50 Years Ago Today: Ernie Harwell’s First Tigers Broadcast

It is hard to believe, but fifty years ago today Ernie Harwell broadcast his first Detroit Tigers baseball game.

Over the course of 42 seasons, Harwell became the voice of summer in Detroit and a man so revered that it his hard to find someone else more admired in Michigan. Sadly, at 92, he is critically ill with inoperative cancer and is now no longer able to making public appearances or even allowing interviews as he is trying to rest comfortably with his beloved wife LuLu.

Fans who tuned into WKMH 1310 and WWJ 950 to hear the opening exhibition game of the Grapefruit League season from Lakeland, Florida heard for the first time Ernie Harwell describe Tiger baseball. His broadcast partner that day and for four consecutive seasons was George Kell who also became an iconic figure for Tiger baseball.

That same day the Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers played an NBA playoff game at Grosse Pointe High School in front of just 1,938 fans in attendance. The game was broadcast nationally on NBC but was blacked out in Detroit.

The man largely responsible for Ernie Harwell coming to Detroit was George Kell who the year before was hired by the Tigers to announce games with Tiger broadcaster Van Patrick following the death of Patrick’s former partner Mel Ott.

As the voice of the Baltimore Orioles, it was Harwell who had introduced Kell to the broadcast booth.

During a ten day stint on the injury list in 1957, at the invitation of Harwell, the Oriole third baseman provided color commentary for Baltimore’s broadcasts. Two years later George Kell started a remarkable 37 year broadcasting career with the Tigers. A year ago this March 24th he passed away at age 86.

Harwell’s opportunity to work in Detroit occurred when the Tigers changed their beer sponsorship from Goebel to Stroh’s. Because Van Patrick had long been identified with Goebel, Patrick was fired. Stroh’s and Tiger management then asked Kell for a recommendation to replace the popular announcer. Kell called Harwell the last weekend of the baseball season in 1959 and told him that he had suggested that he fill in the vacancy. Within two weeks, Ernie Harwell was signed sealed and delivered.

In Harwell’s first broadcast, the Bengals came from behind to win the contest 8-6 thanks to the hitting of Al Kaline and Steve Bilko and the strong relief efforts of Hank Aguirre and Pete Burnside. (For the record, Harwell’s first call described Senator Billy Consolo bouncing out to future U.S. Senator Jim Bunning.)

Yesterday my complete article on Harwell’s first game appeared in the Detroit Free Press.