Thursday, October 12, 2017
Obit Week #2: Harry Caray—Baseball's joyful elder cheerleader
The Society of Professional Obituary Writers is having their annual convention in Evanston this weekend, and to mark the occasion, I'm reposting some of my favorite obituaries. This one cemented Harry Caray in my heart—while fans tend to love him for his exuberant Cubs broadcasts, I developed a deep respect for him over how he refused to praise the mediocre White Sox. His line "You can't ballyhoo a funeral" is a sentiment which, alas, I've had more than one occasion to quote.
Harry Caray, the joyful elder cheerleader of baseball whose career lasted so long it seemed it might never end, is dead.
For more than half a century, Mr. Caray added his unique personal color to the broadcast of thousands of baseball games, first in St. Louis, then for a season with Oakland, followed by 11 tempestuous years with the White Sox and a long, golden twilight with the Chicago Cubs.
With his huge, squarish eyeglasses and his slurred but somehow endearing mangling of players' names—which he would often then pronounce backward with a chuckle—Mr. Caray was a beloved figure whose reputation was only enhanced by the many dust-ups he had with management and athletes—but significantly, never fans—over his long career.
Unlike many of his broadcast contemporaries, Mr. Caray, whose popularity made him a multimillionaire, always called them as he saw them.
"Hey, you can't ballyhoo a funeral," Mr. Caray said in 1975, after being told that his broadcasts of the floundering White Sox were less than enthusiastic.
That he wouldn't sugarcoat bad teams—and between the White Sox and the Cubs he described many—was one of the keys to Mr. Caray's success, as was the fact that, as lousy as the games often were, Mr. Caray found a way to have fun.
Mr. Caray's age was always something of a mystery. He called himself 78, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Wednesday that his birth certificate showed him to have been born on March 1, 1914, making him 83. He was born Harry Christopher Carabina and orphaned at age 4. He was raised by family friends under tough circumstances in a gritty area of St. Louis. He changed his name in high school.
Later in life he would become a major supporter of the Maryville Academy for boys, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and often speaking to the youngsters about his difficult childhood.
After high school he drifted into sales, selling gym equipment. He was 19 years old and earning $25 a week when he decided to take a pay cut and try radio broadcasting, for WCLS in Joliet at $20 a week.
He started his professional baseball broadcasting career for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1944. The Anheuser-Busch brewery owned the Cardinals, and Mr. Caray was never shy about quaffing his boss' product with gusto during broadcasts.
Mr. Caray was a life force; he would conduct fan interviews in the bleachers, stripped to the waist to enjoy the sunshine. Once, during a particularly scorching summer day, he broadcast a game in his underwear, a sight captured by a wire service photographer.
In 1961, a game was halted after Mr. Caray, reaching for a foul ball, knocked his record book out of the booth, sending the pages fluttering down over the field. Umpires called time and helped pick up the pages.
When the Cardinals won the pennant in 1964, Mr. Caray was so excited he bolted from the broadcast booth and worked his way to the screen behind home plate, where players heard him shouting, "The Cardinals win the pennant! The Cardinals win the pennant!"
In 1968, he was hit by a car and critically injured while crossing Kingshighway Boulevard in St. Louis. More than a quarter-million letters poured in from well-wishers.
Ironically, in light of his future employment in Chicago, Mr. Caray particularly enjoyed taunting the Cubs. While the Cubs were suffering their famous late-season collapse in 1969, the Cardinals were, along with the Mets, surging forward, and Mr. Caray would end his broadcasts by singing, "The Cardinals are coming, tra-la, tra-la."
That was Mr. Caray's last season in St. Louis. After 25 years with the Cardinals and at the height of his popularity, Mr. Caray was fired by Augie Busch. The rumor—never publicly confirmed but never denied—was of an unwise dalliance between Mr. Caray, who was married three times, and one of the Busch wives.
Mr. Caray endured an unhappy year with the Oakland Athletics. It was a bad match. He didn't get along with owner Charlie Finley, who tried to get Mr. Caray to change his trademark shout of "Holy Cow" to "Holy Mule" to reflect the team's mascot at the time.
Mr. Caray did not comply.
Instead, as always, his candor got him in trouble. He publicly compared windy Oakland to "being in Siberia."
Unhappy on the West Coast, Mr. Caray took a risk in the 1971 season and tied his fortunes to the sagging White Sox, who were so unpopular at the time that no AM station in Chicago would carry their games. Attendance in 1970 had been less than a half-million fans.
A makeshift statewide network was cobbled together—an Evanston FM station carried the games in the Chicago area—and Mr. Caray's pay was pegged to attendance, which kept his razor tongue at least a little in check.
"It's a bee-yutiful day in Chicago," he would say, surveying a deserted Comiskey Park. "Lots of nice seats out here still available."
In the early 1970s, Mr. Caray was more of an attraction than the lackluster team.
"The paunchy, florid-faced Harry, who is 54, puts on a show that often rivals the action on the field," the Wall Street Journal noted in a front-page story on Mr. Caray in 1972.
Years after it became unpopular to do so, he would leer at female spectators—"Hey, there's quite a gal sitting up there in a low-cut dress," was a standard line. Sometimes no description was necessary as a camera cut away between pitches to focus on an attractive, most likely bikini-clad, bleacherette. Mr. Caray would simply chuckle once or twice and offer a nugget of wisdom like: "You can't beat fun at the old ballpark."
Few seemed to mind the asides because, well, Harry was just being Harry.
His presence in the broadcast booth was good for the box office. After Mr. Caray joined the Sox, attendance more than doubled, to about 1.25 million a year, though the team also improved in this time.
Despite his popularity, Mr. Caray's candor got him in hot water in the mid-1970s, first with his radio station, WMAQ. When WMAQ announced it was dropping baseball the following year, Mr. Caray used his pre-game show to interview a young producer, asking him loaded questions intended to ridicule the idea.
The station responded by firing the producer and putting Mr. Caray on a seven-second time delay, so future comments about the station could be bleeped out.
Mr. Caray then vowed to pay the producer's salary until he found a new job and sat mutely in the booth, letting his partner call the game, until WMAQ removed the delay.
No sooner had he patched things up with WMAQ than he was sparring with White Sox management, which once called him on the carpet and threatened to keep players off his pre-game show unless Mr. Caray softened his approach.
"The night after we talked to him, he was back ripping the same players," a Sox executive said.
The real rupture started on a June day in 1974 when Sox manager Chuck Tanner, facing the bases loaded and no one out in the sixth inning, called in left-hander Jim Kaat.
Mr. Caray noted that the next six Red Sox due up were right-handers and observed, rather mildly, that the percentages were against such a change.
The Red Sox hammered Kaat and the White Sox and touched off several years of increasing bitterness between Mr. Caray and the Chicago players, who actually began blaming the broadcaster for their poor performance.
"Some of the guys are so worried about what Harry Caray is going to say on the air, we can't relax and play our game," said third baseman Bill Melton, one of Mr. Caray's principal victims, in 1975.
That was the season Melton got into a shouting match with Mr. Caray in a Milwaukee hotel lobby. "Either Harry's got to go or the team's got to go," said White Sox owner John Allyn, who proceeded to fire Mr. Caray at the end of the 1975 season.
Salvation came from an unexpected source. WMAQ threatened to dump the team's broadcasts if Mr. Caray wasn't rehired.
"Without Harry Caray, (the Sox) aren't very valuable," WMAQ's general manager said. "If the owners don't approve of Harry, I'll say find another station."
Mr. Caray, who of course was rehired, responded with characteristic timidity.
"I can't believe any man can own a ball club and be as dumb as John Allyn," he said. "Did he make enough to own it, or did he inherit it? He's a stupid man. This game is much too complicated for a man like John Allyn."
Not surprisingly, one columnist's readers named Mr. Caray "The King of Controversy" in 1975. "He could make a Ping-Pong match interesting," a fan wrote.
One staple of a Harry Caray game was the seventh-inning stretch, when fans would sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" under his enthusiastic direction. The tradition started in 1978, when Sox owner Bill Veeck asked Mr. Caray to sing during the traditional break. Veeck reasoned that because Mr. Caray did not have a good singing voice, fans would join in, said Jimmy Piersall, a former sidekick of Mr. Caray's.
It worked. The tradition continued through Mr. Caray's tenure at Wrigley Field. When it was time to stretch, fans turned around and looked up at the broadcast booth, where Mr. Caray would shout, "Lemme hear ya!" before launching into the baseball standard.
More often than not, in the Cubs broadcast booth at least, Mr. Caray would end the song with a futile exhortation: "Let's get some runs!"
Mr. Caray also was known as the Mayor of Rush Street for many years, especially during the 1970s. Plainly put, he liked to drink. "A man who usually glows after dark" is the way columnist Tom Fitzpatrick described him, and Mr. Caray made no attempt to hide it.
"I'm a convivial sort of guy. I like to drink and dance," he said, before Wrigley Field had lights for night games. "When I got up here, I said I was sure glad I wasn't doing Cubs' games 'cause with a 4 a.m. closing law, I don't think I'd make it to many of those afternoon contests."
But he had to adapt, because he moved from the Sox to the Cubs in 1982. The switch to the North Side would eventually make Mr. Caray a national celebrity, thanks to the many cable outlets across the country that carry Cubs broadcasts on WGN-Channel 9.
In 1987, Mr. Caray missed the first several months of the season after suffering a stroke. The opening day that year was the first he had missed in 41 years. That same year, he opened a namesake downtown Italian restaurant that became a popular eatery and sports-theme bar.
"My style is a very simple one," he said in 1975. "Be entertaining, be informative and, of course, tell the truth. If you don't have the reputation for honesty, you just can't keep the respect of the listener."
Mr. Caray had plenty of opportunities to assess his career, and, as always, he told it as it was:
"Listen, I'm the best baseball announcer in the country. The fans relate to me because I react to games, just like they do. I live and die with my team. I'm ecstatic when they do well and disgusted when they play badly.
"Most announcers are shills and Pollyannas. They never knock the club that employs them, and they always look on the bright side. But fans know enough about baseball to tell when an announcer is sugarcoating, and they resent it. If a player makes a lousy play, I say so. Otherwise I'd be insulting their intelligence."
Mr. Caray was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1989, he was honored with the Ford Frick Award at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1994.
Mr. Caray is survived by his wife of 22 years, Dutchie; sons Skip and Chris; daughters Patricia Eddy, Michelle McFadden and Elizabeth Caray; stepsons Mark Griffith, Roger Johnson and Donald Johnson; stepdaughters Gloria "Tuni" Weller and Elizabeth "Muffie" Newell; 14 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Mr. Caray's broadcasting legacy will continue. His son Skip is the longtime voice of the Atlanta Braves and the National Basketball Association. And Skip Caray's son Chip is a play-by-play man, hired by the Orlando Magic in 1989. Chip Caray was to join his grandfather in the booth for Cubs home games this year.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 19, 1998