That means more than 15 years have gone by since Caray called his last game for the Cubs’ season finale in 1997. It dawned on me that a new generation of fans have arrived to the scene without ever hearing Harry.
It doesn’t seem possible, considering he was the voice of so many generations during a 53-year career with the Cardinals, A’s, White Sox, and Cubs. Fifteen years since his death? Really, it seems like only yesterday that I held my transistor radio to my ear to hear him belt out his signature call of a Dick Allen homer in 1972.
I know there are people who worship at the living shrine of Vin Scully, regarding him as baseball’s Babe Ruth of play-by-play men. Scully’s brilliance, and now remarkable endurance, is the stuff of legend.
However, in my mind, Harry Caray was the best there ever was in terms of bringing fun and excitement to a baseball game.
Unfortunately, many fans only remember him for his later years with the Cubs, when a stroke and age robbed him of his sharpness. He still was entertaining as a unique character, but his best years were behind him.
During his prime, nobody was better. His descriptions were vivid, and he always was brutally frank, earning the admiration of fans and rancor of players and managers. Here’s a link of Caray’s best calls with the White Sox during in the 1970s compiled by Mark Liptak of WhiteSoxInteractive.com.
Myron Cope had this description of Caray from a 1968 article in Sports Illustrated:
No sir, Caray is having none of that drawing-room dignity affected by the boys with pear-shaped tones. Nor, as he settles into his Busch Stadium chair for a series with the Giants, is he having any of that kid-glove technique the ballplayers love so well.
“Here’s Ty Cline, who’s modeled a few uniforms,” Caray announces in the first inning. “His name reminds you of Ty Cobb.” Then the withering appendage: “And he’s batting .185.” From the enemy Caray soon turns to the home team. “Here’s slumping Orlando Cepeda, with two strikes on him and two runners waiting to be driven in. Struck him out, on a bad ball!” Back to the Giants. At bat is Willie Mays, of whom broadcasters speak encomiums. Steve Carlton fires. “Hooo! What a cut he took!” Carlton fires again. “Hooo! What a cut! Man, I’ve never seen Mays take a more vicious cut in his life. Looked like he left both his feet!” Carlton fires a third time, and Mays lands among the mortals. “Struck him out—on a bad fastball over his head!”
When Caray died, I was assigned to write the front-page obit for the Chicago Tribune. I tried to capture the essence of the man in the booth:
Harry Caray was fun. It was that simple.
Fun was the theme of one of his trademark lines. On a hot, summer afternoon, with the game either languishing or careening toward its finish _ it didn’t matter _ Caray would chortle, “Ah, you can’t beat fun at the old ballpark.”
Caray made baseball’s most exciting moments more fun. He made baseball’s mundane moments fun.
He had fun with names, those he intentionally pronounced backward, and those he unintentionally mangled or misprounced (even Cubs great Ryne Sandberg was called Ryne Sanderson at times, or merely “Ryne-berg,” and he gave up trying on Ken Caminiti). During his days with the White Sox, he made foul balls fun, hanging a net out of his broadcast perch. Caught a few, too.
He wasn’t just a man of the fans. On occasion he sat with them, calling games from the bleachers. He knew where to have the most fun. Only Harry Caray could take a tired old custom like the seventh-inning stretch and transform it into a memorable, magical, albeit off-key, Chicago ritual.
For 162 days and nights during the season, the man with the gravel voice, glasses made from window panes and trademark “Holy cow!” was a once-in-a-lifetime life of the party. The party never will be the same.
Sure enough, the party hasn’t been the same.
Here’s to you, Harry. Now and forever.