How do you know someone has no idea what they’re doing? Bo Schembechler made it apparent in 1990 when he let broadcast people at WJR Radio convince him to fire a legend.
In October 1990, just a few days after the end of a lackluster season by the Tigers, Harwell was summoned to a meeting at Schembechler’s office at Tiger Stadium. When the 72-year old broadcaster arrived at the famed corner in downtown Detroit, where he had called more than 2,500 games since 1960, he was expecting to discuss his contract, which was set to expire after the upcoming 1991 campaign.
Instead, Schembechler dropped a bombshell.
“We are going to go in a different direction,” the Detroit president told Harwell. “The Detroit Tigers and WJR will not be renewing your contract.”
Just like that, Harwell had been fired from his legendary career in baseball by a football coach. The resulting outcry proved to hang over the franchise and Schembechler, who was hired before the 1990 season by team owner Tom Monaghan, who idolized the former University of Michigan head football coach.
Harwell’s “firing” was later blamed on executives at WJR, who wrongly assumed that Harwell was too old to handle the rigors of a 162 game MLB season that required 81 games on the road. Never mind that Ernie walked at least five miles every morning and had a mid-section that was quite a bit smaller than that of the radio executives or Bo. To the Tigers, the reason ratings for Tiger radio broadcasts were trending down in 1989-90 was Harwell, not the putrid play of an aging team.
The decision was announced in December, when Harwell told the Detroit Free Press that 1991 would be his final season. Amazingly, Schembechler and WJR preferred not to issue a press release on their decision to not renew Harwell’s contract. They apparently didn’t think fans would care that Ernie was being retired.
Some speculated that there was something behind the clumsy dropping of Harwell, who had become the voice of summer in Michigan for baseball fans.
In 1990, Harwell had expressed his support for a group that called themselves the Tiger Stadium Fan Club, advocating to keep the ballpark. The team favored building a new stadium partially funded by city tax dollars.
Free Press columnist Mitch Albom lent his pen to the many outraged by Harwell’s sacking, writing that WJR had been “cowards” and citing the fact that the station didn’t even offer a severance package for the broadcast legend, a recipient of baseball’s most esteemed award for announcers, the Frick Award.
Rizzs and Rathbun Era
Harwell had his farewell tour in 1991, which proved awkward. It was obvious the Tigers were not interested in drawing attention to their announcer lest it put their insensitivity on display. Ernie called his last game on October 6 at Baltimore, a 7-1 victory for Frank Tanana and Sparky Anderson’s Tigers. The team finished with 84 wins, but a distant second in the AL East. At the conclusion of the broadcast, which was also the last for Harwell’s partner Paul Carey, who was retiring voluntarily, Ernie made a short statement thanking the fans of Detroit, WJR, and the Tigers. He remained classy even as he was being kicked to the curb.
By the time the winter meetings were underway in December of 1991, the Tigers and WJR were ready to announce a new radio team. The new guys would be play-by-play man Rick Rizzs and sidekick Bob Rathbun. WJR called it “the next generation of Detroit Tigers baseball.”
Rizzs was a veteran of nearly a decade as the lead radio voice of the Seattle Mariners. Going from the relatively new Mariners to one of the original American League teams was a big step for Rizzs, who was thrilled for the opportunity.
“I love baseball and I think folks in Michigan will hear that from me,” Rizzs said in a press conference hosted by WJR.
Rathbun was a relatively new voice to baseball, having spent less than five years working games for the Tidewater Tides, at that time a top farm team for the Orioles. He was only 37 years old when he entered the booth for the Tigers for the 1992 season.
Neither Rizzs nor Rathbun were known to Michigan sports fans. It was a doomed experiment from the start. In some ways, it felt like the pair knew it would be difficult.
“I can’t replace Ernie Harwell,” Rizzs told the Detroit News in March, ” I can only succeed him.”
To many Tigers fans the voices of Rizzs and Rathbun were a shock to their eardrums. To a generation or two of fans, it was a style of broadcasting that didn’t match their idea of what Tigers baseball was meant to be on radio.
Rizzs was an extremely enthusiastic broadcaster with a voice that seemed well-suited to hype a new movie or TV show, but not exactly what Tigers fans were accustomed to from Harwell, whose rich baritone was the soundtrack of their youth.
“Goodbye baseball!!!” was the home run cry that Rizzs preferred, and strangely Rathbun suffered through no fault of his own. His voice was remarkably similar to his broadcast partner, giving the new Tigers broadcasts a confusing “echo-like” sound. Who was speaking? Who are these guys?
Less than a year after he was booted out of the booth, Ernie Harwell was granted a lifeline. In August of 1992, Tom Monaghan, who made his money from his Domino’s pizza empire, revealed that he was selling the team to Detroit mogul and Little Caesar’s owner Mike Ilitch, one of those multi-millionaires who was a frustrated baseball player. The Tigers were being sold from one pizza maker to another.
Oh, and shortly after Ilitch yanked the Tigers away from his pizza rival, he fired Schembechler (by fax message).
One of the first things Ilitch did after the sale was announced was to express his desire to bring Ernie back to his perch in the radio booth. But first he and WJR would need to do something with Rizzs and Rathbun. The new duo each had three-year contracts, and if there’s one thing the Tigers and WJR hated was paying someone who wasn’t working for them.
In 1993, after a year of exile, Harwell returned to an uncomfortable working arrangement with his replacements. That season, Ernie called play-by-play for the 4th, 5th, and 6th innings of games, taking over from Rizzs, who stayed in the booth, which meant three voices were on air for 1/3 of each game. But the writing was on the wall: Harwell was going to get his job back.
In 1994, Ernie called full games on television, but in 1999, the final season for the franchise at Tiger Stadium, Harwell was back in the radio booth. By that time Rizzs had returned to the Mariners, and Rathbun was working NBA games for the Atlanta Hawks. Both men are still on those roles.
Harwell called his final game on September 29, 2002, coming to the end of his career on his own terms. His final season was an event, and by that time the Tigers were such a bad team, that Ernie was the only reason to tune in.
There are many things Mike Ilitch did wrong as owner of the Detroit Tigers. There was the terrible way he pushed Sparky Anderson out of the game. There were the years where he ignored player development while he focused on his other pet: the Red Wings. There were the three 13 consecutive losing seasons, punctuated by an embarrassing 119 losses in 2003. He sanctioned the changing of the famed Detroit logo. And there was the disrespectful way he abandoned Tiger Stadium without allowing the fans to mourn her loss.
But Ilitch’s decision to bring Ernie back gave Tigers fans something to celebrate while the team sucked in the 1990s. And it made Michigan sound better in the spring and summer for a little while longer.