Cubs 101 - Pt 17 - Harry Caray: An Introduction
For most of you, Harry Caray was and still is the Voice of the Cubs, and that's nice. For many of you who remember when he first came to Wrigley, you may also equate Harry to what we Goat Riders call the Cubs Renaissance, when the Cubs transformed into something more than lovable losers, but a vital player in the National League, in Chicago, and in their own neighborhood. Many actually CREDIT Harry! In reality, the Cubs staggered out of the P.K. Wrigley regime and became, at least, competitive most years. Perceptions do become realities, though, in most cases, and to many, the voice leading the charge belonged to an orphan from St. Louis who wore butt-ugly Coke-bottle spectacles and loved his Budweiser.
A simple test I give most Chads and Trixies upon meeting is asking them first off if they remember Harry Caray. Oh YEAH, they invariably reply. After all, he is the Patron Saint of Wrigleyville, with not only his grotesque statue (Harry rising up from Hell?) by Gate 4, but also his electric pinwheel icon mounted on top of Murphy's Bleachers in center. Everyone knows Harry, you kiddin'? Yes, I continue, but did you know he was the Voice of the Cardinals for a quarter century? Usually, Chad and Trixie shudder at the mere notion. Occasionally, one will meekly reply that they had heard a rumor that he also did Sox games way back when. Yup, and one season in Oakland, canyoubelieveit?? Crazy old man, they mumble as they walk away...
See, I wasn't in favor of Harry coming over from the start. I knew him, with "crazy" Jimmy Piersall, as the extremely vocal and drunkenly entertaining play-by-play man of the crosstown Sox. Then, as now, they were run on a shoestring, and the two of them would delight whenever "Bill Veeck's lunch-bucket White Sox" would beat up "George Steinbrenner's Millionaire Yankees" on occasion. That's well and good, but my guy was Jack Brickhouse. When Jack could no longer go every day, they brought in Milo Hamilton from Atlanta, another corn-pone kind of guy who brought the game to the little kids and housewives from Keokuk, Iowa. It seemed fairly seamless to me, until the Tribune bought the team and decided to shake things up in the booth.
As it turned out, the Tribune didn't do a God awful lot with the on-field product, but they knew entertainment and programming, forcing the kicking-and-screaming Hamilton out the door after one rancorous year doing games with Harry. I was not used to his kind of belligerence and bombast at the mike for Cubs games...Cubs guys did NOT criticize our own players, or our manager's decisions, or any of that. Clap-clap-clap, let's-go-Cubs! That's how WE like to play.
It was a calculated risk by management - if the Cubs were to continue playing as listlessly as they had since the heyday of the "1969 team", I don't think a 'tell it like it is" announcer would have lasted very long here. Fortunately, the 1984 team made an unprecedented (at least for most of us) run to the postseason, and Harry Caray was the carnival barker, head cheerleader and master of ceremonies for the run. So hell, if we're actually WINNING, then we don't care if the guy upstairs is half crocked, rippin' on the other teams, crowing about our guys in a somewhat unsportsmanlike manner. For, you see, maybe most of us had never rooted for a winner, but Harry HAD, and he knew how to do it right!
So, he came around, in my eyes and those of the rest of the old timers, and I know why this happened, at least speaking for myself. I can smell out a fake, and you can say what you want about Harry Caray's nocturnal activities, or his parenting skills, or his disrespect for authority. But Harry knew what paid his salary. He knew the fans were responsible for the game of baseball. He loved the fans, and he spoke for them, and to them.
I met the man several times, most memorably in his restaurant location in Wheeling, IL. A friend of mine and I pulled in there to watch a few innings of the Cubs in Florida, and this was 1995 or 1996, when he was recovering from his first stroke. He did not go to road games at that time, but under no circumstances did we think we'd actually run INTO the stud. Five minutes after we sat down in his bar, the man himself came out to greet us, bought us a Bud, and we talked about his missing games while he recovered. He said that while it was nice to hang out at his restaurant, he really wanted to get back to the action.
As I mentioned, this was not an isolated incident. I have met him in the concourses at Wrigley, as well as in crowded 'autograph sessions'. No matter how many people are around, or whether he had somewhere to go, it was always important to him to stop, shake your hand, and acknowledge your presence. It doesn't always work that way with famous folk - in fact, it rarely ever does. Harry knew where he came from, and where he was going, and who brought him to where he was - his adoring audiences. Like Billy Williams and Ernie Banks, Harry Caray "got it". He was real, and he won over a whole generation of guys like me, who were brought up on Jack Brickhouse, but found room in their hearts for him, too.
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