By the time I came to Atlanta, Ernie Harwell was already gone.
Stationed in New York broadcasting major league baseball, a career that never ran out of sand in his hourglass until last season. He developed cancer, knew that it was a one-way trip, took his leave as gracefully as he lived, and passed away the other day. He had lived 92 grace-filled years, and openly proclaimed his Christian faith.
Probably never has there been, or will ever be, a broadcaster who became so faithfully welded to his team, the Detroit Tigers.
But no matter how long he lived, he could not escape the one major rarity in his career — he was the only broadcaster who made it to the major leagues in a trade for a player.
When Red Barber, of the molasses voice delivery, came down ill and the Brooklyn Dodgers needed a replacement with a kindred Southern delivery, Branch Rickey made a trade — a catcher named Cliff Dapper for Ernie Harwell, then broadcasting Atlanta Crackers games in the Southern Association. It so happened that Earl Mann, who operated the Crackers, was in the market for a manager.
They made a deal — Dapper for Harwell. Dapper had played eight games for the Dodgers in 1942, followed by a tour of military duty, eventually became manager of the Crackers, but never saw major league light of day after that. He returned to the Pacific Coast League and there played and managed out the rest of his career.
Now, for the kicker to this story: Not until September 2002 did Dapper and Harwell ever meet. The Tigers unveiled a statue of Ernie at new Comerica Park and Cliff Dapper was invited to the ceremony in Detroit.
That's just a sliver of the exciting life that Ernie Harwell lived, quite a spread for a lad born in Washington, Ga., educated at Emory University and wet-nursed in a career of journalism at the Atlanta Constitution, then at radio WSB, that "covered Dixie like the dew."
He was a good friend, not close as were many others, but dinner mates at times, and as a highlight for me, my companion as we were inducted together into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1989. I have a picture of us, standing there with baseball bats in our hands, rather awkwardly held.
A great moment. A great man. One who lived his faith as he served his profession.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures likes Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.