Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell lamented never visiting Cuba

Sad news this morning that Ernie Harwell, the former longtime Voice of the Tigers, passed away Tuesday night at age 92 after a year-long battle against cancer.

Harwell had retired from the booth in 2002 and during his final broadcast, according to John Lowe's story in the Detroit Free Press, Harwell lamented having never visited Cuba:

At times during that final broadcast, he reminisced. One story involved a Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher named Hugh Casey. "One of my large regrets is that I never got to Cuba," he said. "The Dodgers trained in Cuba one year. Hugh Casey got in a fight with Ernest Hemingway."

Harwell broke into the majors as a broadcaster with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, so he missed the three times the Dodgers held spring training in Cuba -- 1941, '42 and '47 (the year they first brought Jackie Robinson to spring training).

The details of the story Harwell relayed that night are as follows: During one of those Dodgers spring visits to Cuba Casey slugged it out with Hemingway (shown in Cuba in this Life magaine photo, above) at Hemingway's house in Cojimar. A night of dinner and (many) drinks led the pair to put on the boxing gloves.

Hemingway's love of baseball is mentioned in Norberto Fuentes' book, Hemingway in Cuba. Fuentes describes how while Hemingway was recovering from hepatitis in November of 1955, he "enjoyed a rare indulgence."

He would settle himself for hours in front of the TV set to watch the outcome of Cuba's championship baseball games. He was a fan of the Havana club, a professional team whose red uniforms bore the figure of a lion. His impassioned TV viewing and his heated arguments in defense of Havana made (his doctor, Herrera) Sotolongo fear for Ernest's health. There was a certain American pitcher, Wilmer Mizell (whom the Cubans called 'Vinagre' Maicel) who was his special favorite and who broke a record that year, much to Hemingway's delight.

The record Vinegar Bend Mizell set was striking out 206 batters in 179 innings in the 1955-56 Cuban League season.

And of course, Hemingway himself alluded to baseball in his book, The Old Man and the Sea, when the character Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin, asks: "Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez? I think they are equal."

Adolfo Luque and Miguel Angel Gonzalez are the two most iconic baseball managers in Cuban League history. Gonzalez holds the league record for seasons managing (34), victories (851) and pennants (14), all with Habana. In 30 seasons, Luque compiled a 705-641 record, winning 11 pennants, mostly with Almendares.

As a broadcaster, Hawell was one of baseball's great storytellers. Imagine how many more great stories he might have told from the booth had he ever made it to Cuba.

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