THE Detroit Tigers played their final game of the year on Sunday afternoon, losing to the New York Yankees and tying for third place in the American League East. Baseball fans in Michigan listened to the game on the radio not only to mark the end of the season, but the end of an era: It was Ernie Harwell's last Tiger broadcast.
Since 1947, Harwell has called more than 64,000 innings, his sunny tone and folksy style endearing him to three generations of fans. But after he calls the playoffs and the World Series for CBS Radio, Harwell is calling it quits. Baseball author Curt Smith calls him ``one of baseball's all-time-great broadcasters.''
``When you're broadcasting on the radio,'' said Harwell in a Monitor interview, ``your real job is to react pretty much like a player does to each pitch, except you react with your tongue and hopefully your brain, whereas a player reacts with his glove or his bat. ... It's sort of a game within a game.''
Fans and broadcast critics alike praise Harwell's knack for colorful narrative and his encyclopedic knowledge of baseball. And he tells stories - like how catcher Shanty Hogan ate himself out of baseball - that surprise and delight even the game's most diligent students.
``I refer to Ernie Harwell as baseball's Renaissance man,'' Mr. Smith says.
``He is a poet, a lyricist, a reporter, and an anecdotalist, as well as the most honorable man I've ever met in sport.''
Such praise makes the 75-year-old broadcaster blush. His ambition, as he sees it, is to make the game of baseball accessible to listeners on every level.
``You've got such a varied audience,'' Harwell says. ``Whether it's a guy who's new to this country and is just learning the language, an English professor who's going to check your grammar, a kid, or an ex-ballplayer, you have to do your best to try to educate them without talking down to them.''
Between pitches, Harwell announces 100th birthdays, acknowledges civic groups who have trekked to the ballpark, and even reads marriage proposals. He knows how to make a ballgame feel more like an ice-cream social than a high-stakes contest among millionaires.
``One of the things that amazes me is that at the ballparks there are so many people who aren't watching the game,'' he says. ``They're picnicking or they're out at the concession stands, and it doesn't bother them that they missed a few outs. Which points up to me that baseball's sort of a leisurely game ... it's a little more cerebral, maybe, than basketball or football.''
Instead of launching into statistics at every break in the action, Harwell sometimes prefers to fall silent, letting the sounds of the ballpark jog listeners' imaginations.
``It's come to the point where the game is almost secondary to the conversations between the announcers,'' he says. ``Everything is so over-analyzed. Why don't we just look at the rose and realize it's a pretty flower?''
Harwell began broadcasting for his hometown minor-league team, the Atlanta Crackers, in 1947. He then served stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers (alongside the great Red Barber), the New York Giants, the Baltimore Orioles, and finally, the Tigers. He has earned a host of honors, including the Ford Frick award and an appointment to major-league baseball's Hall of Fame.
But in 1991, the owner of the Detroit Tigers, Tom Monaghan, decided to replace Harwell with younger talent. Almost instantly, calls and letters flooded the clubhouse and the motto ``Bring Back Ernie'' was emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers throughout Michigan.
While grateful for the fan support, Harwell left the air after the 1991 season with a heartfelt goodbye, and not one bitter word. ``I understand the machinations of business and certainly they had a right to let me go,'' he says. ``As a baseball historian I'm the first to realize that everybody's replaceable.'' Two years later, however, Mr. Monaghan sold the team and the new owners brought Harwell back to share the broadcast booth.
Outside of baseball, Harwell says he'll pursue other interests and spend more time with his wife, Lula, their four children and seven grandchildren. ``I do believe there's life after baseball,'' he says. ``I've been lucky to be associated with the game for so long.''