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August 14, 2013

Honoring Ernie: WSU set to introduce Harwell Field to fans

By Jason Carmel Davis
C & G Sports Writer

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Wayne State University will break ground its Harwell Field Project in spring 2014, according to WSU athletic director Rob Fournier.

DETROIT — Officials at Wayne State University and officials with the Ernie Harwell Estate and Ernie Harwell Foundation have embarked on a project that will ensure the longtime, beloved Detroit Tigers announcer’s name lives on.

WSU, the Ernie Harwell Estate and Ernie Harwell Foundation announced June 6 the establishment of the Harwell Field Project during a press conference held at the WSU baseball field, which sits north of Warren Avenue and east of Trumbull Avenue.

The project is an outreach effort to build a baseball stadium in recognition of Ernie and Lula “Lulu” Harwell — Ernie’s wife of 62 years, according to WSU Associate Athletic Director for Media Relations Jeff Weiss. The goal of the effort is a two-phase project that will see the construction of a 500-seat grandstand, press box, team clubhouse and foyer to feature, display and recognize the achievements and contributions of the Harwells, according to WSU Athletic Director Rob Fournier.

The groups have already begun collecting donations for the project — from private and public donors, according to Fournier, who said the project has been in the works for three years.

“You look at where our stadium is located — so close to (the old Tigers Stadium) and Comerica Park — and this all makes sense,” said Fournier, WSU AD since 2000. “Mr. Harwell was a historian of the game, so we want to bring some of that history to life.”

The WSU baseball stadium, which local prep teams utilize during the Michigan High School Athletic Association baseball and softball state playoffs, sits near Brooklyn Avenue in Detroit.

Harwell began his broadcast career in 1948, calling games for the Brooklyn Dodgers, which played at Ebbets Field at the time. Fournier said he wants the stadium to have a similar look to Ebbets field. He has already overseen projects that have led to the former Tigers Stadium scoreboard being displayed on a “Green Monster” façade, similar to what is displayed at Fenway Park in Boston.

Ernie Harwell’s longtime attorney, S. Gary Spicer, said during the June 6 press conference, currently available at www.wsuathletics.com, that WSU is the most under-recognized, underappreciated university in the country.

“What they’re doing here, very quietly, is very exciting,” Spicer said.

The initiative will be managed through WSU’s development unit and is endorsed by the Ernie Harwell Estate and Ernie Harwell Foundation, according to Weiss. All contributions will be used exclusively for the project, he said.

“We want there to be some uniqueness with our stadium. We want it to feel special,” said Fournier, who in 13 years as WSU AD has secured nearly $10.6 million in revenue, excluding an additional $1.37 in deferred gifts, according to the WSU athletics website. “So, to me, with the history of baseball in this city and with the history Mr. Harwell has with the city, this only made sense.

“Mr. Harwell is all that’s great about baseball, and we at (Wayne State University) want to showcase that.”

“I’m always pleased to hear people talk about my wonderful husband,” said Lula Harwell during the June 6 press conference. “I miss him so.”

Phase I of the project, which includes the main facility in the likeness of the Ebbets Field façade and grandstand, will cost about $550,000, Fournier said, adding he hopes to break ground on the project in spring 2014. Phase II — team clubhouse and foyer — will cost about $1 million, the WSU AD said.

The school and Harwell-related groups have already raised about $250,000, Fournier said.

“We’re hoping to get things rolling next spring,” said Fournier, who in his time at Wayne State has overseen improvements made to the school’s football, softball, track and field, and basketball facilities.

“Hopefully, if everything goes according to plan and we get started next spring, that will entice more people to contribute for the second phase, once they see what we’ve already got accomplished.”

Warriors baseball coach Ryan Kelley said he’s excited about the prospects of the improvements. He said he has been involved in fundraising efforts, hosting potential donors on tours and participating in discussions about the project.

The WSU baseball coach added the new facilities will feature ample opportunity for visitors to learn about Ernie Harwell, who called Tigers games on the radio and television for two stints over a 42-year period.

“This is something that everyone, not just the baseball team, but everyone in the athletic department believes will bring so much to the school and the (Midtown Detroit) area,” said Kelley, who will enter his sixth year with the team in 2014 and who led the Warriors to the NCAA Division 2 baseball tournament from 2009-11.

“The magnitude of the Harwell name brings about so many different thoughts to people who grew up here, and we’ll do our best to represent that name with honor and class.”

Fournier said there was talk of dropping the WSU baseball program just before his tenure began. He said he and other WSU athletic officials have done as much as they can to reinvigorate the program, which has won at least 32 games each of the last four years.

Kelley, who played on Big Ten league and tournament champions at the University of Michigan, guided the Warriors to a Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title in 2009.

“There’s a level of excellence that we will look to maintain here,” Kelley said. “Most of our players grew up around here and grew up Tigers fans, so they know who Ernie Harwell is, and we’ll definitely try to do his name and family proud.”

Kelley and Fournier said the field would be great for youth leagues and summer teams to use. Kelley said about 50 youth teams and high schools use the field every spring and summer. Local teams Sterling Heights Stevenson (baseball) and Utica Ford II (softball) played MHSAA Division 1 state quarterfinal games on the WSU field in June.

Kelley acknowledged the upgrades could help future recruiting efforts, but said the team must perform on the field to draw players to the school.

“Anytime you have upgrades to your facilities, that’s a good thing,” Kelley said, “but we still need to play well on the field, and conduct ourselves accordingly off the field and in the classroom.”

The improvements will have a major impact, Fournier said. He said they would honor a legend and help the school’s baseball program long term.

“We want to put our programs in the best position to succeed and sustain that success over a long period of time,” Fournier said. “That’s what this is all about.”

Contributions should be made to Wayne State Athletics/Harwell Field and mailed to the WSU Athletic Department, 5101 John C. Lodge, Detroit, MI 48202.