This article was written by Matt Bohn
For 19 seasons, Detroit Tigers baseball on the radio meant “Ernie and Paul.” From 1973 to 1991, Paul Carey and Ernie Harwell formed one of the most fondly remembered broadcast duos in Tigers broadcast history. One of their successors as the Tigers radio voices, Dan Dickerson, remembered “a real comfort level of turning on Ernie and Paul. I mean it was just ‘Ernie and Paul.’ How many broadcasters are known by their first names only?” Carey’s deep, resonant voice (Red Sox broadcaster Joe Castiglione called him “Mr. Pipes”), was compared by one newspaper columnist to that of Vaughn Monroe, the Big Band Era bandleader and baritone vocalist. Another columnist referred to Carey as the “voice of God.” Carey’s broadcast partner, Ernie Harwell, commented, “Paul has got a fantastic voice, the best voice I’ve ever heard on anybody. He makes anyone who works with him sound like a soprano.” For those 19 seasons, that deep voice brought the middle three innings of each Tigers game to the radio listeners.
Paul Carey was born in 1928 in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, to Joseph P. and Ida (Brugge) Carey. His father was a professor of geography at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant and later was chair of the geography department. Paul’s interest in Tigers baseball dates back to the Mickey Cochrane era. “In 1934, I was just a little too young,” he recalled in 2008. “I was 6 years old — too young to appreciate baseball, I think. In 1935 … that’s when I started listening to the Tigers and started becoming a Tiger fan.” Carey finally witnessed his first Tigers game at Navin Field. New York Yankees pitcher Red Ruffing beat Tigers hurler Tommy Bridges in that contest. “I think I may have cried all the way home that day,” he remembered. (It was likely a 7-4 win by the Bronx Bombers on August 29, 1937.)
Growing up listening to Tigers broadcaster Harry Heilmann describing the games on radio, Carey knew at an early age that he wanted to be a sportscaster. “It probably started out about in the sixth grade,” he recalled. “I would hang a little bicycle horn from the ceiling on a string and it looked like it was like a microphone. And I had football and baseball games with spinners, or dice, and I’d play them and I’d announce them as we went along.” As a teen during World War II, Carey hitchhiked to Detroit with a friend and watched Heilmann do a re-creation of a Tigers road game. Standing on the sidewalk, Carey watched Heilmann describe the play-by-play from ticker-tape reports as he sat in a booth in front of the Telenews Theater on Woodward Avenue.
Graduating from Mount Pleasant High School in 1946, Carey placed among the top ten in his class. He enrolled first at Central Michigan University in his home town, and transferred to Michigan State University two years later. “Central, at that time, didn’t have any radio facilities at all and Michigan State had a longstanding radio station,” Carey said. “So I transferred to Michigan State.”
While still a student at Michigan State, Carey landed his first job in radio at WCEN, a start-up station in Mount Pleasant. There he had his first experience with baseball play-by-play. “The very first baseball play-by-play I did was my first week in radio,” Carey recalled. “We went on the air on August 8, 1949, and in that first week, we tried to do a lot of things to get the people listening to us, and one of the things we did at the end of that first week was a Sunday afternoon game at Island Park in Mount Pleasant.” Setting up a microphone on a card table at ground level behind the backstop, Carey broadcast a game between the Mount Pleasant town team and a team from a nearby town. “So that was my first taste of doing baseball. But I didn’t do any baseball again, frankly, until I started doing the Tigers,” he said.
Carey also covered the football and basketball games of Mount Pleasant High School and Central Michigan University on WCEN. Because the station stayed on the air only during daytime hours, Carey had to record Friday night games and air the recording on Saturday. Transportation to his job at WCEN was also a challenge. “I was hitchhiking back and forth from Michigan State my senior year at college to work weekends in Mount Pleasant,” Carey recalled. “Going back and forth and relying on the kindness of people to pick you up to take you 70 miles north to Mount Pleasant. … it’s amazing that we were able to do that.”
After graduating from Michigan State in 1950, Carey continued to work at WCEN until he was drafted during the Korean War. After serving in the infantry with the Army for two years, he returned to Mount Pleasant and went right back to work at WCEN, providing play-by-play for high-school and college football games just days after returning from the service.
In the spring of 1953, Carey moved to WKNX radio and WKNX-TV in Saginaw, Michigan, where he gained some experience in television. Carey remembered, “I wound up being the afternoon disc jockey at WKNX for three years and three months. And I was program director of the radio station for two years. And I did a lot of commercial work on television and it got so that I got the feel of it.” Working at WKNX, Carey did little sports play-by-play, though he did cover the Thanksgiving Day games between Saginaw High and Arthur Hill High School in Saginaw.
Hired as a staff announcer by Detroit AM radio powerhouse WJR in June 1956, Carey began a scoreboard show on the station that fall. His experience doing that show led to his being assigned to handle the Tigers’ pregame shows from Briggs Stadium on the handful of home night games that WJR covered in 1958. Carey recalled being nervous about the assignment: “I was kind of out of my depth. I’m nervous and never enjoyed interviewing anyway.” He credited Mel Ott, the Hall of Famer who was then a member of the Tigers’ broadcast crew, with helping him get through the season. “One of the finest people I have ever known in my life,” Carey said of Ott. “I think he sensed that I was nervous and needed help. And Mel went on with me three or four times by himself. Or he would help me find somebody. He was just the biggest help to me and just a wonderful person.” Carey continued doing the pregame shows through the 1959 season. When the format changed in 1960, Ernie Harwell took over Carey’s pregame show. “I was just as happy not to do it,” he said.
In 1964, Carey became the producer of the Tigers’ radio network. When broadcaster Ray Lane announced that he was leaving the Tigers radio crew in 1973 to focus more on TV work, a friend persuaded Carey to send in an audition tape and apply for Lane’s job. “And I didn’t have any tape,” he recalled. “I had never done a game. So I didn’t have anything to call on. So I manufactured a game. I kind of wrote a script and I got a crowd noise record and I may even have had a wind noise record. I made a mock broadcast of a game from Arlington Stadium between the Texas Rangers and the Tigers.” Figuring he would not have a chance to get the job, Carey was surprised and thrilled when he beat out 150 other applicants to be hired as Ernie Harwell’s partner on radio. Summing up why he believed he got the job, Carey said, “I think without question the fact that I did the Tiger network for eight years … but more importantly, I had been working at WJR since 1956 and WJR owned the rights to the Tiger games and I was one of their sportscasters. I think that was the thing that got me the job more than anything else — not my ability to do baseball because I hadn’t done it.” Not to that point, anyway.
Working alongside Harwell, Carey was part of a broadcast team that was remembered fondly — particularly by the Tigers broadcasters who followed them. Tigers radio voice Dan Dickerson first listened to the duo while in his teens and he recalled, “There was such a smooth transition from Ernie to Paul: different styles, different voices but both were just so good. I don’t think there’s any question that’s why I became such a loyal radio listener. I listened through thick and thin, I’m telling you. They lost 19 straight in ’75, I’d listen to most games just because I liked it. I don’t think there’s any question those two helped me get hooked on baseball.”
Television broadcaster Mario Impemba echoed Dickerson’s feelings. “Growing up in Detroit, the Ernie Harwell-Paul Carey team greatly influenced the way I broadcast a game today,” Impemba said. “No one could really match Paul’s thunderous pipes, but his style is what caught my attention as a young listener. Paul was outstanding at letting the ballpark sounds fill a broadcast. His style was straightforward and easy on the ears. I think he had a tremendous respect for the game. The story was always the game and not the announcer. Too many announcers today try to become the show and overshadow the game. Paul knew his job was to report what was happening on the field, nothing more, nothing less. He let the game breathe which allowed his listeners to use their imagination.”
Carey also provided play-by-play for Detroit Pistons basketball in three different stints (1969-73, 1975-76, and 1981-82). Carey found basketball an easier sport to do than baseball. “I always figured basketball was probably the sport I could do better than anything,” he said. He found baseball more difficult because of the slower pace of the game. “You have periods of time where there is very little going on. That’s when someone like Ernie would excel because he had these stories and memories, and that’s how Harry Heilmann excelled. He had these wonderful stories of his days in baseball and the people he knew. I didn’t have that background. So I had to scrounge and do a lot of research and a lot of study.”
In 1975, WJR, seeking to save money, told Carey that he would have to take on added duties; not only would he have to provide play-by-play, but he would have to be the engineer for the baseball broadcasts. “I was faced that winter with the proposition of no longer being a Tiger announcer or taking on the engineering job as well as being an announcer. And I wanted to continue to be a Tiger announcer,” he recalled. “I was told in 1975 that it was the coming thing — that others would be following suit shortly. Well, to this date, 2008, there’s no major-league announcer who has also been his own engineer. I’m the only one who’s ever done it.” For 16 seasons, Carey handled engineer duties as well as providing play-by-play. “After a while I got very accustomed to it but I never did really like it,” he said of his dual role.
Having broadcast many subpar Tigers teams for several years, Carey had a different feeling about the team coming into the 1984 season. During spring training in Lakeland, Florida, a reporter from the Lakeland Ledger asked him to predict where the Tigers would finish. Carey remembered, “I was a pessimist anyway, and I picked them to finish third.” When he walked into the Tigers’ clubhouse the day his prediction hit the paper, “Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish just jumped all over my case because I picked them to finish third. ‘Don’t you know better, Carey?! We’re going to win it all!’ And they knew then they were going to win it all. There was no question.”
When the Tigers did make it to the World Series in 1984, Carey’s joy for his team’s success was overshadowed by the illness of Patti, his wife of 23 years. Ernie Harwell recalled in his book Tuned To Baseball, “To me, the gutsiest performance of the World Series didn’t happen on the diamond. It happened in our radio booth. It was the performance of Paul Carey who worked under tension and pressure which would have been unbearable for a lesser man. He broadcast most of the Series knowing that his wife, Patti, had been stricken with a malignant brain tumor.” Carey learned just before Game Three of the World Series that his wife’s condition was terminal. “Here he was in the happiest time for the Tigers,” Harwell wrote. “But for Paul, it was the saddest time of his life.” Carey remembered the prognosis: “Optimistically they gave me nine to fifteen months. She lasted five. That was a very tough time in my life.”
Though busy with covering the Tigers and with studio work, Carey still found the time to help a young broadcaster looking for advice. Tigers announcer Dan Dickerson recalled that in 1984 he was working at a radio station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was struggling with scant success to gain some notice in the Detroit market. He contacted Carey. “I just asked if I could come in and see how he did his job and kind of shadow him for a Sunday afternoon. He said ‘Sure.’ So I went down to [the station] … and he sat with me and told me what he did and how he did it. I was just trying to pick his brain a little bit but he spent hours with me on a Sunday afternoon, which obviously are busy days in the fall. … But I’ll never forget that he gave me the time of day when nobody else did.”
By 1990, Carey was ready to retire. He was thinking about retiring after the 1990 season, but reconsidered when he learned that he would no longer have to do engineer duties in 1991. “I wanted to experience being just an announcer again,” he said. Telling WJR station manager Jim Long in November 1990 of his intention to retire, Carey was shocked when he learned just a few weeks later that Harwell had been fired. Remembering the 1991 season as “bittersweet,” he said, “I was not looking forward to not doing the games. But I was looking forward to traveling and having the time from mid-February until October on my own. I was ready to retire.” After an emotional goodbye to Ernie and the fans, Carey retired at the end of the year.
Carey married the former Nancy Wackerly in 1987. They began to spend their winters in the Pensacola, Florida, area, and in Rochester, Michigan, the rest of the year. He was still keeping up with baseball every day, though he didn’t go to many games at Comerica Park. In the spring of 2008, Carey underwent surgery to remove a blockage in his right carotid artery. The day before the surgery, he got a phone call from a close friend: Ernie Harwell. “The day before, he prayed with me on the telephone. I think that’s really special.”
He died at age 88 on April 12, 2016, at his Rochester home of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease.
A version of this biography originally appeared in “Detroit Tigers 1984: What A Start! What A Finish!” (SABR, 2012), edited by Mark Pattison and David Raglin.
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March 15, 1928 at Mt. Pleasant, MI (US)
April 12, 2016 at Rochester, MI (US)
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