During the post-Second World War era, baseball fans heard a steady diet of topnotch play-by-play sportscasters who either started or perfected their craft in New York City when three teams--Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees and New York Giants--were the toast of the town as well as dominant forces in the major leagues. In those years, two distinct, country-boy voices come to mind: Red Barber and Ernie Harwell.
Getting his start in the “Big Time” when hired by Cincinnati Reds GM Larry MacPhail in 1934, Mississippi-born Walter “Red” Barber brought baseball to the Ohio fans with a classy, Southern drawl that the locals fell in love with, especially women who learned a lot about the game from him. Barber used a folksy, dry wit, calling himself “The Ol’ Redhead.” He would belt “Oh, doctor” when an on-field play excited him. Over and above everything, he knew the sport. He used catchphrases such as a “Rhubarb,” which was his way of describing an on-field confrontation. “Walking in the tall cotton” was a player at the top of his game; and “They’re tearing up the pea patch” was a team on a win streak.
When Larry MacPhail moved over to the near-bankrupt Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, he was exposed to a silly, five-year agreement between the three New York major league teams in which the clubs promised not to broadcast their games for fear of hurting attendance. Although threatened by the two other clubs, MacPhail ignored the five-year pact, then negotiated a deal in 1939 with WOR, a 50,000-watt “blowtorch” radio station in New York City, and hired Red Barber away from the Cincinnati Reds to handle Brooklyn’s play-by-play. That same year, Barber broadcasted the first major league on television, from W2XBS, an experimental NBC affiliate.
With the Dodgers improved play on the field and tremendous fan interest with the instantly popular Barber at the mike, Brooklyn attendance soared from 660,000 in 1938 to just under a million in 1939, outdrawing the two other New York clubs. In the first year with WOR aboard, sponsors paid the Dodgers a whopping $113,000 for radio ads. Yankee and Giant management took note, and hired their own play-by-play radio people soon after, thus putting an end to anyone thinking the broadcasts would have a negative impact on attendance.
Winning 100 games in 1941, the Dodgers grabbed their first pennant in 20 seasons and attracted 1.2 million fans to Ebbets Field, the most in the majors. In 1942, the second-place Dodgers again led the American and National Leagues in attendance. Both Barber and MacPhail played a huge role in the Dodgers’ success, staving off the creditors and putting the team in the black for years to come.
While MacPhail left for war overseas following the 1942 season, Barber continued broadcasting for the Dodgers, witnessing more National League pennants in 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953, with near misses in 1950 and 1951, where he continued with his catchphrases. The one most suited to the borough was “The bases are F.O.B,” which meant the sacks were “Full of Brooklyns.”
Annoyed that owner Walter O’Malley didn’t back him up in relation to a contract dispute with Gillette in broadcasting the 1953 World Series games for NBC, Barber refused the low-paying assignment and left Brooklyn the next spring, joining the New York Yankees booth in 1954, where he teamed with Mel Allen doing radio and TV work in New York and some nationally until 1966.
Barber died in 1992 at age 84.
A Southerner from Atlanta, Ernie Harwell holds a record that no one will probably ever match: As a sportscaster with the Double A Atlanta Crackers over local radio station WATL, he was so highly thought of by Dodgers GM Branch Rickey that he was traded to the Dodgers in 1948 for a player, backup catcher Cliff Draper. That’s how badly Rickey wanted Harwell to break his contract with the minor league Crackers. Also, I guess that’s how badly Atlanta needed a catcher at the time. Incidentally, Harwell replaced Red Barber, who was on sick leave from a bleeding ulcer. When he returned, Barber and Harwell, along with Connie Desmond, formed Brooklyn’s broadcasting team.
After two years of this alliance, Harwell moved across town to the New York Giants from 1950-1953, where he teamed with Russ Hodges. Harwell was at the mike for NBC Television in 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit his coveted home run in the bottom of the ninth during the last game of the three-game playoff against the Brooklyn Dodgers to decide the National League pennant.
Fired from the Giants, Harwell was the radio voice of the Baltimore Orioles during their inaugural season in 1954. He stayed there until 1959, then joined the Detroit Tigers in 1960 for a long run teamed-up with several different personalities. For the first few years, he did radio and TV, then exclusively radio in “The Motor City.” Beginning in 1973, Paul Carey joined Harwell, and the two stayed together for 19 years until the end of the 1991 season, a record in Detroit sports broadcasting that still stands.
Like Red Barber, his fellow-Southern counterpart, Harwell had his own catchphrases. And they were classic. “He stood there like a house by the side of the road, and watched it go by” was a called strikeout. “That one is long gone!” was home run. “He kicks and deals” referred to a pitcher winding up and throwing from the mound; and his way of calling a double play was “It’s two for the price of one.”
In December 1990, WJR Radio--quite possibly influenced by Tigers President Bo Schembechler--decided to take Tiger baseball in a “new direction” and had asked Harwell and Carey to step down after the 1991 season. At 62, Carey was going to retire at that time, anyway. But the 72-year-old Harwell refused. Angry fans and the local media backed him up, while WJR and team management slung mud, blaming each other. Nevertheless, Harwell was gone for 1992, with Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun taking over.
Harwell then did part-time radio play-by-play for the California Angels. In early 1993, Mike Ilitch bought the Tigers and one of the first moves he made was get Harwell back in Detroit. For the season, Harwell teamed with Rizzs and Rathbun on WJR, handling the middle-innings play-by-play. He went on doing TV in town, then returned to Tigers radio until he retired in 2002, after 55 seasons broadcasting baseball, 42 of those with Detroit, while in between broadcasting different All-Star Games, World Series and post-season games nationally.
Harwell died in 2010 at the grand old age of 92, remembered forever as one of the most-loved play-by-play personalities in major league history and the most-loved in Detroit.