The Other Harwell
Legendary Tigers broadcaster's brother Rick Harwell was a star in his own right
illustration by Craig LaRotonda
That Harwell boy from Georgia really made something out of himself, didn't he?
He grew up in Atlanta loving baseball, graduated from Emory University, served his country in the Pacific during World War II, and returned from overseas to become a standout in his profession. He wrote books, treasured music, and amassed an impressive trove of collectibles. He's long gone now, but people who knew him recall a man of intelligence, curiosity, generosity, and impeccable Southern manners.
Yes, Rick Harwell really was something.
That's right, Richard Barksdale Harwell. You know, Ernie's brother.
Well, you probably don't know. But that's to be expected, says Steve Davis, a marketing executive and self-described "armchair historian" based in Atlanta. After all, renown often boils down to simple provincialism. "In Civil War circles, we all know Rick," he says. "We would have blanked on Ernie."
In Detroit, of course, such amnesia would be unpardonable. Ernie Harwell spent 42 of his 55 big-league seasons broadcasting the Tigers, his distinctive Southern-inflected voice the soundtrack of summer for generations of fans. Many remember that the iconic broadcaster had interests beyond baseball, particularly music. (He had 66 compositions recorded by various artists.) There are a number of ways to measure his illustriousness, but this is as good as any: In 1981, even though his career still had another two decades to run, Ernie became the first active announcer inducted into the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
If Ernie were around today, he would be the first to express regret that there isn't a hall of fame for Civil War bibliographers, Gone With the Wind experts, mint julep aficionados, or all-around nice guys, because his brother would surely be worthy of induction in any of them. No less a luminary than James I. "Bud" Robertson Jr., one of the country's eminent Civil War scholars, considers Rick Harwell "my guru." Robertson, recently retired after a 44-year teaching career at Virginia Tech, was completing his doctorate at Emory when he sought Rick's help in shaping his thesis into a publishable manuscript
"You know how a thesis can be cold and dry," the 83-year-old scholar says from his home on Virginia's Potomac River. "Rick helped me to rewrite the manuscript and showed me how to inject drama into it." Robertson's book on General "Stonewall" Jackson's brigade was the first of his many well-received works. Rick also persuaded the reluctant Robertson to accept an offer to become executive director of the Civil War Centennial Commission in 1961.
Robertson successfully melded competing factions into a cohesive national commemoration and went on to become a consultant to presidents (he helped plan JFK's funeral) and filmmakers, a career trajectory that might have taken a different course without Rick's guidance. "He was my mentor in every way," Robertson says.
Rick was born in 1915 in the small town of Washington, Ga., and Ernie came along two-and-a-half years later. After a boll-weevil infestation ruined the local economy, their father, who ran a furniture store, moved the family 100 miles to Atlanta. There, Gray Harwell's tough luck continued, as surgery to remove a brain tumor left him confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Unable to work, his wife and sons became the breadwinners, with Helen Harwell making sandwiches and baked goods and Ernie and Rick delivering them via bicycle and streetcar.
The boys grew up working a variety of odd jobs that kept them busy outside of school, but not so busy that they didn't have time for baseball. Along the way, their personalities developed. Ernie, undersized and perpetually upbeat, was an instantly likable sort and a natural salesman. Rick, quiet and more sardonic, loved few things better than cozying up with a novel.
Ernie was a student at Emory when he began his broadcasting career at Atlanta's WSB in 1940. At the time, Rick had already earned a bachelor's in English and a graduate degree in library science at the same school. After starting his professional career with a two-year stint at Duke University's library, Rick was returning to Emory to begin a 16-year career in the stacks at his alma mater.
Both siblings had their aspirations put on hold by World War II. Ernie served as a correspondent with the Marines, his assignments taking him from the White House to a Chinese whorehouse, while Rick reportedly was the youngest minesweeper command-er in the navy. After the war, each resumed his career in earnest. Ernie started doing big-league play-by-play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, moving on to the New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles before settling into the Tigers' broadcast booth in 1960.
As Ernie became a familiar presence in the lives of millions, his brother quietly became a nationally recognized historian and bibliographer. In 1949, Rick helped found the Civil War Round Table of Atlanta, an organization devoted to the serious study and discussion of the Civil War. He was issued membership certificate No. 1 and elected the chapter's first president. In 1956, he left Emory for the Virginia State Library, followed by stays at Bowdoin College, Smith College, Georgia Southern College, and the University of Georgia. He retired in 1980. Throughout, he published dozens of books, most of them dealing with some aspect of the Civil War, particularly as it pertained to the Confederacy. He also wrote pamphlets, articles, and reviews, and was active in various professional societies. A man of wide interests, he even wrote a booklet about treatments of stuttering in adolescence, a topic he knew intimately. Growing up, he'd watched Ernie overcome the speech disorder after much effort.
Ernie received praise for his own books, all of which were chatty accounts of his life in baseball, but he always deferred to his scholarly brother. "He's the real writer in the family," he'd say.
Ernie's personal favorite was a little volume about the history and proper making of the mint julep, a drink that Rick was an acknowledged expert at. "It's a fun read," Philip Racine says. "Rick was a man who knew his whiskey."
Racine, today a retired history professor in Spartanburg, S.C., did his thesis at Bowdoin under Rick's direction. "Rick was very Southern," he remembers. "Not in his attitudes, but in his demeanor. He spoke very softly and was very courtly. He was a gentleman and really nice guy." James Robertson recalls a colleague who "listened more than he talked. I never heard him laugh, just smile. He never argued. He just wouldn't respond if he didn't agree with you."
Racine was among a group of friends Rick once took to Boston to meet Ernie, who was in town to broadcast a series at Fenway Park. "Rick was very proud of Ernie," Racine says. "They looked a lot alike. When you saw them together, it was just so obvious they were brothers. They were two interesting guys to be around."
Ernie, who loved trivia, always enjoyed bringing up the nugget that he had once been Margaret Mitchell's paper boy. But that was before the Atlanta author had gained worldwide fame for writing Gone With the Wind, a fame so suffocating that she never wrote an-other book. Rick, active in the same literary and historical circles as Mitchell, knew the writer intimately. In fact, she inscribed the very first copy of her bestseller to him. On Aug. 11, 1949, Rick was supposed to meet Mitchell and her husband for dinner. She canceled in favor of seeing a movie, and that evening was struck by a taxi while walking to the theater. Her tragic death caused Rick to start collecting materials associated with Mitchell, her book, and the film. Eventually he assembled the second-largest Gone With the Wind collection in the world, a treasure trove that fetched a six-figure sum after his death. He published four GWTW-related books, including an annotated volume of the author's correspondence that fanatical "Windies" consider the closest thing they'll ever get to Mitchell's autobiography.
Ernie assembled an impressive memorabilia collection of his own. His centered on vintage guidebooks, photographs, scrapbooks, programs, scorecards, and other sports-related ephemera. Soon the hoard of materials outgrew Ernie's home. In the 1960s he donated it to the Detroit Public Library, where it exists as the Ernie Harwell Collection. Today its estimated value is more than $2 million.
When it came to money, one might reasonably assume that a Hall of Fame broadcaster made a lot of it, certainly more than a librarian. But it was Rick who was more comfortably situated. While Ernie, who had a wife and four children to provide for, was chronically underpaid during the first half of his career, his bachelor brother was using his discretionary dollars to become an early investor in Xerox. As a librarian, Rick had recognized the potential for the new copying machines the company brought out in the late 1950s. He was also a shrewd dealer of rare books and manuscripts. His professional knowledge allowed him to buy low, sell high, and use the gains to enjoy the opera, foreign travel, and other good things in life.
Rick never married. According to relatives, he once was engaged to a girl who was killed in an automobile accident. James Robertson remembers the house Rick owned in Washington, Ga. "The place was impeccable. Rick was not a messy man. You could spend the night, get up, then go back into the room a few minutes later and it was as if nobody had ever slept there."
Rick Harwell died on March 9, 1988. He was 72 and had spent his final months wasting away from a stubborn respiratory illness. His body was cremated. Ernie, with the Tigers in spring training, missed broadcasting a game for the first time in his career to attend his brother's funeral. Robertson, a deacon, presided over the service.
"That's the one time I met Ernie," he says. "An absolutely lovely man. He was very emotional at his brother's passing."
The funeral featured none of the blandishments that accompanied Ernie's death from cancer on May 4, 2010, when more than 11,000 people filed past the 92-year-old announcer's open casket at Comerica Park. Crowds always energized Ernie, who remains a man of the people. There's a life-sized statue in the main concourse at Comerica Park and the long-running play, Ernie, at the City Theatre to help keep his memory alive. In addition, Wayne State University's athletic department recently announced plans to name its renovated baseball facility Harwell Field (see story at right).
"Ernie touched millions of people's lives," says WSU athletic director Rob Fournier. "Just by listening to him on the radio, summer after summer, you got the feeling that you knew him and he knew you. When a ball would go into the stands and Ernie would say, ‘A man from Hamtramck caught that one,' or from Bay City or wherever, you'd think, ‘How does he know?' Then you'd say to yourself, ‘Well, Ernie probably does know everybody.' "
Rick Harwell's legacy is commemorated in a more subdued fashion, something appropriate for a man most at ease in the quietude of the stacks. For the past 25 years, the Civil War Round Table of Atlanta has presented the Richard B. Harwell Award to the scholar judged to have written the year's best book on the Civil War. Recently, for the benefit of younger members, the organization finally got around to publishing a short biography to accompany the award. "We'd been giving out this award for years," says incoming chapter president Art Carey, "and a lot of us didn't really know who the guy was.