Merle Harmon: What a Life, and Loss
Every once in a while I am asked the most honorable men I know in broadcasting. Among others, I cite Ernie Harwell, 91-turned-19; Bob Wolff, the USA’s long-running sportscaster; and Merle Harmon, dead last week, at 82.
Quoting Shakespeare, Merle was nature’s nobleman — not easy, having worked for Charles O. Finley; aired the Milwaukee-headed to-Milwaukee Braves; and replacing Dizzy Dean on network television. For a time, life mirrored the Twilight Zone: “more like Alice in Wonderland,” he mused. The curiouser and curiouser is how Merle prevailed.
His window on America opened in southern Illinois. Then: Graceland College, the Navy, University of Denver and radio in Colorado. Harmon debuted on a 1949 Class-C doubleheader. “It lasted eight hours, the temperature was 104, and I had a headache,” duly noted on the air. A listener wrote: “Don’t tell us your troubles. Broadcast the game.”
Topeka’s team bus carried 17 players. Often it stopped, had to be pushed to a gas station, and maxed at 40 miles an hour — downhill. One rider, pitcher Ebbie Lubanski, bearded owner Joe Magoto: “I’m quitting baseball — my salary.” Joe pulled a gun: “Pitch your next game.” Lubanski packed, turned pro bowler, and snubbed meal money: $1 daily.
“The bucks went to the big club,” said Harmon. “Other things kept your interest.” One was Joplin’s 1950 shortstop.” At 18, Mickey Mantle already hit balls out of sight.” Doing 1952 basketball, Merle improved his. “No more bad passes,” Kansas coach Phog Allen said. “You players gotta see things happen — skip movies — rest your eyes.”
Allen mentioned Max Baer. Doctors told the boxer to visit California, lie on the sand, and look at the stars. “Instead, Max went there,” Phog said, “laid the stars, and looked at the sand.” Harmon never forgot the vision.”
Enter Charlie O.
In 1954, Merle did Kansas City’s last Triple-A season. Next year the Athletics relocated. Harry Truman threw out the first ball on Opening Day. Harmon huzzahed illusions: A’s 6, Tigers 2. “[Manager] Lou Boudreau, later an announcer, said, ‘If your team is good, you can criticize. If it’s lousy, show patience.’ In Kansas City, I was the most patient man in the world.”
The club never matched the ’55ers’ place (sixth) or gate (1,393,054). Nine skippers left. The A.L. lost K.C.’s 1960 All-Star Game, 5-3, despite a seven-Yanks roster. “[A's owner Arnold] Johnson gave ‘em Art Ditmar, Ralph Terry, Roger Maris,” said Harmon. “How it goaded us — ‘Yankees cousins.’” The A’s once bashed New York for 27 hits. “We felt like the powerhouse. ‘Course, the feeling didn’t last long.”
In December 1960, Chicago insurance broker Finley bought 52 percent of the team. Then Merle snubbed Charlie’s “Poison Pen Day” for Kansas City Star sports editor Ernie Mehl. “Ernie got baseball here in ’55 — and Finley’s trashing him!” said Harmon. Deeming Merle a traitor, Charlie sacked him in late 1961.
Nietzsche says, “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” What happened next made Harmon feel like Charles Atlas. “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.”
Both Sides Now
By late 1963, baseball’s ex-capital had become a lonely post, drawing 32 percent of 1957′s record date. Resigning, Voice Earl Gillespie saw Milwaukee’s writing on the wall. Could Merle, replacing him, retrieve its past? Attendance rose? Baseball yawned: only a temporary court order kept the Braves in town. “What a mess. They had to play ’65 in a city which knew it was losing them.” Mild and upright, Harmon became a loci of curse, slight, and hate.
“Hot? My seat burned. If I praised the Braves, people said, ‘Don’t root for traitors.’ If I didn’t, die-hards said, ‘Don’t mess up another club.’” Upping angst: an N.L. team record six players with 20 or more homers. “How could you not get excited?” Milwaukee vied till September, “baseball afraid we’d make the Series and County Stadium would be empty.”
Curiouser: a) Wisconsin swore the Braves’ 45-outlet network did games gratis. “A bank and three breweries paid, but wouldn’t say so — guilt by association”; b) WSB Radio Atlanta aired 53 games, 26 from Milwaukee. “One city doing every game even though its team is leaving. Atlanta doing a team it doesn’t have”; c) a legend, remerged as ghost.
In 1955, Merle visited Yankee Stadium — “first time, I’m quaking.” Entering the booth, he thought, “My God, it’s him.” Smiling, Mel Allen said, “Anything you need, let me know.” Fired in 1964, he took the next-year Atlanta job to avoid seeming yesterday’s dessert. Said Harmon: “We’d have cookouts in my yard and Mel’d pour his heart out about the Yankees” Why? he asked, like Milwaukee.
In October 1965, the Braves marched toward Georgia. Merle’s next mission: make Saukeville forget Dizzy Dean.
August 1961. Since 1955, Dean’s CBS TV “Game of the Week” had exteriorized baseball. One morning the phone rang at the A’s hotel in New York. “Merle Harmon?” a man said. “Yes,” Merle said, half-asleep. “This is Chet …,” the voice said. “Would you be interested in doing a national sports show for ABC TV?” Harmon tensed. A player was plainly kidding him.
“Sure, if I can work it into my schedule. Talk to my agent,” Merle jibed. “Who’s your agent?” said the man, undeterred. Harmon: “He’s tied up.” Caller: “We’d be glad to contact him, but can we see you? We’re leaving for Chicago today to do the [football] All-Star Game.”
Merle sat up, gulping: “Excuse me. Who are you?” Chet Simmons of ABC TV Sports: “We want to talk to you about a show — today.” Harmon reddened: “I must sound like a moron.” Simmons laughed: “Boy, it must be fun to travel with a baseball team.”
Next month, Merle began “Saturday Night Sports Final.” ABC named him baseball Voice for its new “Game of the Week” in 1965. CBS’s series entered only non-bigs cities — its rub, and beauty. “The heartland was its habitat,” said Harmon. By contrast, the blackout of, say, St. Louis hurt.
ABC’s “Game” aired Saturday, Memorial and Labor Day, and Fourth of July in every city. Like Jack Brickhouse, Merle evoked just folks. Like Vin Scully, he dashed cliche. Like Curt Gowdy, he was “breezy, relaxed, and stylish,” said TV Guide.
“We had a sense of the ‘first ever’,” he said, “a prototype for baseball TV since” — truly national. The problem was habit: weekends meant Dean.
Ol’ Diz a New Problem
The Yankees declined to join ABC’s 1965 package. Instead, CBS’s “Yankee Game of the Week” slayed Merle in Dallas and Des Moines. Worse, local TV split the big-city audience. “ABC’d show Cubs-Cards in New York, and the Mets’d kill us.” Desperate, one Saturday the network tendered a great chatterbox of the time.
At D.C. Stadium, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey joined the booth. “So loquacious, I almost asked him to do play-by-play,” Merle said, “but feared it would demean the office.” The Nats’ Bob Chance pinch-hits. Humphrey says, “Is he related to Dean Chance?” Bob was black, Dean white: Much of America still hailed Jim Crow. “I don’t think so,” said Harmon, retrieving the game.
Coverage ended Saturday, October 2. Harmon spent Friday phoning New York. Ahead by a game, the National League first-place Los Angeles hosted Milwaukee. If L.A. won, Merle flew to Cleveland — or via Chicago for the American League champion Twins. A Dodgers loss would revive the second-place Giants — and put him in San Francisco. Writer Jorge Luis Borges said, “I have known uncertainty.” Harmon now bore the “most uncertain 24 hours of my life.”
The last plane left at 12:15 A.M. Saturday. “I’ll only know where I’m going when I find how the Dodgers do!” Naturally, they went extra innings. At the airport, Merle tells the cabbie to “turn on the game!” L.A. wins. “Let’s see, this means Cleveland. Take me to United quick.” Finding a seat, he checks the ticket. Panic. “Cleveland? I’m supposed to be in San Francisco!” Arriving, Harmon calls ABC’s hotel. “Yes, Merle, this is your destination.” Going home, he was tempted to take a train.
Better Deja Vu in Brewtown
That month, NBC bought 1966-68′s “Game.” Merle had already aired the Jets and Steelers (local radio) and NCAA and American Football League (ABC). He liked more than respected football. “You’re fine if you prepare weekly like a player. Baseball — try finding something interesting as you say the pitcher throws the ball — especially if your team is out of the pennant race.”
Harmon found Minnesota in 1967. Dean Chance went 20-14. Harmon Killebrew had 44 homers. The Twins drew 1,483,547, more than they had or would at Metropolitan Stadium, and lost a last-day flag. “If we’d beaten Boston [the Sox won, 5-3], I’d have done the Series with [NBC's] Gowdy.” He hurt, but shone. “I’ll never forget the letter I got from a woman criticizing me for not rooting for the Twins.”
Harmon aired them through 1969. On April 1, 1970, his old team bought the Seattle Pilots for $10.8 million. “Calvin Griffith [Twins owner, releasing him] knew what Milwaukee meant to me.” County Stadium reopened April 7: Angels, 12-0. “I learned quickly that it’d be a long year” — too, how the Braves’ rape stung. “The feeling was: ‘We won’t be hurt again.’”
In 1971, Bob Uecker joined Merle in the Brewers’ booth. Harmon trained him, reveling in Uke’s growth. By 1973, Milwaukee passed a million for the first time since JFK. Slowly, the feeling warmed. 1975: 48,160 cheered Hank Aaron’s return from Georgia. 1978: The Brewers grand-slammed a record thrice in the first three games. 1979: Milwaukee more than tripled the Braves’ last-year gate. It was almost better the second time around.
“It took a while,” said Harmon, “to get back a decent team, then fans to get excited.” The ’82ers won a pennant. Curiouser: He was 850 miles away.
Coda for a Grand Career
In late 1979, inking a multi-year NFL TV pact, Merle ogled the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. “I’d have missed a dozen Brewers games.” Flagship WTMJ demanded he do each. Harmon chose none. “[He] will make more money [NBC],” mused The Milwaukee Journal, “get more exposure, and do less traveling.” Merle did “SportsWorld,” backup “Game,” and 1980 World Series. He did not, alas, call the Games. In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. America boycotted Moscow. NBC promptly pulled the plug.
“A great letdown,” said Harmon. Another: being axed by NBC in 1982 for Bob Costas, 29. What goes/comes around. In 1966, Gowdy replaced him on “Game.” Each joined the Rangers in 1982: Merle, play-by-play; Curt, planning and evaluation. A similar cycle was Nolan Ryan’s, K-ing 21 Hall of Famers in four different decades. One batted August 22, 1989. “Three and two to [Rickey] Henderson!” said Harmon. “Ryan gives the okay. Strike three! He did it! He did it! Number 5,000 for Nolan Ryan! A record that will never be broken.” As usual, Merle was right.
Harmon had each player and umpire sign a scorecard laser print, retiring after three no-hitters, Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III “guarantee,” and 1974 World Football League, The Los Angeles Times having said: “He may be the best radio football announcer of all time.” Wearable and modest, he exuded class. Routinely I routinely told friends: “If my son [now eight] is half the man Merle is, I’ll be one happy dad.”
The entrepreneur founded the Merle Harmon Fan Fair, soon the largest U.S. sports souvenir retailer. Later, the Mormon lay preacher went belly-up, had a heart attack, and beat both — each a breeze, he joked, vs. Finley, the lame-duck Braves, and Diz. Merle divided time between Dallas and Milwaukee, loved his children and grandchildren, and did not forget, and was not forgotten by, his public. Such amalgams are hard to find.
“Every day I do exercise on the treadmill,” the still-nobleman mused after a stroke. Richard Nixon once said: “I get up every morning just to confound my enemies.” Harmon got up to help his friends. God bless him, and He will.