Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Harry Caray, Part 2

     Broadcaster Harry Caray and general manager Dallas Green did more than anyone else to turn the Cubs into one of the most popular and richest franchises in baseball, after decades of benign neglect under the stewardship of the eccentric chewing-gum heir P.K. Wrigley.
     Artistically, Caray’s best days were behind him when he joined the Cubs in 1982, but his popularity soared to new heights. At first, he was less than beloved even in his own booth, for his arrival quashed Milo Hamilton’s plans to assume the top spot in the wake of Jack Brickhouse’s retirement. When Caray got up to do his first rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in Wrigley Field, Hamilton stalked out of the booth muttering “I don’t have to listen to this shit.”
     Hamilton—the only broadcaster who could, and did, make a transcendent moment like Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run as dull as dishwater—was advised to get used to Caray and his singing. He was relegated to radio only the next year, and was gone by 1985. Steve Stone became Caray’s partner in the TV booth, and, although the two could hardly have been more dissimilar, they had genuine chemistry on the air and became good friends away from the ballpark as well. They worked together for the rest of Caray’s career.
     Thanks to the reach of WGN’s cable-TV superstation, the Cubs’ magical, heartbreaking 1984 season introduced Caray to a far wider audience than he could have imagined even in his heyday with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs became a national phenomenon, with Caray as ringleader of the summer-long celebration. He nicknamed Bob Dernier and Ryne Sandberg “the Daily Double” and Rick Sutcliffe “the Red Baron.” He serenaded Jody Davis with his own made-up lyrics to the old “Davy Crockett” theme song. He was, as William Nack wrote, “mirror and magnet for the emotions the team evoked.” When the dream turned into a nightmare in the National League Championship Series, Caray could not conceal the shock and dismay that he felt as deeply as any other Cubs fan.

     Despite his famous propensity for bar-hopping until the wee hours almost every day, Caray never missed so much as one inning in his first 42 years at the microphone. His incredible streak of 6,668 consecutive games ended in 1987 after Caray suffered a stroke in February while playing cards with some cronies in Palm Springs, California.
     If he didn’t already know, Caray learned during his recuperation how many people he had touched over the years. Every day, his wife Dutchie brought him box after box of mail from people who wanted him to know how much he meant to them and their families. “I can’t describe the effect it had on my entire being,” said Caray.
     He returned several weeks into the season with his enthusiasm intact, even enhanced, but with his skills diminished. After the stroke, Caray’s tendency to mispronounce names and to confuse contemporary players with those of earlier decades became more noticeable with each passing year.
     It didn’t matter. What mattered was that Caray was still at it, joyously selling baseball, beautiful Wrigley Field, and Budweiser. Fans realized that Caray was the last of the true originals, and that he would be sorely missed when he was gone. They could put up with a few mistakes from the most passionate, most entertaining announcer they’d ever know.
     In 1989, Caray received a long-overdue honor when he was admitted to the broadcasters’ wing of the Hall of Fame. In his brief, eloquent induction speech, Caray pointed out that his was the first family to produce three generations of broadcasters; the audience for the ceremonies included his son Harry Christopher, Jr., and grandson Harry Christopher III (better known as Skip and Chip, respectively). He went on to say, “I think of the fans, and perhaps that’s who I represent today. We are all fans, and I know it’s the fans who are responsible for my being here. They are the unsung heroes. We are temporary actors on the baseball stage. We move on but the game remains. I’m very proud to have been a part of this piece of Americana.”

     In signing off the air at the end of the 1997 season, Caray said, “So long everybody. God willing, I hope to see you next year.”
     It wasn’t to be. On Valentine’s Day 1998, Caray collapsed in Palm Springs, while dancing with Dutchie. This time, there was no miraculous recovery. Caray never regained consciousness, and he died after a four-day vigil by family and friends.
     “Who wouldn't take this deal?” Bob Costas mused upon Caray’s death. “You live into your early eighties (no matter what the official bio said), you do what you love doing right up until the end, and in the end, this can truthfully be said: You made millions of people happy, and millions of people will never forget you.”

Part 2 of 2.

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