Caray, Harry Christopher

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CARAY, Harry Christopher

(b. 1 March 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri; d. 18 February 1998 in Rancho Mirage, California), beloved Chicago Cubs announcer who developed an enthusiastic national following during more than fifty years of baseball broadcasts with his "Holy Cow!" home-run call and off-key, seventh-inning rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Born Harry Christopher Carabina, Caray was named after his Italian father, Christopher Carabina, whom he never knew. His Romanian mother, Daisy Argint Carabina, re-married, but after her death when Harry was just eight, he went to live with his aunt Doxie at 1909 LaSalle Street in a tough, working-class section of St. Louis inhabited by Italian, Irish, and Syrian families. As a "skinny little kid" he loved playing baseball on its cobblestone streets. Caray's first job was "hawking" the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the corner of Eighteenth and Chouteau Streets to workers coming off the day shift at the International Shoe Factory.

As a teenager Caray "fell deeply, passionately, madly, and irrevocably in love with baseball." He enjoyed nothing more than taking the Grand Avenue streetcar to Sports-man's Park, where for a dime he could get a hot dog outside the ballpark and for fifty cents sit in the bleachers and watch a game. He was a switch-hitting shortstop at Webster Groves High School, southwest of St. Louis, but had to turn down a scholarship to the University of Alabama "when I couldn't swing the room and board." Instead he worked at odd jobs, tending bar, waiting tables, selling newspapers, and being a "flunky" at fight camps, "anything to make a buck." On weekends he played semiprofessional baseball, making $15 a game for the Smith Undertakers and the Webster Groves Birds. He had a minor league tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals, "a dream come true," but lacked the size, speed, and eyesight to make it in the pros.

After high school, Caray made $25 a week as an assistant sales manager with a manufacturer of basketball backboards and gymnastics equipment. He won an audition with the St. Louis radio station KMOX by mailing a "brash" letter marked "personal" to the home of station manager Merle Jones. That led to a job in 1941 as a sports announcer at the 250-Watt WCLS in Joliet, Illinois, where station manager Bob Holt changed his surname from Carabina to Caray. After eighteen months of announcing high school and junior college basketball, winter league bowling, and summer softball, Caray became sports director at WKZO in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he worked beside news director Paul Harvey. Caray produced pregame and postgame shows for Detroit Tigers games and announced a semipro baseball tournament in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he began using his characteristic call of a home run, "It might be … it could be … It IS … a home run," and his signature "Holy Cow!" after particularly exciting plays.

In late 1943 Caray's military status was reclassified 1-A. Anticipating that he would be drafted, he moved his wife, Dorothy, and son, Harry junior (called "Skip"), to his in-laws' home in St. Louis. His poor eyesight, however, kept him out of the service. He became a staff announcer for radio station KXOK in St. Louis, where he "blasted, ripped, praised, and slashed," hoping to become "the Walter Winchell of sports." A crosstown World Series between the Cardinals and Browns in 1944 raised sports fever in St. Louis to an all-time high, persuading Griesedieck Brothers Brewery to broadcast the home games of both teams the following year on station WIL-AM. Caray was hired as their play-by-play man, and former Cardinal manager Gabby Street became the color analyst. By year's end, the two outpaced competing broadcasts of local games, one involving Dizzy Dean. By 1946, the year the Cardinals won their second World Series in three years, Caray's enthusiastic call of each contest helped establish him as a fan favorite. The following year, he was made the exclusive play-by-play announcer for the Cardinals.

Caray's love of the game and respect for the fans brought him wide appeal. He sought out baseball fans in bars and on the street "to find firsthand what they like and what they don't like." He discovered they did not like "being lied to or having their intelligence insulted." Most announcers were reluctant to criticize management or players even over obvious mistakes, but not Caray. He worked for the fan, not the owner, and was "the fan's representative" in the broadcast booth. His bombastic style—his voice was like a breath of beer over gravel—reflected "a fan's excitement and sometimes his despondency." He had heavy jowls and laughing eyes half hidden behind thick, dark glasses, which became his trademark. His delivery made Caray an unparalleled performance artist from a broadcast booth, and it was why many fans felt that hearing Caray's call of a contest was a show more compelling than going to the game.

When August A. ("Gussie") Busch, Jr., the president of Anheuser-Busch, bought the Cardinals in February 1953, fans demanded that he keep Caray as the play-by-play man even though Caray had long been associated with a competing beer company. Joined by future Hall of Fame broadcasters Jack Buck and Joe Garagiola, Caray's description of Cardinals games over the 50,000-Watt KMOX and its ninety-station radio network kept listeners in thirty-eight states from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Coast up past their bedtime.

Caray was seriously injured when struck by a car on 3 November 1968 and received more than a quarter million letters from well-wishers. A dispute with Busch led to his being fired as the Cardinals' broadcaster after the 1969 season. Fans picketed, demanding his return. Caray spent a year away from St. Louis broadcasting the games of the Oakland A's, which led to a breakup with his second wife, Marian. The White Sox lured Caray to Chicago for the 1971 season by agreeing to an attendance clause in his contract. Caray's enthusiasm, plus an improved product on the field, more than doubled attendance to 1.3 million in three years. Caray became as popular with Sox fans as he had been with Cardinals fans. He understood that because of free agency, players came and went, making the sustaining voice of announcers the bond that linked the team to fans. When Bill Veeck, a superb showman, bought the White Sox on 10 December 1975, it opened an era of exploding center-field scoreboards, Caray's fishing nets to catch foul balls, and his memorable bare-chested broadcasts beside fans in the stands with beer in hand.

When Veeck sold the White Sox, Caray went across town and began broadcasting for the Chicago Cubs and their nationwide cable audience of 30 million at the start of the 1982 season. The fans delighted in Caray's ecstatic "Cubs win! Cubs win!" call when the team clinched a post-season berth in 1984 for the first time in thirty-nine years, and his oft-repeated observation, "You can't beat fun at the old ballpark." Even when the Cubs were hopelessly behind, fans stayed just to hear Caray sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch.

Caray suffered a stroke on 17 February 1987. When he returned to work on 19 May 1987, fans celebrated with "Harry Caray Day," and President Ronald Reagan called him from the White House. On 30 September 1988 President Reagan, himself a former Cubs announcer, joined Caray to broadcast a Cubs game from Wrigley Field. That year, Caray was elected to the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame. In 1989 he was named the National Baseball Hall of Fame's Ford C. Frick Award winner and thanked "all the fans who are responsible for my being here." In the decade that followed, Caray solidified his reputation as the country's most famous announcer. A fainting spell on the field from heat exhaustion in June 1994 became national news. When he returned from that episode to broadcasting, he began calling Cubs all-star second baseman Ryne Sandberg, "Stein Renburg," and Sammy Sosa, "Sammy Sofa," which further endeared him to his faithful following. Caray opened a highly successful Chicago restaurant and became known as the "Mayor of Rush Street" for his after-hours kibitzing with fans, entertainers, politicians, and sports celebrities.

Caray was married for a third time, to the former Dolores ("Dutchie") Goldmann, on 19 May 1975. One of his five children (all from his previous marriages), Skip, became a widely respected announcer for the Atlanta Braves, and before the 1998 season it was announced that Skip's son Chip would be joining his grandfather in broadcasting Cubs games. Before that could happen, however, Caray died of cardiac arrest and subsequent brain damage at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California, after collapsing at a restaurant in Palm Springs. He is buried in All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois. National Baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial mourned the passing of a friend who was "the life of the party, the life of baseball."

Caray predicted that one day, even if it was fifty years in the future, the Cubs would win a World Series and a fan would say, "Gee, I wish Old Harry had lived to see this." That was the only eulogy he wanted. Every day that the Cubs are in town, the fans do him one better. Before entering Wrigley Field, they stop and pose for pictures with a life-size bronze statue of their favorite announcer, dressed in a Cubs warm-up jacket with arms outstretched and mike in hand, as though he were leading them one more time in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Caray remains one of baseball's most beloved characters.

Biographical files on Caray are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, at the Chicago Cubs offices at Wrigley Field, and at WGN-Television in Chicago. Caray covers his years as a baseball announcer in Holy Cow! (1989), his autobiography with Bob Verdi. Appreciations include Rich Wolfe and George Castle, I Remember Harry Caray (1998), and Steve Stone with Barry Rozner, Where's Harry? (1999). A tribute to Caray is in the Chicago Tribune (27 Feb. 1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (19 Feb. 1998). Caray gave Bob Costas an extensive interview in "When Harry Met Baseball …," a two-hour documentary broadcast on the WGN-TV cable network in 1994 to commemorate Caray's fifty-year anniversary in baseball.

Bruce J. Evensen