Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann was one of the greatest players in the history of the Detroit Tigers, having won four batting crowns during the Roaring Twenties and becoming the last right handed hitter in the American League to hit over .400, but he found a second career as a beloved play-by-play announcer.
WWJ Radio’s Ty Tyson first pioneered Tigers’ broadcasts in 1927 and continued as the sole announcer until 1934 when WXYZ hired Heilmann, the first former major leaguer to enter the broadcast booth.
It was a godsend for Heilmann, who had his Detroit insurance business wiped out during the depression.
While Ty Tyson broadcast games on WWJ radio to local listeners, outstate Michigan fans tuned into “Ol Slug” on WXYZ. Heilmann’s broadcasts were filled with stories from his heyday and his down home style became popular with fans. When a ball was going out for a home run, Heilmann’s call was, “Trouble, trouble.”
According to Curt Smith, the author of Voices of the Game, “Heilmann was rough when he started announcing and often used slang but he took lessons in English and elocution, and “worked at it as hard as he had hitting.”
Tyson worked Tigers’ games on WWJ through 1942, but the following season the team granted exclusive rights to WXYZ with Heilmann at the helm. (Tyson returned to Tigers’ telecasts in 1947.)
Sadly, while working during spring training at Lakeland in 1951, Heilmann was diagnosed with lung cancer. After a few weeks in a Florida hospital he was flown back to Detroit in the private plane of Tigers’ owner Walter O. Briggs.
“He didn’t want anyone to know it,” daughter-in-law Marguerite Heilmann told writer Dan D’Addona. “He was a very private person. They didn’t do much treatment in those days. You were mostly just sent home to die.”
He entered Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital on March 31st and was discharged on April 28th before courageously returning to the broadcast booth with Tyson who had taken over the radio play-by-play.
Despite being gravely ill, Heilmann took his turn broadcasting a few innings, much to the delight of fans throughout Michigan.
In the image that accompanies this article, Heilmann, in the foreground, is seen in the Briggs Stadium booth with Tyson on June 2, 1951. Heilmann would be readmitted to Henry Ford Hospital on June 24th, and just 15 days later, on the eve of the All-Star Game played in Detroit on July 10th, he passed away at the age of 56.
It has been reported that on his deathbed, his former teammate and manager Ty Cobb told him that he was going to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor that was long overdue.
Upon Heilmann’s death, Cobb was quoted in the New York Times saying, “I rate Harry the greatest right-handed hitter I have ever seen.”
At the midsummer’s classic, there was a moment of silence in Heilmann’s honor as members of the American and National League teams stood down the baselines with their heads bowed.
Two days later at a packed Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, the famous radio priest Father Charles Coughlin celebrated a High Requiem Mass before burial at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield.
Ty Cobb would lead the campaign to elect his former teammate, and six months after Heilmann’s passing, Ol’ Slug was finally elected to the Hall of Fame on 87% of the ballots.
Although there remains a wonderful, complete game broadcast of Ty Tyson doing the play-by-play of the September 20, 1934 game against the Yankees from Navin Field, (available from //www.baseballtapes.com OR 1-877-930-0800) unfortunately I do not believe there is a tape in existence of a Heilmann broadcast. (If there is please let us know!)
From what I’ve been told, some fans who had the pleasure of listening to Harry Heilmann say he was even better than Ernie Harwell.
Now that is really saying something.