W. P. Kinsella passed away last weekend at the age of eighty-one. During his lifetime, Kinsella published seven novels and over a dozen collections of short stories, but the work for which he will be most remembered is Shoeless Joe, the book on which the 1989 film Field of Dreams was based. Now familiar to sports fans and non-sports fans alike, the story hardly needs to be recounted: an Iowa man hears a spectral voice while standing in the middle of his cornfield, and by heeding its call, the man discovers a way back to the baseball heroes of his youth. Kinsella’s work was often assigned the label of magical realism, a term which suggests the blending of fact and fantasy into a tenuous equilibrium, but to the true devotee, Kinsella’s work may read more like a testament of faith. Kinsella’s lasting contribution may be the way in which he taught sports fans to believe in the voice from the sky.
For thirty-three years, until 2005, Howard King was the voice from the sky in Michigan Stadium, where he served as the public address announcer. Understated and level, King’s voice raised an entire generation of Michigan Football fans to appreciate the unique culture of the program: substance over style, consistency over conceit, tradition over all. This was not the culture of most other institutions, and certainly not of the businesses which constitute the NFL, all of whom sold their souls to the Devil in exchange for a few extra decibels of arousal. In fact, up until the last decade, Michigan Stadium crowds were frequently disparaged for behaving more like an audience at a symphony -- clapping at appropriate times, looking on in silence during the rest -- than a throng at a football game. Whether or not the criticism was fair mattered little (nor does the fact that King’s replacement, Carl Grapentine, is -- of all things -- a deejay for a classical music radio station). Michigan fans didn’t care. We didn’t need piped-in music or pleas for cheering. All we wanted was our beautiful metaphor, the steady drone of Howard King’s voice punctuating another methodical march down the field.
To those who watched carefully, King was once again present at The Big House this past Saturday afternoon, though this time, it was not his voice which greeted fans but, rather, his image. Since the arrival of coach Jim Harbaugh last season, Michigan’s game day field entrance has been preceded by a video montage -- narrated by another iconic Michigan voice, James Earl Jones -- featuring footage of Michigan greats from all walks of University life: astronauts, United States Presidents, professors, former athletes, television personalities, and olympians. Each week, the video changes ever so slightly, substituting a picture here or there so as to keep the cast in fresh rotation. In the most recent edition, someone in the athletic department had decided to slip in a black and white shot of King glancing at the camera from his regular perch, in front of a microphone in the old Michigan Stadium press box. How many other fanbases would recognize a mugshot of their former public address announcer? Yet it was unmistakable. For a split second, he was there.
The powers that be have not been kind to Michigan Football fans for much of the past decade, yet I’m not talking about phantom forces or the proverbial Big Man Upstairs. Most notably through the amalgam of quagmires brought on by former athletic director Dave Brandon, those who’ve stayed have felt the foundation of the community tested again and again by higher ups who’ve tried to reboot and rebrand Michigan Football for their warped, data-driven concept of the twenty-first century. Too often during that time, Michigan fans have been told their program is something that it isn’t: an alt-rock jam named “In The Big House”; a two-tickets-for-a-bottle-of-Coke promotion; a giant, plastic Kraft macaroni noodle placed outside Section 34; bumblebee-striped alternate uniforms; an oppressive student seating policy; public relations disaster after disaster. I remember one instance three years ago when -- after Michigan beat Notre Dame in the teams’ last scheduled meeting at the Big House -- someone made the call to play “The Chicken Dance” over the speakers at the stadium, a jab at Notre Dame’s “chickening out” of the rivalry. I lashed out at the decision, seeing it as a petty move and another nail in the coffin of the once-stoic Michigan culture. Beyond that, I was crushed. It was a confirmation that the people in charge of the thing I loved were oblivious to the most fundamental elements that gave it its value. The same speakers which once carried the voice of Howard King were now the avenue for degeneracy. Then, this past Saturday, a voice from the sky reemerged. Without saying a word, it announced that someone up there understands and is looking out for us after all.