The Voice

When I think back to my childhood, some of my fondest memories are of baseball.  The 1990s was a great decade to be an Indians fan, and I watched every game I could.  Yet while I adored sunny afternoon games sweating at the Jake, hot dog in hand as I cheered for my heroes, and always looked forward to falling asleep on the couch during a late game on the west coast, most games I didn’t watch.  I listened.

We all did, we baseball fans.  In a time when the internet was something new and rare, before my phone chirped the Sportscenter theme song every time a run scored, I experienced our pastime as generations of bright-eyed children had before me: through a radio.  I could not hear the game itself…the crack of the bat and roar of the crowd were meaningless.  Instead, a voice served as a conduit, relaying the play-by-play description of the game to those who spent quiet nights far from the summer lights.  

On those sultry summer evenings, with the stars twinkling overhead and the murmur of crickets in the background, a voice served as my connection to the team I loved.  For me, that voice was the voice of Tom Hamilton, “Hammy” to true fans of the Tribe, and to me his was among the most recognizable voices in my life, second perhaps only to those of my parents.  For so many years, Hammy’s voice was the soundtrack to my summer.  His nasal tone was distinctive, sure, but what I remembered best was that his exuberance mirrored my own.  When the payoff pitch cracked off of Jim Thome’s bat, even before the roar of the crowd I could hear the raw excitement in Tom’s voice, as that poor ball shot into the night sky, lifted on the cheers of adoring fans like myself.  My dad and I would smile and cheer upon hearing that the outfielder couldn’t reach it, and as Hammy shouted “He’s outta room, it’s outta here!” I felt a connection with a man I’d never met, who I’d never even seen.

I felt a connection because Tom Hamilton did more than just drone on dutifully, calling out the plays pitch by pitch.  He shared his joy: the joy of baseball, of watching his beloved team triumph.  I didn’t listen to the games just to hear what happened; I listened to know what it was like to be there.  When I heard that telltale crack, any old fool could tell me that it was hit hard into the outfield.  Hammy told me that the ball was going deep, that the crowd was on its feet, and through his voice I knew how it felt to watch that home run sail out of the park.

It’s fair to say that, in our digital age, baseball has lost something.  While instant score updates and Sportscenter and all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips has made it easier than ever to know what’s happening, baseball has lost some of its magic.  It’s lost that sense of wonder that comes not from watching a dispassionate analysis of the game, but from one man’s voice capturing the flavor of the moment, and sharing his deep enjoyment of the sport he loves.  In a way, baseball has grown cold.  That’s why, though I keep up with ESPN like everyone else, I still listen to games on the radio whenever I can.  I don’t just want to know.  I want to feel.

Perhaps this is why, even now in our age of instant scores and highlights, every team in Major League Baseball still has that one man, the broadcaster, who serves as the voice of his team, and why every man who grew up listening to the games still holds a special place in his heart for that wonderful voice that loved his team every bit as much as he did, if not more.  For me it was Tom Hamilton…for fans of the Cincinnati Reds it was Marty Brennaman.  Cubs fans have fond memories of the colorful antics of Harry Caray.  Yet, amidst this sea of beloved voices, one smooth, practiced tone towers above the rest.

In 1950, a new broadcaster with fiery red hair lent his voice to the Brooklyn Dodgers.  For sixty-seven years, through broken color barriers and no-hitters and world series, through countless wins and losses, his voice became the voice of summer for generations of Dodgers fans.  He lent his voice to Jackie Robinson’s bravery, to Sandy Koufax and his masterful pitching, to Tommy Lasorda and his winning smile.  His words accompanied every run, every walk, every strikeout, every victory and defeat, and over the years his voice became not only a source of joy for his fans, but a timeless treasure for all of baseball to cherish.

Now, after nearly seven decades, baseball will soon lose one of its most iconic voices, as Vin Scully prepares to bid farewell to his beloved Dodgers, and switch off his microphone for good.  His departure serves as a painful reminder of how much our national pastime has changed…and yet also a reaffirmation of how much has remained the same.  Perhaps most of all, it reminds us, the baseball faithful, to cherish the memories of our game, and the voices of the men who shared their love for the game with us.  No voice will last forever, yet the game they love endures, and in time, we hope that a new voice will teach our children to love the game, just as Vin Scully did for so many Dodgers fans…just as Tom Hamilton did for me.

Through their words, we take a step back, all of us, to a simpler time.  A time of warm nights and fireflies, of ice cream and foul balls, when a voice on the radio lifted us gently from our back porch, and placed us in the stands, as our heroes stepped up to the plate.

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