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Longtime Tigers broadcaster Harwell dead at 92

DETROIT -- Nobody knows better what Ernie Harwell meant to baseball in Michigan than Kirk Gibson.

"I grew up basically in the Detroit area and I listened to Ernie Harwell as long as I can remember," the former Tigers slugger said. "He was Mr. Everything. He was an icon."

Beloved by generations of fans who grew up enraptured by his rich voice, Southern cadence and quirky phrases on the radio, Harwell died Tuesday after a months-long battle with cancer. He was 92.

The longtime Detroit Tigers broadcaster died about 7:30 p.m. in his apartment at Fox Run Village and Retirement Center in the Detroit suburb of Novi, said his attorney and longtime friend, S. Gary Spicer.

His wife of 68 years, Lulu, and his two sons and two daughters were at his side, Spicer said.

"We'll miss you, Ernie Harwell. You'll forever be the voice of summer," Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm tweeted.

Indeed, from the deepest corner of the Upper Peninsula down to the pulsing heart of the Motor City, fathers and sons, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors -- they all listened to Harwell tell Tigers tales for more than 40 years.

A Hall of Fame announcer who was acquired by the Brooklyn Dodgers for a catcher in 1948, Harwell revealed in September that he'd been diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the bile duct. He took the news with characteristic poise, saying he planned to continue working on a book and other projects.

"Whatever happens, I'm ready to face it," Harwell told The Associated Press on Sept. 4, 2009.

His body will lie in repose at Comerica Park on Thursday beginning at 7 a.m. and "until the last person who wishes to pay their respects" has done so, Spicer said.

"It might be an all-night vigil," he added.

There will be no public memorial service, and the family will hold a private funeral service at a location Spicer declined to disclose.

The Tigers plan to wear patches on their uniforms honoring Harwell for the rest of the season. Prior to Monday night's home game against the New York Yankees, a flag bearing his initials will be raised in center field.

"What a voice," longtime Detroit shortstop Alan Trammell said. "He did it with class, he did it with dignity. We shed a tear tonight, that's for sure."

The Tigers were in Minnesota on Tuesday night. During the seventh-inning stretch, the Twins announced that Harwell had died, and fans honored him with a standing ovation.

"All of Major League Baseball is in mourning tonight upon learning of the loss of a giant of our game," commissioner Bud Selig said. "Without question, Ernie was one of the finest and most distinguished gentlemen I have ever met."

Shortly after Harwell announced that he was ill, the Tigers honored him during a game against Kansas City, showing a video tribute and giving him a chance to address the crowd at Comerica Park.

"In my almost 92 years on this Earth, the good Lord has blessed me with a great journey," Harwell said at a microphone behind home plate. "The blessed part of that journey is that it's going to end here in the great state of Michigan."

Harwell spent 42 of his 55 years in broadcasting with the Tigers, joining Mel Allen, Jack Buck, Harry Caray and others among the game's most famous play-by-play voices.

Harwell announced Detroit games on radio from 1960-1991, again in 1993 and from 1999-2002. He broadcast games on over-the-air and cable television from 1960-64 and 1994-98.

When he signed off following his final game in 2002, Harwell was as eloquent as ever.

"Rather than goodbye, please allow me to say thank you. Thank you for letting me be part of your family. Thank you for taking me with you to that cottage up north, to the beach, the picnic, your work place and your backyard. Thank you for sneaking your transistor under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers. Now, I might have been a small part of your life. But you've been a very large part of mine. And it's my privilege and honor to share with you the greatest game of all," he said.

The Tigers and their flagship radio station, WJR, allowed Harwell's contract to expire after the 1991 season in what became a public relations nightmare. But when Mike Ilitch bought the franchise from Tom Monaghan, he put Harwell back in the booth in 1993. Harwell chose to retire after the 2002 season.

"Ernie Harwell was the most popular sports figure in the state of Michigan," said Ilitch, who also owns the NHL's Detroit Red Wings.

Harwell's big break came in unorthodox fashion.

Brooklyn Dodgers radio broadcaster Red Barber fell ill in 1948, and general manager Branch Rickey needed a replacement. After learning that the minor league Atlanta Crackers needed a catcher, Rickey sent Cliff Dapper to Atlanta and Harwell joined the Dodgers.

By his own count, Harwell called more than 8,300 major league games, starting with the Dodgers and continuing with the New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles before he joined the Tigers.

His easygoing manner and love of baseball endeared him to Detroit fans, enhancing the club's finest moments and making its struggles more bearable.

Even casual rooters could tick off Harwell catch phrases: "Looooooong gone!" for a home run; "He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by" for a batter taking a called third strike; and "Two for the price of one!" for a double play.

Foul balls into the stands were "Caught by a man from (whatever town in the area that came to his mind)."

"I started that after I got to Detroit in 1961 or '62, and it just happened by accident," Harwell explained. "I said, 'A guy from Grosse Pointe caught that foul ball,' then the next ones were caught by a guy from Saginaw or a lady from Lansing."

The Baseball Hall of Fame honored Harwell in 1981 with the Ford C. Frick Award, given annually to a broadcaster for major contributions to baseball.

A life-sized statue of Harwell stands at the entrance to Comerica Park and its press box is called "The Ernie Harwell Media Center."

Harwell was born Jan. 25, 1918, in Washington, Ga., with a speech defect that left him tongue-tied. Through therapy and forcing himself to participate in debates and classroom discussions, he had overcome the handicap by the time he graduated from Emory University.

Harwell's survivors also include seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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Associated Press Writer Jim Irwin and AP Sports Writers Kristie Rieken in Houston, Alan Robinson in Pittsburgh and Mike Fitzpatrick in New York contributed to this report.