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Ernie Harwell and the story of baseball

Baseball, Ernie Harwell said, is a story one person tells another.

I was in Detroit at old Tiger Stadium in the early autumn of '99, reporting a story about the final days of one of the country's grand old ballparks (full text on the jump), wandering through the clubhouse and the Tigers' executive offices, which looked like a scene out of a 1930s movie, complete with old-fashioned venetian blinds, steel filing cabinets, and slatted wooden chairs. All of a sudden, a wiry old gent appeared and greeted me like an old friend. I'd never seen him before, but I knew that voice instantly: It was one of the five greatest baseball announcers of all time, the voice of the Detroit Tigers for upwards of half a century.

Harwell was doing what I was doing, scouring the place for artifacts of another time, only in his case, the rummaging through the file cabinets was a search for pieces of his own past, not someone else's.

Harwell, who died Tuesday at 92, was more than a play by play man. His country twang didn't sound like Michigan, but it was the Tigers. Players came and went, but especially in the last couple of decades, in many cities, it was the radio man who came to be the most enduring symbol of the home team, in part because of his longevity, but mainly because the guys who were truly great at it could turn a simple baseball broadcast into a nightly friendship, an accompaniment through lonely summer eves.

"On radio," says Jon Miller, the greatest baseball broadcaster of the generation that came up behind Harwell, Vin Scully, Mel Allen, Jack Buck and Red Barber, "we could tell a story about a player's house in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the listener goes to that house. On television, you tell that story and you don't go anywhere, because you see things that don't match the story--the third base coach flashing signs, the pitcher getting ready. On TV, I caption what's being shown. On the radio, it's my story. As Ernie Harwell says, on TV, you get the movie version. The game on the radio is the novel."

Scully, who has been broadcasting Dodger games every summer since the team moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958, is the last survivor of the pre-TV era of sports broadcasters, and just as his genial, relaxed voice embodies southern California, so did Harwell's distinctive sound come to mean summer in the upper Midwest.

Washington is blessed with a terrific radio man in the Nationals' Charlie Slowes and Baltimore has the fine Joe Angel, who was Miller's sidekick before Peter Angelos booted the great Miller out of town for daring to report objectively on the Orioles. But the local voices in these parts haven't yet connected quite as deeply as Harwell did for generations of Tiger fans. That's partly because Ernie Harwell painted such vivid pictures of what was happening on the field, partly because he told stories with such intimacy and patience that you felt he was talking to you, and partly because Harwell was just such a nice guy that it would almost seem rude not to tune in and listen to his stories.

He made my day that afternoon in Detroit; many people who grew up with him would say he made their childhoods.

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Fabled Ballparks Bow Out Fans Take a Piece Of Tiger Stadium
By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer

DETROIT --

Already, police here have stopped a man who was trying to spirit a urinal trough out of the ballpark. The stadium's oak armrests are slipping out the gates. From all over Michigan, from much of the Midwest, families are making the final pilgrimage to say farewell to a hulking old building in a ratty part of town, an architectural hodgepodge of no particular distinction, a crazyquilt of aluminum siding, sagging wood, rusting iron girders and -- now the team finally admits it -- more than 10,000 obstructed-view seats.

For several weeks now, and right up until the final game on Sept. 27, Tiger Stadium is nearly sold out. The baseball is almost incidental: The team is lousy, the games meaningless. But this is goodbye -- to one of the two oldest stadiums in baseball (Boston's Fenway Park was built the same year, 1912), to memories, to the belief that baseball is a pastime for everyman, and not just for the suits.

Tiger Stadium -- with its shadows, its low-hanging upper deck, its ghosts of Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline -- will close after this season. Baseball will also vanish from San Francisco's Candlestick Park and Houston's Astrodome -- Milwaukee's County Stadium was scheduled to be replaced in 2000, but a construction accident in July has pushed the opening of Miller Park to the next year. Next on the demolition block: Fenway, slated to be replaced as soon as 2003. Meantime, Yankee Stadium, which opened in 1923, is the subject of a replacement campaign by team owner George Steinbrenner.

The construction frenzy in baseball and other pro sports -- a $7 billion boom, according to a Brookings Institution study -- is not simply keeping up with the Ted Turners.

The death of the old stadiums is a political set-to, pitting gazillionaire team owners and their corporate sponsors against fans who see their game morphing into yet another playpen for the rich. It's an economic showdown between development-hungry politicians and fed-up voters, in a national row over who must pay for the new luxury boxes and classic-style ballparks. And it's a cultural divide between those who believe that baseball represents something pure and simple -- father and son deciding on the spur of the moment to take in a ballgame, some peanuts and Cracker Jack -- and those who see sports as fuel to drive the engine of urban redevelopment, grease the dealmaking of the nation's corporate chieftains, and supply television with a steady source of programming to wrap around commercials.

In Detroit, diehard fans formed the Tiger Stadium Fan Club and spent nearly a decade fighting City Hall, the state legislature and the team's owners in a campaign to save their beloved ballpark. The Fan Club won a referendum prohibiting the use of public funds for a new stadium and even organized a group hug of the old park -- grown people actually embracing a building. All to no avail.

"I came here with my dad, and he came with my granddad," says Vicky Schering, who brought her 7-year-old son from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to the stadium for one last visit. "And this is where I was going to teach my son about baseball, but now he'll just see it to say goodbye. Why do they have to do this to us?"

"It's the finest park ever built for the working class," says Michael Betzold, an anti-demolition activist who has written a lavish book on the history of Tiger Stadium. "It's not a fancy place -- no Green Monster, no ivy-covered walls. But it's got more seats closer to the field than any other stadium. It's completely enclosed, in its own private world."

With Tiger Stadium about to die, Betzold has pledged never to set foot in its downtown successor, Comerica Park, the latest of more than 20 stadiums in U.S. professional leagues to sell its name to the highest bidder -- in this case a $66 million pledge from a local bank.

Right now, Tiger Stadium is literally falling apart: A piece of the press box facade broke off and tumbled into the stands last month. But its intimacy is also immediately evident. The fans seem louder, the players closer in a stadium shaped by city blocks, but cloistered from the surrounding urban decay by the towering stands.

"The passing of the stadium is a criminal action," says Betzold, whose latest book is a work of what he calls "revenge fantasy," a novel in which men and money have ruined baseball, and the sport's only salvation is a woman. "I am cutting my emotional attachment to this team."

One of Detroit's most revered Tigers fans finds that rather extreme.

"We've got to move on," says Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell, whose country twang and gentlemanly wisdom have been the hallmark of his radio and TV baseball broadcasts for 51 years. ". . . This is really the best park of them all, but sooner or later they'll all go. People will get used to it."

The words sound particularly startling coming from Harwell, the voice of the Tigers for 40 years, for broadcasters are virtually all that's left of stability in professional sports. You can't tell the players without a scorecard; most of them happily follow the money to Anytown, U.S.A. And even the stadiums -- the grand old repositories of tradition -- are disposable now, some of them condemned after less than a generation of service.

"It's very difficult to attract families to the old park," Tigers spokesman Tyler Barnes said. "The location is off-putting to a lot of people -- it's mostly parking lots around here. And people like new parks that combine a classic, old-time feel with the restaurants, retail, food court, merry-go-round and all the amenities of a modern stadium."

So many stadiums are under construction or in the planning process that within a few years -- but for Chicago's Wrigley Field (1914), which at the moment appears to be safe -- the oldest stadium in baseball could be Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, which opened in 1962. And its owners are among those seeking support for a new park.

The wave of construction began with the huge success of Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which was opened in 1992 and, according to Timothy Chapin, a professor of urban planning at Florida State University, "signified the return to and celebration of the urban stadium." Baltimore's recipe -- old-style architectural quirks combined with state-of-the-art amenities and an emphasis on corporate boxes -- has inspired lookalike parks around the nation.

In each city, the drama plays out almost according to script. The team owner throws up his hands, declares the old ballpark unusable, threatens to leave town if the government doesn't build a new coliseum. Fans who love their old park form groups -- Save Fenway Park, the Tiger Stadium Fan Club, GAGME (Grassroots Against Government-Mandated Entertainment, in Minnesota), CLEAN (Citizens for Leaders with Ethics and Accountability Now, in Seattle) -- to fight against soaring ticket prices, government subsidies and the loss of what was.

In most cases, the stadium gets built, no matter what local voters say.

In Milwaukee, voters said no to public support for a new stadium. The state increased the sales tax anyway. In Pittsburgh, voters rejected a plan to pay for new stadiums for the Pirates and the Steelers, but the state plans to use existing tax money toward the construction. But in Minneapolis, when the Twins said they would leave if they didn't get a new park, and voters said no to funding one, the team reupped its lease at the widely loathed Metrodome.

In Seattle, which this summer replaced its Kingdome with a stadium (Safeco Field) named for a large corporation, city voters in 1995 said no to paying for a $285 million park. No matter. The state legislature passed taxes on restaurants, bars, rental cars and stadium admissions to pay the freight. Final cost: $517 million, most of it paid with public money.

In Detroit, construction followed years of campaigning, wrangling and threatening by team owners, local officials and establishment businesses. The new stadium cost $290 million, of which the public is paying about $115 million.

"It's a process of building consensus," says the Tigers' Barnes, whose office at the old park looks like something out of a noir detective flick, with a frosted glass door, creaking floors and sunlight streaming through Venetian blinds. "I'm going to miss all this history. I'm not going to miss the obstructed-view seats."

The debate over which are better -- the old monuments or the new stadiums with their broad concourses, luxury boxes and architectural tributes to the past -- focuses on exactly that point: obstructed-view seats.

To purists, it's worth having some fans sit behind poles so that the upper deck can hang low over the field, as it does at Tiger and as it did at the old Yankee Stadium and Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. Supporters of new parks say the value of eliminating structural columns -- in the new parks, the support is built into the wall behind the fans -- outweighs the disadvantage of upper decks that put fans up in bird territory.

But the real emotional split comes over the other cause of the high altitude seating in many new parks: luxury boxes. No new park is built without them. They are, many owners say, the difference between losing money and making money.

To many fans, they represent the shifting class structure of American sports. With each stadium opening, there are fewer seats at affordable prices; ticket prices rise an average of 35 percent when a team moves into a new park. Indeed, at new parks, fewer seats are available, period, as teams sell ever more of their seats to season ticket holders, the majority of which are corporations.

"I don't think Major League Baseball cares about the average fan any more -- they just care about money," Betzold says.

A Vanderbilt University study of the demographics of pro sports fans shows that, adjusted for inflation, the income of season ticket holders was one-third higher in the mid-'90s than it had been in the early '70s.

Baseball executives say they try to maintain affordable seating; in Detroit, about one-third of the new park's seats will cost $15, while prices for better seats will range up to $75 per game. But the days of baseball being as cheap as a movie are over, the result of stratospheric player salaries and stadiums heading toward billion-dollar price tags.

Even if the fans who frequent the new ballparks are richer, most funding of the stadiums still comes from the government -- both through direct payments and subsidies such as tax-exempt bonds, according to economists Roger Noll of Stanford University and Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College.

They argue that stadium construction, far from being an economic boost, could reduce the number of jobs in a city: Spending on sports goes mostly to a relative handful of players, coaches and executives. If those same dollars were spent on other forms of recreation (restaurants, museums), they say, the money would support far more workers.

But a strict economic analysis of the impact of new stadiums disregards the emotional power of sports. From Rome's Colosseum to Berlin's Olympic Stadium, ballparks have always had the potential to pack a cultural wallop, to become a symbol of a city's hopes and dreams.

Witness the staying power of Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, home of the long-lost Dodgers. Opened in 1913, Ebbets was torn down nearly 40 years ago. Yet it lives on in publications and Internet memorials, in steady sales of Ebbets Field box seats ($1,495 each, repainted), and in an ambitious campaign to rebuild the park to its original specifications -- as a minor league venue in Hartford, Conn., or elsewhere.

The promoters of the venture happily quote the 1950s Dodgers great, Duke Snider, who once said, "Give me Tiger Stadium, Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, better yet, give me back Ebbets Field."

By Marc Fisher  | May 5, 2010; 10:55 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  | Tags:  Broadcasting, Detroit Tigers, Ernie Harwell, Jon Miller, Mel Allen, Red Barber, Tiger Stadium, Vin Scully, radio  
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