Ernie Harwell, legendary baseball broadcaster dead at 92

Posted on May 4, 2010

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One of the last of the legendary (and I think that word is appropriate here) baseball broadcasters dies last night after a year-long bout with cancer. He is most famous for covering Tigers’ games, from the late 1950s until 2002; but he already had a decade of big-league broadcasting under his belt before he arrived in Detroit. There is a loving and detailed obituary by John Lowe in the Detroit Free Press. If you’re reading this blog, you should find it an enjoyable read even if you’ve never heard Harwell’s voice. [Update: King Kaufman has also tweeted a link to his equally warm Salon article, from the summer Harwell stepped away from the microphone for good.]

As we would expect, Harwell was also a philosopher of the game he loved so much.

“In baseball, democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rule book. And color, merely something to distinguish one team’s uniform from another’s.

“Baseball? Just a game — as simple as a ball and bat. And yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes.”

What is it about baseball that makes it such an easy foil for many American’s romantic conceptions of their own patriotism? Can you be an ambitious American writer and also a baseball fan and not try to explain what you love (or, in Ken Burns’ case, love and hate) about your country and your sport in the same sentence? How often was George Carlin better than in his brilliant juxtapositioning of the competing sets of American values by contrasting baseball and football?

In how many other countries do we find the same phenomenon? I don’t doubt that any nationalist who is a fan of some sport that his or her fellow citizens are good at can see the national character embodied in the national team. (Examples abound: but the way supporters of a multi-ethnic French nationalism embraced the multi-ethnic French team that won the World Cup in 1998 is a modern classic.) But this isn’t quite the same. In most attempts to use baseball as a foil for American values, I suspect, the fact that baseball was born in America, and the assumption American values are also in some sense unique, is part of the appeal.

So in other countries that claim to be the birthplace of major sports (Canada/hockey, England/soccer-rugby-cricket, Finland/biathlon, etc…) do we find a similar literary obsession to “explain” supposedly unique values and identity through the unique features of the national sport?

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