Ernie Harwell, the voice of the Detroit Tigers, died yesterday. He was 92.
One of the most distinctive memories of my childhood was visiting my grandparents in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan and hearing Harwell's voice on my grandfather's old portable AM radio. A black rectangle with a stainless steel antenna, a long handle, and a thin silver knob that dialed in the stations, my grandfather would put on the Detroit Tigers Radio Network and listen to Harwell's distinctive call of the game. That voice remains the definitive sound of my childhood summers, days spent swinging from a branch on the birch tree in the front yard of their house or trapped in the backseat of my parents car, tobacco smoke punishing me, the summer heat and humidity only making everything seem so much slower. I've never been a huge fan of the game of baseball, but whenever I hear Ernie Harwell's voice, I am immediately pulled back home, to the place where I grew up, to very late sunsets (I am still adjusting to how early the sun sets in New York) and the languid pace of summertime.
When Harwell spoke last year at age 91 of his incurable bile duct cancer, it was a sad day. His goodbye at Tiger Stadium on September 16, 2009 immediately comes to mind:
It is hard to express what Harwell's voice has meant to Michigan, to generations of people who grew up riding in cars, up north to lakes and cabins, up and down I-75, over and across on I-69 and I-94, across the state. It was a voice that defined the entire community, that brought everyone together. Regardless of your relationship to or concern for the Tigers, you didn't mind hearing Harwell's voice on the radio; it was a comfort and a connection, the sound of the place embodied in a single man's description of a baseball game. He hasn't been on the air for a few years now, but he remains a legend in the hearts of Tigers fans everywhere. He will be missed now that he has passed away, but his voice will never be forgotten.