Monday, June 6, 2011

Harry Caray, Part 1

     “The first thing I fell deeply, passionately, madly and irrevocably in love with,” Harry Caray wrote, “was the game of baseball. I loved to play it and to watch it, I loved to read about it, and perhaps most of all, I loved to talk about it, argue about it, analyze it.” Over the course of his remarkable career as a broadcaster, Caray shared his love with millions, who in turn made it their own.
     Better than half of Caray’s 53 years at the microphone were spent in Chicago, where he worked 11 seasons with the White Sox and 16 with the Cubs. In Chicago he became larger than life, the Mayor of Rush Street and the celebrated singer of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”—but it was in St. Louis that he established himself as a Hall-of-Fame broadcaster. For much of his tenure with the Cardinals, St. Louis was the southernmost and westernmost city in the major leagues, and Caray’s voice crackling over the radio was the closest that fans throughout most of the country ever got to a big-league ballpark. When conditions were right, station KMOX’s 50,000-watt signal carried the broadcasts into virtually all of the contiguous 48 states.
     “On a clear night from a thousand miles away, here came Harry Caray over KMOX,” recalled Bob Costas, who used to tune in on the car radio from his family’s driveway on Long Island. “Not smooth and melodic, like Red Barber, Mel Allen, or Vin Scully, but loud and bombastic.”
     Caray was a St. Louis institution for a quarter century. “There were just two names in St. Louis,” he once said. “Stan Musial and me.”
     After the 1969 season, his 25th with the Cardinals, Caray was abruptly fired. “I expected a gold watch,” he later joked, “but what I got was a pink slip.” It was a devastating blow, but not a complete surprise in light of allegations that he had become amorously involved with the attractive young wife of an Anheuser-Busch executive. Caray never denied it. “I’d rather have people believing the rumor and have my middle-aged ego inflated,” he said, “than deny it and keep my job.”
     In 1970, Caray hooked on with Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s, but his blue-collar, beer-guzzling image and over-the-top broadcasting style were at odds with the laid-back culture of the Bay Area. After one forgettable season, Caray landed with the White Sox.
     The Sox were coming off a disastrous season in which they had lost a franchise-record 106 games and drawn only 495,535 fans. The club’s games were carried on WTAQ in LaGrange, a 5,000-watt station whose signal faded to 500 watts after dark, making it impossible for most homes in the Chicago area to receive the night games at all. It was quite a comedown for Caray, whose voice had boomed almost from coast to coast in his St. Louis days. It was also an adjustment for Chicago fans (and players), who had never known an announcer like him, accustomed as they were to the laconic Bob Elson and the always-optimistic Jack Brickhouse. Caray would root, root, root for the home team, but he never sugarcoated its shortcomings. “Look,” he said, “I don’t blast players, I just report what they do.”
     “Most announcers are shills for their teams,” said Caray. “I speak for the fan.” Like any fan, Caray came to the ballpark every day hoping, even expecting, to see something wonderful happen. When it didn’t, he was genuinely disappointed. When it did, though, he could hardly contain himself. For example, he made every home run sound like the first he had ever seen. “There’s a drive. Way back. It might be. It could be. It is! A home run! Holy cow! Listen to the crowd!”
     During his early years with the White Sox, the chief sponsors of Caray’s broadcasts were Falstaff Beer and the Chicken Unlimited chain. Caray sampled prodigious quantities of both products, and by the end of a game the booth would be littered with empty beer bottles and picked-over boxes of chicken. Often he would fling pieces of chicken from the booth into the waiting hands of fans below.
     White Sox fans loved his antics. Buoyed by Caray’s presence and the ballclub’s steady improvement under new manager Chuck Tanner, attendance at Comiskey Park climbed to 833,891 in 1971 and 1,186,018 in 1972 (that year, led by American League MVP Dick Allen, the Sox remained in contention all summer and finished a solid second to the A’s, who went on to win their first of three straight world championships). By 1973, Caray was on TV as well as radio, and the Sox drew 1,316,527 fans. Caray’s contract called for a relatively modest base salary of $50,000, with bonuses of $10,000 for every 100,000 spectators beyond 600,000; thus in 1973 his bonus was greater than his salary.
     By 1975, the White Sox were slipping badly, and Caray’s brutally honest appraisals of the situation were grating on players and management. Caray’s favorite target was third baseman Bill Melton, a former slugging star who’d never quite recovered from a back injury. “I didn’t mind him getting on me,” said Melton. “But we had a young ballclub—Bucky Dent, Terry Forster, a bunch of young players. He was getting on the whole team, the whole organization. It was building up. I had to confront him.” In July, he did; the two men had a well-publicized shouting match in a Milwaukee hotel lobby. At the end of the season, Melton’s request for a trade was granted, and Allyn indicated that Caray would not be invited back, either.

     Caray’s salvation (and that of the White Sox) was delivered by the chain-smoking, peg-legged entrepreneur Bill Veeck, who headed a group that bought the franchise from Allyn to prevent its moving to Seattle. Caray went for an interview to get his job back. “Here I am,” said Veeck, “talking to the man who ran me out of St. Louis.” It was true that Caray’s popularity had hastened the demise of Veeck’s St. Louis Browns in the early 1950s. Nonetheless, Veeck retained him.
     Caray flourished under Veeck’s anything-goes administration, which reached its apex in 1977—the year of the “South Side Hit Men.” The Sox rebounded from a last-place finish the year before by leading their division into August, winning 90 games, and drawing a club-record 1,657,315 fans. “Harry fits in with our group,” said Veeck. “He fits in with our style, which is casual, even raucous. Can you envision Dodger fans standing up in the middle of a game to cheer Vin Scully the way they cheer Harry here?” He might also have asked, can you envision Vin Scully broadcasting, shirtless, from a wind-whipped perch in the center-field bleachers, amidst hundreds of boisterous, imbibing young people?
     It was Veeck who created an enduring Chicago ritual for the seventh-inning stretch. Caray had been in the habit of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to himself. Veeck heard him one night. The next night, he had Caray’s microphone connected, surreptitiously, to the public-address system. “Here I am,” Caray remembered, “not dreaming that anyone notices, singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ All of a sudden, I hear my voice booming back at me, along with the sound of thousands of other voices. When the game was over, I went up to Veeck and asked him what this was all about. He said, ‘Harry, all my life I’ve wanted to do that. I was just looking for the right guy. I knew you were the right guy because I knew any fan sitting in the ballpark, no matter how badly he sings, would realize that he could sing better than you and would freely join in.’”
     It was also Veeck who, in a fit of inspiration (or lunacy), teamed Caray with the volatile Jimmy Piersall in the broadcast booth. During his playing days, Piersall had suffered a nervous breakdown that was later chronicled in the movie Fear Strikes Out. He and Caray were a memorable tandem. The two would sometimes become so engrossed in arguing about a certain aspect of the game that they would briefly forget about the action on the field. One time, an exasperated Caray exclaimed, “Aw, Jimmy, you’re crazy!” Without missing a beat, Piersall retorted, “And I’ve got the papers to prove it.”
     When physical and financial woes forced Veeck to sell the White Sox in 1981, Caray’s days on the South Side were numbered. He did not suit the image that new owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn sought to project. “What it really came down to,” Caray said, “was they were jealous of me because my picture was in the paper more than theirs.” He lasted for one year. After Einhorn announced that henceforth most Sox games would be available not on free TV, but on a new subscription service, SportsVision, Caray up and quit. Worse yet for the Sox, he joined the Cubs. In explaining his decision, Caray said, “It came down to, do you want to go into 8,000,000 homes free or 50,000 homes on pay TV?”

Part 1 of 2.

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