Thursday, August 5, 2004

Radio Days

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald pays tribute to great radio voices of baseball.

For a generation of fans, they were more than simply radio announcers. They were companions, friends, comforting voices on a humid summer night. In many cases, they were the face of their franchise, even though listeners rarely saw them.

Ernie Harwell in Detroit, Harry Caray in Chicago, Jack Buck in St. Louis.

And those were just a few of the treasured, hallowed voices.

But times have changed. The legendary baseball radio announcers have gone the way of drug store soda fountains.

This season was the New York Mets’ first without longtime announcer Bob Murphy, who died Tuesday from lung cancer after retiring at the end of last season. Harwell, too, put down his microphone in recent years. Caray, Buck, and Pittsburgh’s Bob Prince passed on.

I’m old enough to remember Harry Caray calling the Cardinals games when our family lived in St. Louis. When we moved to Ohio I grew up listening to Ernie Harwell calling the games for the Detroit Tigers, and my summer evenings were defined by his voice coming out of the radio on our back porch or in the car. Ernie’s voice meant summer: long languid twilights, dripping ice cream cones from Howard Johnson’s, mosquitoes, humming window fans, darkness pooling under the trees in the back yard. Ernie knew enough about baseball to explain it in just a few words, and when he had nothing to say he was silent, letting the background sounds of the stadium fill the void along with the crackle of the AM signal from WJR, “The Great Voice of the Great Lakes.” The Tigers rarely won, but it didn’t seem to matter. It was a part of my life. And it’s probably why to this day I find watching baseball on TV to be boring and distracting – it’s like watching an orchestra play when all you really want to do is close your eyes and listen to the music.