Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Voices in the Wind: Missing Dave Niehaus & Ernie Harwell

Sound shapes place and time. The prattle of rain,silent whisper of snow, the moody uncertainty of wind, all infuse memory with indelible sense of place and time. Sound along with sight and smell power our memory, and memories build into identity. These realities enshrine the sound of radio broadcasters with memory and significance for many of us. As certain as the call of a robin, rolling baritone voices signaled the clarion of spring. Baseball broadcasters gain a special prominence  because of the sheer length of the season and number of games, 161 meetings a season with them. Baseball's combination of smaller scale and static to sudden movement lends itself to radio with the time and scale to  cover and paint an aural picture. The speed, complexity and movement of the crowded worlds of  football, basketball and hockey fit more with TV.

Last week Dave Niehaus the long time baseball announcer for the Seattle Mariners died, In May 2010 another "voice from the past" disappeared when Ernie Harwell the long time voice of the Detroit Tigers died. Harwell had called Tiger games for 42 years; Niehaus had been the only voice of the Mariners and often the only good thing about the Mariners from their founding in 1977. Both voices called the seasons of my adult life.

Both announcers spoke with sonorous tones that rolled across late spring and summer evening. Both grew up in a world before TV and knew how to create word pictures and deploy the stops, breath, modulation and rhythm of voice alone to convey the strength of a story. Harwell filled the air with a unique eloquence and clarity in creating word pictures. Niehaus wove homespun stories and often hokey but stick in your head metaphors and signatures for home runs and calls. Neither felt cowered by networks constraints to be kind and would let us know when the play "stinks" to use one of Niehaus's favorites.

Their soothing, rhythmic portrayals of baseball etched a special place for me and my friends in the long hot Ann Arbor summers and the weirdly sunny but cool Seattle summers. Life, chaos, hazards, work, children roiled about me and them, but on the way home in the car, or hiding away for a restful moment, or even sharing some time with the kids, the voices of Harwell calling the great Sparkey Anderson teams and Niehaus plodding through endless mediocre seasons with relentless bonhomie threaded and finally being rewarded ith the great Griffey and Ichiro teams filled  my nights and life with something constant for a few hours.

Their voices saturated the air and the sound of summer for me and many like me.Their voices created a social space to enjoy a sport, be with friends and feel like I was visiting with a wonderful raconteur.  When I wonder why I felt such sadness when Harwell died and now Niehaus, I realized I experienced them as friends and companions who shared long evenings over three seasons each year. Their voices shaped and made the seasons as real as the weather and as true as the weather. I miss their voices in the wind.

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