As I'm sure you've heard, the great Ernie Harwell passed away yesterday. As the voice of the Tigers for four decades, Harwell was understandably a very meaningful motif in a lot of people's lives. His voice and his eloquence personified baseball for generations of fans in Detroit. It's the type of thing that happens when you take a talent like that and tie to a presence as strong and as constant as baseball for that long. The two become intertwined and entangled until one is synonymous with the other, and all those moments where baseball and Ernie were present unravel in one long, unbroken ribbon throughout people's lives. It's only natural that Ernie meant so much to the fans of Detroit.
I have to admit, I've never really had that type of presence in a broadcaster. I heard Jack Buck call games when I was a kid, but it wasn't long before age started to get to him. Mike Shannon eventually began taking over, and while he aired something of the buffoonish charm of the likes of Harry Caray (or at least of Harry Caray at that age), he lacked the sharply tuned observations or the crisply parsed conveyances that lit up a game you couldn't see unfolding. Occasionally, the observations deteriorated along with the annunciation in the later innings.
That's not to say Shannon can't touch people. I know fans who feel very deeply for Shannon's work. For many whose Ernie Harwell was Jack Buck, it was really Buck and Shannon, and the last decade or two have begun a new thread gently unraveling though the years against that jovial, sometimes slurred voice. For some of the younger generation, Shannon is it. But for me, he isn't.
Then there was TV. Radio has long since loosened the grip it had on the pipeline pumping baseball into people's homes before most people began taking in daily dosages of baseball in technicolor. When the voices in fans lives grew to cover twice the media sources, the consistent drone of baseball on the radio became a little less consistent. The need for a narrative line dwindled as people began to watch for themselves what was happening. The voices meant less on TV, and people paid less attention. Now, the internet readily provides real-time updates with no audio at all, an iconoclast tearing down the role of the voice of the game further still. The Ernie Harwell's of the game seem like dinosaurs in today's media.
We now live in a world where I can watch a game in Houston and the voice of Mark Grace can tell me that Michael Bourn is the Astros' most productive hitter, and it's not that hard to tune out. The voice doesn't mean all that much. I know Michael Bourn is not and has probably never been anybody's most productive hitter, because I don't have to rely on the voice telling me that for any of the information I get anymore. What's more, nobody even cares that he said something so ridiculous. Grace doesn't need to be particularly informed or particularly eloquent or particularly anything other than perhaps affable to Diamondback fans. They can see for themselves how Michael Bourn hits even as Grace says otherwise.
In the early part of my childhood, we didn't get cable, so I wasn't regularly watching games on TV. I don't even know if games were on every day yet back then. Watching the games on basic network stations was a treat, but I never got to know the voices. When we did finally get cable, I hadn't grown up long enough on the radio voices for them to really stick as an integral part of my life.
So I really have no idea what it actually feels like to have an Ernie Harwell in my life. That voice was just never there for me. Now satellite radio picks up games from all over the country (via outer space, which I can't imagine is very efficient), and I can hear some of the new voices in the game. None of them will ever stick like a Harwell, but there are definitely those that I like (Jon Miller of the Giants, for example). And now, with that new media having developed an affinity for the archives of days past when sentimentalism is ripe for exploitation, I've heard my share of Harwell's calls. Nothing like a Tigers fan, of course, but I've heard him, and the man had talent. I can say that as an outside observer who never felt the kind of connection to a voice that lifts someone like Harwell to legendary status. On the merits of his voice and his wit alone, I can feel in five minutes the tug that lets you latch onto a voice and spin it into the narrative of your life. Those generations of Tiger fans who speak of Harwell's impact on their lives makes perfect sense to me. That's the kind of talent Harwell was.
There's a song I think is particularly fitting here. It was written by Chuck Brodsky, a Philly fan, after Richie Ashburn died, and I think it conveys the meaning and feeling of the connection between a fan and a voice as well as anything I've ever heard. Without having felt that connection myself, I feel like this really gets it across well, so I think it serves as as good a tribute as any to that connection, be it to Richie Ashburn and Harry Kalas or to Ernie Harwell or to whomever. Hopefully Chuck wouldn't mind me posting his song: