Memories & Dreams: Harry Heilmann

By Marty Appel

One of the first ballplayers to transition from the field to the broadcast booth was Detroit’s Harry Heilmann, the four-time batting champion whose success at the plate came during an era when legendary hitters were dominant.

Make no mistake – the broadcasting of baseball games was a challenge for everyone who tried it in those early days of live sports on the air. Today’s announcers, skilled as they are, grew up hearing thousands of broadcasts. They couldn’t help but “know what to do” when the mike was live. The style had not only been set in childhood, it was ingrained in the consciousness.

But in the ‘30s, it was a frontier. That little voice wasn’t in the brain. You were live and you had to create something wholly new.

Harry wasn’t the first to go from the field to the booth – that was Jack Graney, the former Cleveland outfielder. After a decade out of the game, he was hired to be an Indians announcer in 1932. A year later, it was Heilmann’s turn, and he earned a following and stayed with it in the Detroit broadcast booth until his death from cancer in 1951.

“He did a most able job….and work hard he did” said Red Barber, high praise from Red, a perfectionist who seldom spoke well of players who moved to broadcasting.

In broadcasting Detroit baseball, Heilmann “joined” the beloved Ty Tyson in the booth, but beginning in 1943, Tyson’s voice was heard in metro Detroit, while Harry’s broadcast was carried over a network of Michigan stations. He thus established his own fan base in the years when Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer and Hal Newhouser were the star players.

As a ballplayer, playing at a time when offensive production was high, Harry rose to the top in the odd numbered years of 1921, 1923, 1925 and 1927, batting .394, .403, .393, and .398, to beat out Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker and Al Simmons, respectively. Had he delivered nine more well-timed hits in that span, he might have had four .400 seasons. No one ever did that.

If you had Heilmann on your fantasy team in 1929 – and why wouldn’t you – you would have seen him hit “only” .344 in his final year with the Tigers, good for just eighth in the league. (Of course, there were no fantasy teams then).   The Tigers proceeded to ask waivers on him, and he finished his career with Cincinnati in 1930-32. (He missed 1931 due to arthritis). To his great regret, he never did play for a pennant winner, but he broadcast for four of them.

A native of San Francisco, Harry hit right-handed and stood a solid 6’1”, weighing 195. He did not hit for power, and did not run well, but oh, he could hit. It took some tips from his teammate and manager, Cobb, to get him going early in his career, and the two became close friends. When Heinie Manush joined the team in 1923, the Tigers had three future Hall of Famers patrolling the outfield in Manush-Heilmann-Cobb, one of the great outfields of all time.

Harry was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame in 1952.