From the Pages of Vine Line: Remembering Harry Caray’s legacy

HarryCaray

(Photo courtesy Chicago Cubs)

Holy cow! From 1982-98, there was no bigger personality at Wrigley Field than Hall of Fame broadcaster and man about town Harry Caray. His passion for the Cubs was rivaled only by his passion for life. In November, Vine Line ran a feature on Caray, who died 17 years ago today.

As was commonplace with Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray, the game call took an unusual turn—this time to seedless grapes. A fruit lacking the ability to self-propagate spawned a conversation so lengthy, so in keeping with the legend, Caray’s longtime work partner still laughs about it decades later.

“It was mostly carefully crafted, the lunacy,” said former Cubs pitcher and broadcaster Steve Stone. “Out of his mind came the most unusual things.”

Stone, who now works for the crosstown White Sox, shared the WGN-TV broadcast booth with Harry Caray for 15 seasons until Caray’s death in 1998, and stories about the beloved broadcaster still pour out of him. Stone credited Caray with teaching him about loyalty, fans, calling a good game and calling a bad game well.

He recalled Caray launching into this yarn, on air, about riding in the back of a limousine and seeing a grocery store sign advertising seedless grapes. Caray marveled at the novelty of this “new” fruit—which, for the record, was neither new nor novel—and baited his partner for a good explanation of how such a thing could exist.

Stone, the college-educated straight man to Caray’s blue-collar wild card, cobbled together a workable theory about selective pollination, hybridization and the like.

“Well, that doesn’t sound right,” Caray grumbled, later adding, “Imagine if they came up with a seedless watermelon!”

“We talked an entire inning about seedless grapes,” Stone recalled with a laugh. “This is a story he was waiting to tell.”

These days, the legend of Harry Caray—and fans’ memories of him—tend to skew toward caricature. Everyone from Will Ferrell to Ryan Dempster can do a spot-on Caray impression. He was so beloved, so funny, so seemingly hapless, it’s easy to forget what a good baseball mind he had.

The grape conversation and others were hardly the ramblings of an eccentric older man. They were the deliberate selling of an experience, a persona and a ballpark that made Caray the beating heart of a club that still pulses with his legacy today. During his lengthy career, the Hall of Famer bellowed through 50 years of big league broadcasts, including two Cubs division titles, and took generations of fans out to the ballgame—his way.

* * * *
Atlanta Braves broadcaster Chip Caray said a Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t have penned a better story: A scrappy, St. Louis-bred orphan spends the bulk of his working life peddling the Chicago Cubs’ biggest rivals before climbing into the booth behind home plate at Wrigley Field.

“And he’s the most beloved announcer in the history of the franchise,” said the younger Caray, Harry’s grandson. “He ended up doing pretty damn well for himself.”

By the time Caray was born as Harry Christopher Carabina on March 1, 1914, he had already been abandoned by his father. His mother remarried but died in 1928, leaving her teenage boy to be raised by an aunt.

Caray was a decent high school baseball player and earned a scholarship to the University of Alabama. But he declined the offer because he couldn’t afford room and board, according to Cubs historian Ed Hartig.

“When people are brought up without much, they desire to get ahead,” said Caray’s widow, Dutchie.

And so he did. After listening to countless Cardinals broadcasts, the kid felt he could convey the sport’s excitement better than the team’s radio broadcasters, and he was cocky enough to let the station’s general manager hear about it. The GM gave Caray an audition and liked what he saw, but he preferred Caray start in small-market Joliet, Illinois, where he could gain some experience.

The newly minted broadcaster kicked off the 1940s with a new beat (high school and junior college basketball, bowling and softball), a new name (out with Carabina, in with Caray) and, after a promotion to sports director of a station in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a new catchphrase—a rousing “Holy cow!” belted out after home runs.

In an era when prominent announcers were scrambling to find on-air calling cards, Caray’s served a dual purpose: It was memorable, and it kept him from swearing, Hartig said.

In 1944, Caray returned to his beloved hometown Cardinals, where he spent 25 years in the booth despite some personal entanglements. His growing fame and hectic schedule led to a divorce from his first wife, Dorothy, in 1949 (he would marry and divorce a second time before marrying Dutchie in 1975).

Later, rumors of an affair with an owner’s wife arose, and Caray did little to dispel them.

Following the 1969 campaign, he was fired by the Cardinals and spent one season calling games for the Oakland Athletics.

In 1971, he headed back to the Midwest to replace Bob Elson as the voice of the White Sox. The club capitalized on the broadcaster’s ability to self-promote by offering him an incentive-laden contract based on attendance numbers at Comiskey Park.

Caray quickly became immensely popular. When he wasn’t hobnobbing with South Siders, buying fans beers or broadcasting from the bleachers, he was carousing downtown and hitting bars and restaurants after games, earning himself the nickname “the Mayor of Rush Street.”

Personnel changes at the Sox and rumblings about a pay-per-view system for the 1982 season prompted Caray to contact the Cubs about replacing legend Jack Brickhouse, who was retiring after the 1981 season, Hartig said. Caray was ultimately hired, and the nationally viewed WGN Superstation, which had launched just prior to Caray’s arrival, sent his popularity into orbit.

“He was fun to listen to,” Dutchie Caray said. “He was just nuts.”

The Cubs capitalized on Caray’s oddball personality by promoting him almost as heavily as they did the team—and Caray followed suit by pursuing his own endorsements as the de facto face of the Cubs. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, especially during bleak years on the field when the stretch-singing, microphone-waving Caray was the one putting butts in seats.

“Harry sold the city of Chicago, Wrigley Field, the Cubs, and he sold Harry Caray,” Stone said. “And beer. That goes without saying.”

While Caray rarely met a party he didn’t like, stories of him being drunk in the booth during games are patently false. When fans heard the pop of a can followed by a long, gulping pull during broadcasts, Caray was generally drinking soda, not beer, Chip Caray said. While the elder Caray would hoist a glass during the seventh-inning stretch, its contents generally remained untouched. Stone said during their 14 years together in the WGN booth, he watched Caray drink a total of maybe 45 beers—roughly three per season.

“It was show business,” said the younger Caray, adding that his grandfather might enjoy a cold brew only on the hottest of days in the steamiest of cities, where the booth was like a “Japanese pillbox on Iwo Jima”—his grandfather’s words.

And perhaps it was Caray’s words—and his famous delivery of them—that compelled listeners to believe he was soused. He’d jumble players’ names, make silly puns, and dip into a vast well of ridiculous, incongruous stories during slow moments. Most fans can, and frequently do, quote them from memory.
“Alou’s name spelled backwards is Uola.”

“How could that guy lose the ball in the sun? He’s from Mexico.”

“The good Lord wants the Cubs to win.”

Said Stone: “He was never boring.”

* * * *
Caray first crossed paths with his longtime wingman at Comiskey Park, where Stone pitched for the White Sox in 1973 and from 1977-78. Stone was also part owner of The Pump Room, a swanky Chicago restaurant located in what was then the Ambassador East Hotel. He recalled sitting at the bar with teammate Ken Brett one night when Harry, who was living at the hotel at the time, walked in.

“He looks at Brett and says to him, ‘Boy, last year you were good! What the hell happened to you?’” Stone said. “And Kenny says, ‘Nice talking to you, Harry.’”

Caray’s no-nonsense style irked some and downright alienated others, such as former Cubs broadcaster Milo Hamilton and Sox owner John Allyn, who both “probably had the Harry Caray dartboard,” Hartig said.

“Harry would be a guy who’d be very difficult to hire today,” his grandson said.

And the same hard lines he drew professionally leaked into his home life as well.

“He didn’t know how to be a dad, to be a granddad,” Chip Caray said. “There are a lot of holes in my life and in my dad’s life.”

Chip Caray credited his step-grandmother, Dutchie, with working to mend any familial rifts.

“I tried to get Harry to realize he needed to treat all his kids alike,” she said, adding that he tended to favor the boys within his own brood of five. At home, the usually voluble Caray was quiet and typically buried in newspapers. He read about seven papers a day, prompting Dutchie to lay out towels to protect their home’s white carpeting.

“He would come into the house, and his hands would be black from newsprint,” Dutchie Caray said. “I’d say, ‘Don’t touch anything!’”

Stone recalled that same devotion to print. Caray would often amble into the booth and drop a gigantic tome he was working his way through onto the table, and his gameday prep was poring over everything he could get his ink-stained mitts on.

* * * *
The roar of the Wrigley Field crowd between innings of an uneventful game often left WGN-TV’s director of production Bob Vorwald puzzled—that is, until he realized Caray was making his way from the TV booth to the radio booth.

“He was a force of nature,” Vorwald said.

Caray had a knack for appealing to “regular guys” and relished talking to fans and signing autographs. When Stone began working with Caray, the legend told him: “Never talk down to your audience.”

Prior to going on-air, Caray would often ask his partner to pick any side on any issue, and the veteran broadcaster would counter it. From seedless grapes to Stone’s cigar smoking, Caray had a retort for everything, and it usually was consistent with the opinions of the guy bellying up to the bar.

“He’d say, ‘Don’t take it personally. That’s good television,’” Stone remembered.

But baseball always came first.

“I think people remember the personality,” Vorwald said. “But they don’t always remember what an outstanding broadcaster he was and how well he knew the game.”

Caray missed the start of the 1987 season after suffering a stroke. His return was heralded by an on-air phone call from no less than President Ronald Reagan—a call ridiculously cut short.

“He hung up on Ronald Reagan because Bobby Dernier got a bunt single,” said Stone, laughing.

While Caray’s bits weren’t an act, they weren’t an accident either. For many of the seasons he covered the Cubs, the team struggled, so the broadcast had to be more interesting to keep viewers from changing the channel.

“He saw a lot of bad baseball,” Vorwald said. “You have to work harder when teams and games are not so good.”

In the strike-shortened 1981 season, the Cubs suffered a dismal 38-65 record and drew an unusually low half-million in attendance. The following year, Caray’s first, the team still came in under .500, yet attendance doubled. And it continued to grow for years after that.

Late in his career and in declining health, Caray cut back on his travel—and his drinking. He collapsed at a Palm Springs Valentine’s Day dinner with Dutchie in 1998 and died of cardiac arrest and brain damage four days later—just shy of his 84th birthday. His funeral was held at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago and was followed by a motorcade around Wrigley Field.

Chip Caray remembered sitting in a limousine with his dad when the procession to the North Side halted. They slowed through downtown roadwork on that frigid Chicago winter’s day and looked out the window. Construction workers stood in silent salute as the caravan passed, hard hats held steady over their hearts for someone they recognized as uniquely their own.

And that’s just how Caray would have wanted it.

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