tigers mob Don … and the Tigers have won their first pennant since nineteen-hundred and forty-five. Let’s listen to the bedlam, at Tiger Stadium!”
That’s how the album begins – with Harwell’s call of Wert’s hit in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Yankees and clinch the league championship. Back then, there were no tiers of intraleague playoffs. No divisions. You clinched the pennant in the regular season, and prepped for the World Series in September.
I was too young to recall the drama of the ’68 season, in which the Tigers constantly came from behind to pull games out of the fire. But thanks to the cassette that I have in my car stereo, ready to be popped in at any moment, I can re-live it. And then I realize how much I miss Harwell behind the mike.
It wasn’t just the constant giving of the score, though that was much appreciated – especially by a working kid in college who jumped into his car at night after his shift and wondered how the Tigers were doing. It was comforting to know that you wouldn’t have to sit through two or three batters before the announcer indulged you.
There was just something about Harwell’s voice, lightly coated with Georgia, that screamed baseball. And the more I think about it, the more I remember that voice popping up in various places.
Outside, in the backyard. My father working on something or another, or washing the car in the driveway. And the ballgame on, the sounds accompanying his chores. Maybe Norm Cash would hit one out, and he and I would stop and listen to Harwell call it, before going back to work.
Stuck in traffic on a Sunday afternoon, and we’re not the only ones with the game on – car windows opened as you could hear Ernie from the next vehicle. John Hiller would get a big strikeout, and you’d look over to your neighbor on the road and grin and nod as everyone inched forward.
Grabbing a few things at the party store and Ernie’s there, too – his voice emanating from the store’s back room. You can barely make it out, so you ask what the score is.
Kell (left) and Harwell: The two greatest voices in Tigers history
Or maybe it was Carey in his rich baritone. Paul did the middle three innings with Ernie in my day.
There wasn’t a better baseball play-by-play man on TV than Kell.
His voice was drenched with Arkansas. Lou Whitaker would poke a single to right and his teammate would try to score from second base.
“They’re WAYYYVING him in!,” Kell would go, and there just wasn’t anything as exciting. “There’s gonna be a play at the plate!”
My favorite Kell story happened in the heat of the 1987 divisional race. The Tigers were at Milwaukee, and pitcher Walt Terrell had just made a whale of a play, bare-handing a tapper, off balance, and gunning the batter out by a fraction of a step as Terrell fell to the ground. Naturally, the play was shown many times via replay, from different angles.
Enter Kell. “I’m afraid if they show that play one more time, he’s gonna be safe!”
I still grin.
So, I’m sorry, Mario and Rod. You too, Dan and Jim. Never again will baseball romance me so on the airwaves. But you should still invest in an egg timer.