Baseball's Giants of Jazz

We cherish Ernie Harwell and other masters of improvisation because we may not hear a sound like theirs again
May 16, 2010

Tributes poured in from all over the nation as a city that is falling apart united in its heartache. Seventeen hours after the Tigers opened Comerica Park to the public last Thursday, there was a line around the corner to see the body of a 92-year-old man who described baseball for a living.

Detroit grieved for Ernie Harwell, who died of cancer of the bile duct on May 4, as deeply as St. Louis grieved in 2002 for Jack Buck and Los Angeles someday will grieve for Vin Scully, and for good reason: In their cities these men created and perfected an American art form. Baseball play-by-play owes these originals the same debt that jazz owes Louis Armstrong.

Harwell came up in an era when announcers were performers first and informers second. Many of Harwell's early colleagues were singers who were recruited into the broadcast booth, and Harwell (who moonlighted as a songwriter throughout his career) surely got his first breaks more for how he sounded than for what he said. His voice, inflected with the cadences of his native Georgia, was meant for broadcasting; Harwell must have reached into a radio to borrow it.

As the nation's appetite for spectator sports grew larger, there was a cultural opening for men (and they were all men) who combined a singer's voice with an athlete's knowledge. Broadcasters such as Harwell, Red Barber, Scully and Buck defined the job while they did it. It was as if the guys who invented paint also happened to be Monet, Rembrandt and Picasso.

There would be many great broadcasters after these gentlemen but fewer and fewer distinctive voices. In Michigan even the most casual fans know their Harwellisms: When a batter took a called third strike, Ernie would say, "He stood there like the house by the side of the road"; when the Tigers turned a double play, they got "two for the price of one"; and every foul ball landed in the hands of "a young man from Flint" or "a lady from Ypsilanti" or some other fan with a hometown that Harwell had randomly assigned. But Harwell ad-libbed those catchphrases on live broadcasts. This is what happens when a master vocalist wings it for 500 hours a year for 55 years.

He seemed as if he had been around forever and sounded as if he'd been around for even longer. After Harwell died, Tigers fans said he reminded them of their grandfather, or their childhoods, and maybe what they really meant was that he reminded them of their grandfather's childhood.

It is ironic, then, that a man who reminded so many people of the past absolutely refused to live in it. Ernie Harwell said that his favorite movie was My Cousin Vinny and that one of his two favorite stadiums was Seattle's new Safeco Field. (The other, of course, was the old Tiger Stadium.) He loved his e-mail account and Ichiro, and disliked anybody talking about the "good old days." Even past 90 and retired since 2002, Harwell was not here to dwell on the past.

He would talk about it sometimes, though. Harwell arrived in Detroit in 1960. Soon after, radio was dwarfed by TV, which became color TV and cable TV and HDTV. Play-by-play announcers were joined by color commentators and assisted by statistical gurus. On virtually every telecast these days, the game score is embedded over the game action, and that over score merely serves to underscore how much has changed: One of Harwell's great, unsung qualities was that he never went too long without telling listeners the score. He knew they needed to hear it.

With every innovation appearing to push them closer to extinction, what could radio play-by-play announcers do?

Ernie Harwell had an answer: They improved.

They had no choice. Fans knew too much—announcers had to keep up with them. But precisely because modern-day announcers are so good at calling games, they rarely make anybody think about their grandfather's childhood. That is no longer part of the job description. We want to know if that curveball was hanging. We don't seem to care, though, how we hear it.

For all the complaints about broadcasters these days, you rarely hear anything about their voices. To most 21st-century fans, a broadcaster's voice is just a vehicle for information. But a lively, reassuring, funny and compassionate voice is why 10,000 mourners walked through the gates of a ballpark on a day when there was no home game. They came to see a man whom they wish they could hear once more.

Michael Rosenberg is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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Broadcasters such as Harwell defined the job as they did it. It was as if the guys who invented paint happened to be MONET, REMBRANDT AND PICASSO.

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