Arrow-right Camera

Sports

Never Hear Another Like Harry Cubs’ Broadcaster Had Unique Style That Only He Could Get Away With

Sun., Feb. 22, 1998

Just as surely as Harry Caray will not be able to pass the microphone and his broadcasting legacy over to grandson Chip in the booth at Wrigley Field, the younger Caray won’t be able to duplicate his grandfather’s public persona.

No one could.

By being who he was, and thereby becoming bigger than the team he covered, if not the entire sport, Harry Caray assured that he’d be one of a kind. More than that, he’d be the one whom baseball fans would most want to adopt.

Maybe that’s the ultimate compliment the fans paid to a man whose gregarious professional and public life shoved aside the vestiges of being orphaned early in life.

Caray was proud of being different, of tweaking his bosses through a stronger allegiance to the fans than the front office, and of maintaining the image of a loud fun-lover who enjoyed the barroom atmosphere even after he had to quit drinking out of concern for his health.

But even as he recounted obstacles he hurdled to become the maverick beyond reproach, Caray acknowledged that the changing landscape of his profession was making it ever harder to emulate his style.

As baseball the struggling business chooses up sides to sell itself anew, television has the highest hand-grip on the bat. Good storytelling on the radio isn’t as respected as good statistical graphics on the screen.

With more and more ex-athletes taking sportscasting jobs, there are fewer spots for those like Caray who trained in the studio rather than the stadium. “Former player” is becoming the preferred pedigree.

Among today’s more homogenous broadcast voices, imitation seems not so much flattery as facilitation. Sound-alike styles are cultivated in hopes of quick, if moderate, success.

There is a wide gulf between the few outrageous radio and TV personalities and the many bland ones. Into that chasm could fit a great variety of entertainment. But few choose to stand there in radio or TV, especially in baseball broadcasting.

Harry Caray departs that field of competition just as spring training begins counting down the days to the 1998 season. With that would come the Cubs’ April 3 Opening Day at Wrigley Field, when Harry would bring his grandson into the booth with him.

For him and Chip, it was to be a moment that would embody baseball’s renewal, the transition from winter to spring.

Chip Caray is far from being a neophyte in sportscasting. Before becoming a studio host for Fox Sports’ national Game of the Week, he did play-by-play for the Seattle Mariners and Atlanta Braves. And he has called Orlando Magic NBA games for nine seasons.

But now, though he carries what WGN Station Manager Jim Zerwekh calls “a great set of genes,” Caray is standing in his grandfather’s giant shadow. When he takes the mike to call the action on Opening Day at Wrigley Field, he’ll face different obstacles than his grandfather did. Perhaps more subtle obstacles, but quite possibly more difficult ones.

“Sponsors and owners in baseball don’t want an iconoclast,” said Curt Smith, who has researched and written extensively about radio baseball. “They don’t want an American original. They don’t want someone they can’t control. They don’t want someone larger than the team.

“Harry Caray was all of those things. He was what John Wayne was to movies and Ethel Merman was to music. An American original.”

Giving Wayne and Merman their due doesn’t detract from their peers, nor does it mean those two were the best actor and singer of all time. Same goes for Caray, Smith said.

“Mel Allen, in my view, is the best baseball broadcaster ever. Red Barber is the most important, the first reporter in the booth. Vin Scully is the most literate. Harry Caray is, by far, the most beloved.”

But as true as that is, Smith said, “Today’s culture won’t allow another Harry. Besides the fact that owners and sponsors don’t want such a gargantuan personality, Harry’s red-hot style was truly more suited to radio.”

Whatever impact he had on peers’ lives has been heightened this week.

During the off-season, WGN released Josh Lewin from his Cub duties after a year to make way for the Harry-Chip pairing in the booth. Harry, who wanted the job for Chip, never took to Lewin, but Lewin has no hard feelings and was gracious in his recollections.

“Harry Caray developed more credibility than any guy I know,” Lewin said. “He should be remembered as someone who brought a lot of joy to the fans. One person being inconvenienced is pretty trivial.”

Sports anchor Tom Shaer at WMAQ-Ch. 5, remembered that Caray advised him to “loosen up” and show viewers he was having fun early in his career and was always supportive, even when Shaer left WGN for WBBM-Ch. 2 in 1983.

“I visited him in the booth during a Cubs game. He wished me luck and told viewers I was leaving to go to Channel 2,” Shaer said. “I knew that if any other broadcaster had done that, he’d have been called on the carpet. I realized the power and leverage he had.”

Smith said Chip Caray’s extensive experience should carry him well beyond fans’ initial affection for him because he is Harry’s grandson. “He will be fine if he’s himself,” Smith said. “And he’s got a perfect example of that in his dad, Skip.”

As the Atlanta Braves’ veteran announcer, Skip Caray is the polar opposite of Harry, employing “a laconic, low-key style totally his own … and very successful,” Smith said.

xxxx SMOOTH OPERATOR Harry Caray seemed to make the transition from radio to television as easily as replacing his old glasses with a pair so oversized he seemed to be wearing a mini-TV on each side of his nose. Beginning in 1978 with Mel Allen and Red Barber, 22 broadcasters have won the Ford C. Frick Award, which means induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, N.Y. Caray made it in 1989. “Harry Caray is, by far, the most beloved,” said baseball researcher Curt Smith. - Chicago Tribune



Click here to comment on this story »