Thursday, May 6, 2010

The sad story of Ernie and Bo

Ernie Harwell and Bo Schembechler are both gone now so I feel free to tell this story.

Suffice to say, the two men, both icons in the state of Michigan, did not part company the best of friends.

In 1994, after Schembechler had been fired by the Tigers, I spent a day with Bo at his office in Ann Arbor and I asked him how he felt about the way he had been lambasted by the public and the press after he fired Ernie in 1991.

Bo clenched his teeth. His voice rose.

As unthinkable as this may sound today, Schembechler snarled:

"If I had been 10 years older, or he had been 10 years younger, I would have kicked his ass."

Harwell, I should point out, was nearing 73 in December of 1990 when the shocking decision to dump him as the Tigers' play-by-play broadcaster was announced. Schembechler was 61 at the time.

Bo had been made the scapegoat for Harwell's firing following the 1991 season. And Schembechler blamed Ernie, in part, for that.

But first, a little background:

When Harwell signed a five-year contract with the Tigers prior to the 1986 season, he indicated that would be his final contract.

However, by 1990, Ernie, who was still in good health and loving his job, had changed his mind.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Harwell, the Tigers and radio station WJR, the ballclub's flagship, had been secretly talking about going in another direction in the broadcast booth. Ratings had slipped and the station was reportedly anxious to try to attract a younger audience with a younger broadcast team.

Furthermore, WJR, as well as some in the Tigers' front office, were irked because Harwell insisted on doing play-by-play and nothing more. Ernie balked at suggestions he should do more in his spare time to promote the ballclub and the radio station -- without any additional compensation, of course.

Schembechler later told me that the radio station wanted to let Harwell go immediately after the 1990 season. But according to Bo, he insisted, "We will let Ernie work one more season, give him a farewell tour around the league, with the biggest raise in pay he has ever gotten in his life."

Schembechler thought he was being generous. In Bo's mind, he had Ernie's back.

After the 1990 season ended, Harwell, unaware that his future as the Tigers' broadcaster had already been discussed and decided behind closed doors, went to the ballpark with his agent/attorney Gary Spicer to negotiate a new contract.

Reportedly, Spicer asked the Tigers for another five-year deal and a raise in pay for his client.

But Schembechler refused to budge.

So, reluctantly, on December 18, 1990, Harwell signed the one-year contract for 1991 that Schembechler offered.

Ernie also asked the Tigers to schedule a press conference at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull the next day.

The Tigers assumed Harwell wanted to announce his own retirement, following the '91 season, and the ballclub was happy to oblige. WJR, unaware of how Harwell felt, even agreed to broadcast the press conference.

But Ernie was far from happy. He felt was being discriminated against because of his age.

Harwell didn't graciously say good-bye. Instead, he told his adoring public that he was, in fact, being fired.

"The radio station, WJR, and the Detroit Baseball Club have decided that 1991 will be the last year that I will broadcast play-by-play for the Detroit Tigers," Harwell declared in the bowels of Tiger Stadium, before a standing-room-only throng of writers, radio microphones and TV cameras.

A firestorm of protest erupted across the state and Harwell was eventually rehired by new Tigers' owner Mike Ilitch, after he purchased the team in August of 1992.

But the blame that was unfairly heaped on Schembechler for firing Ernie, the beloved voice of the Tigers, haunted Bo until the day he died.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting story, Jim. I'd never heard the whole thing anywhere. To me, it sounds like a debacle of miscommunication from top-to-bottom. I was very young at the time, but I remember parts of this when it was going on, and I didn't know anyone that actually wanted Ernie out of the booth. It just sounds like more typical mismanagement from the organization at the time. Most of the Monaghan regime's moves, from hiring Bo in the first place to drafting poorly, were wrong for the team, and this just falls right in line. In the end, though, I don't think you can blame Ernie for throwing the regime and Bo specifically under the bus. When faced with that position, I'd have done the same.


May 12, 2010 at 5:44 AM 
Blogger Michael said...

I know first hand that this story is essentially accurate. A little more - when harwell called for the press conferene, he did not invite Bo. He suggested, when asked, that he did invite Bo and Bo chose not to show up. Harwell lied. Look at Harwell's face when asked. He had the most disgusting smirk on his face at that time. I thought it was a pretty sh----y trick pulled by Harwell, a man who wore his religion on his sleeve. I never listened to another game he broadcast after that. I lost interest in the Tigers, till he was out of the picture. I turn the radio immediately when he commercials came on.

I remember listening in 1990 to almost all games on the radio. Harwell often had the wrong Detroit players at bat or on base. He had gotten pretty sloppy.

As an announcer, I liked George Kell much better. (That's not sour grapes, I really did)

May 14, 2010 at 8:53 AM 
Blogger Mike said...

I had exactly the opposite reaction to Michael; the Tiger's broadcasts were unlistenable after Harwell was pushed out, the weasels at WJR wanted rah-rah announcers no matter how bad the product on the field was. There were only a few lyrical announcers, and the Tiger's and WJR threw away one of the best parts of their franchise. That blustering talk attributed to Bo Schembechler is so off-putting; I feel he had no business taking that job in the first place.

March 9, 2012 at 10:29 AM 
Anonymous David Jonas said...

Ernie and Bo are two men I really admire. At the time though, all I heard about was how Bo fired Ernie and hated Bo for it. Eventually I learned that Bo was simply the only person man enough to take the heat when others were more involved in the decision to go in another direction. I don't know if those two ever sat down and patched things up. But they are both two of the most admired sports icons we have here in the state of Michigan and it would be a shame if they carried that grudge to their deathbeds.

February 27, 2013 at 9:50 AM 
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