Harry Caray/Holy Cow! 10 Years Later
Posted by Bob Skilnik on February 18, 2008
I just saw a piece on the Chicago CBS TV station noting that the 10th anniversary of sportscaster Harry Caray’s death is upon us. 10 years…Holy Cow! Despite some of the bum raps he received a few years before his death, (“Too old,” “He’s losing it,”), Harry’s comeback from his stroke in 1987 sort of took the wind out of his critics’ sails and managed to make him a legend to thousands of North Siders.
I grew up with Harry Caray as the play-by-play man for the Chicago White Sox, a fact, I think, that some Wrigleyville folks have conveniently forgotten. Harry, at the time, was paired up with former Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall, whose claim to fame was the fact that he cracked-up on his way into the 1952 baseball season.
“You’re crazy,” Harry would say after Piersall would make some sort of off-the-wall comment during a Sox game. “No I’m not,” Jimmy would retort, and then with a hesitation add, “…and I’ve got the papers to prove it!” But Harry was the quintessential showman. Piersall was only a prop, but I have to admit, a good one.
During Harry’s time at old Comisky Park, once called the world’s largest outdoor saloon, the seats directly under his broadcast booth were priceless. Forget the upper deck seats over 1st base. Forget the first two or three rows by the Sox dugout on the 3rd base line. The seats in the upper deck, pulled as far back from home plate as could possibly be, were where we sat, the people who really loved Harry Caray.
And Harry would reward us during the game. At the time, he was hawking Falstaff beer, and after more than a few cans, would often dance that silly dance that only a dozen Falstaffs could induce. When things looked bad for the Sox, he’d shake up a twelve-ounce can and open it, baptizing everyone within the immediate area of the broadcast booth with the foam from the can. We’d scream, raise our hands and testify, our souls were touched, bathed in the malty richness of Harry’s beer. To add to our adulation, Harry would then rip off the tab from the can and throw it into the crowd. If you were lucky, you could brag about the fact that you caught a foul-tip, hit off the bat of home run hitter Richie Allen, but you really had bragging rights if you caught the tossed beer can tab from Harry Caray.
Harry was a showman. My favorite Harry Caray story has nothing to do with the Sox or Cubs but rather when Harry was the announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1968, he was hit by a car as he attempted to cross a street on the way to his hotel. His injuries were extensive, including broken legs and a broken shoulder. For months, Caray recuperated at the Florida villa of Gussie Busch, the Budweiser beer magnate.
On opening day of the next season, Harry returned to work as the master of ceremonies for the event. With two canes to assist him as he walked out onto the field, he took a few wobbly steps, stopped, looked up at the crowd and tossed one of his canes away. The crowd went wild. After a few more steps, he threw the second cane away and 50,000 fans jumped to their feet to applaud their wounded hero.
The Cardinal’s pitcher, Bob Gibson, later reminded Caray that he hadn’t been using the canes for weeks. Said Harry as he smiled, “Gibby, this isn’t just baseball, it’s show biz!”
Even with his death in 1998, Harry proved to be showman. Celebrating St. Valentine’s Day with his wife in a West Coast haunt before the start of the Cub’s 1998 season, Harry was recognized by someone on the night club staff. With strains of “Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town,” coming from a band, Harry was asked to take a bow. He did, then collapsed from a heart attack, dying four days later.
What a showman. Always leave ’em wanting more.
In the Chicagoland area, Channel 37 (as they say; check your lisitings) will be holding a sort of Harry Caray-a-thon today, February 18. Beginning at 11 A.M C.S.T., there’ll be an hour tribute to Harry, followed by two old Cubs games (September 24, 1984 vs. the Pirates and August 1, 1987 vs. the Phillies) with Harry in his prime (Hey, once again; we had him first at Comiskey Park with the White Sox, but since channel 37 is owned by Tribune Media—and they own the Cubs (not for long)—that connection will be ignored. Fracken’ North Siders…). At 5:30 P.M., there will be a live feed from Harry’s restaurant, probably stacked with drunken out-of-towners and suburbanites, a half-hour tribute to Harry again at 7:30 P.M., and finally, the last game Harry called, a September 21, 1997 Cubs vs. Phillies game.