Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Centennial of Baseball's Showman

"I know it's the fans that are responsible for me being here. I've always tried in each and every broadcast to serve the fans to the best of my ability."

Harry Caray

In ballparks in Florida and Arizona, spring training games are being played, perhaps as you read this — the perfect time for a man like Harry Caray to have a birthday.

In fact, March 1 was his birthday. If he was still alive, Caray would have been 100 years old today. And I think he would want to spend it at a ballgame where he could feel the sun on his face, smell the dirt and grass of the ballpark and hear the crack of a bat meeting a ball.

But he's been gone awhile.

When Caray was alive, watching the Cubs on WGN was must–see TV. It didn't matter how good or — more often — how bad they were. Having Caray to call the game was worth it.

People used to talk about how influential Ted Turner was in the early days of cable, and there certainly was truth in that. But don't underestimate Caray's contribution, especially in the days before cable coverage blanketed sports and it became possible to see one's favorite teams — in almost any sport — virtually whenever they played.

For awhile there, only the Chicago Cubs and the Atlanta Braves could be seen just about whenever — and wherever — they played. WGN in Chicago was one of cable's first superstations, along with Turner's WTCG in Atlanta, and their baseball coverage was one of their biggest selling points. As a Dodger fan, that meant that I could see the Dodgers play whenever they faced the Cubs or the Braves since all three were National League clubs (and, with the exception of spring–training games, the only inter–league games in those days were World Series games). It also meant that the Cubs and Braves gained new fans from all across the country every year.

The Yankees and Cardinals probably remained the two most popular franchises, but they suddenly faced competition from the Cubs and the Braves. Caray had a lot to do with that. He was the familiar face of the Cubs, and fans associated his seventh–inning renditions of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with his Cub broadcasts. Folks were singing that song long before he came along, but Caray redefined that tradition while broadcasting White Sox games.

He was a homer, no doubt about it, and he embraced that role with relish. He didn't apologize for it, either. He didn't pretend to be objective. He seemed to understand that was part of the show.

When you work nights, weekends and most holidays, as I did when I worked on the sports desk of the Arkansas Gazette, you have to take your perks where you find them, and one of the perks for me was the fact that, when they were playing in the afternoon, I could watch most of the Cubs' games before I had to leave for work. I got to enjoy six, maybe seven innings of Caray and the Cubs.

In those days, I hoped to someday visit Chicago and take in a game at Wrigley Field, just to be able to watch Caray lead the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh–inning stretch, but I never made it. Sixteen years ago, Caray collapsed in a restaurant, reportedly struck his head on a table and died four days later.

Lots of folks probably thought that there couldn't be a show without Caray — but the show went on after he had a stroke that kept him out of the booth for a couple of months. A steady parade of celebrities, many with local ties, filled in as guests until he returned. Some were good, most were not, but I think nearly all viewers would agree that none came close to matching Caray.

Perhaps it was because he understood the mentality of the Chicago sports fan.

"Chicago people are kind of fatalistic, but they continue to hope that somehow some way the Cubs will shock even them and win it just one time," he said. "Their fatalism allows them to enjoy the team's success, knowing that one horrible thing will happen down the line to rip the rug out from underneath them."

There are some sports announcers whose voices you just associate with certain sports and/or teams. When I was growing up in Arkansas, that voice was Bud Campbell's; whenever I heard it and regardless of what the calendar said, I felt like it must be an autumn Saturday and the Razorbacks must be about to begin a game against a Southwest Conference rival.

National broadcasts on TV and radio have had their own announcers who were known and loved by millions. Whenever I heard Curt Gowdy's voice, I felt like it had to be a summer's day and NBC's game of the week must be on — even though Gowdy did work some football games from time to time.

Caray's voice was like that for me. It just seemed natural to hear him speak of the Cubs and Wrigley Field — even though he was born in St. Louis.

It's been too long since I've heard that distinctive voice.

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