Cubs 101 - Pt. 40 - The Death of Harry Caray
In February of 1998 I was an 18-year-old kid getting ready to graduate high school and escape into the mysteries of adulthood. I was also, despite living in a small town in Western NY, fully immersed in the Chicago Cubs.
The previous season I'd been introduced to the thrilling, exciting world of the internet, and like the geek I am I dove right in. I quickly found myself participating in baseball chatrooms and message boards, arguing about the Cubs, alienating the older fans who had seen it all and knew better than me. And with the start of Spring Training, I was beyond anxious for the season to begin.
Earlier in the winter, the Cubs had announced a fairly big, outside-the-lines move. They were going to bring in a new third person to the announcing booth to join the team of Caray and Stone. By that point I'd already been listening to Harry and Steve for more than a decade and the games wouldn't have been the same without them. I wasn't too upset, though, to learn that the person joining the team was a third generation Caray - Chip, Harry's grandson, who would hopefully carry on the legacy after the old man retired.
Unfortunately, though, Chip was thrust into that position sooner than he should've been. While out to dinner on Valentine's Day with his wife Dutchie, Harry stumbled, fell, and hit his head on the corner of another table. He'd be rushed to the hospital and remain unconscious for four days before passing away.
More than a decade later, it's hard to describe the impact that Harry -- and the loss of him -- had on Cub fans. In many ways, he was perhaps as much an institution as the ballpark itself. The outcry surrounding his death was perhaps as great as would be the outcry were Wrigley Field to fall down tomorrow. In many ways, as an 18-year-old trying to figure out the course of my life, I was as inspired by Harry as I was by anything else when I chose communications as my field in college. I'd be shocked to learn I was the only one.
The immediate sadness of Harry's death stemmed at first from the void he left, then from the disappointment that he missed out on such an exciting season, then from the gloom of having to listen to the guy who replaced him. Chip may have had the Caray blood rushing through his veins but he was neither as likable as -- nor did he have the passion of -- his grandfather. He was a sad replacement.
Chip would try too hard to come up with his own catch phrases. Much as Harry had "it might be ... it could be! ... it is!!" Chip tried to turn "belted!" into his thing. If only half his "belted" calls weren't wasted on shallow pop flies without a chance of clearing the fence. Chip never had a "holy cow!" but he did come up with lazer beam throws from the catcher to second base. Chip never sounded like a fan, but he did sound like every other new-era broadcaster to come into the business at that time. He was Joe Buck, and a dozen other guys weened on the Fox Sports teet, but he was not Harry Caray.
Still, at least the Cubs had Steve Stone, and his wry cynicsm, his dry wit, his genius play-predictions, to keep us glued to the television during the games. For whatever reason, though, Steve developed a healthy man-crush on Chip. Perhaps the younger Caray was a friend to Steve in a way that the aloof, older Harry never was, I don't know. But Steve came to care greatly for the younger Caray, and he carried Chip those first few years he was in the booth until he was forced out due to a rash of illnesses from 2000 to 2002.
It was during that long, horrible three year span that we truly came to realize just how bad Chip was. There was nobody to pick up the slack without Steve in the booth. Chip was partnered with Joe Carter, the former player/Toronto World Series hero, and for the first time in our lives we were forced to watch Cub games with the mute button on. Caray contributed nothing, and yet somehow Carter found a way to contribute even less. Cub fans would have gladly chosen deafness over that mess. Also at that point the Cubs had stopped broadcasting almost all their games on WGN, slowly cutting the number from more than 150 games to less than 100. We were frustrated by the loss when it began in the late 90's, but I don't recall feeling so sad about the loss during the Chip and Joe era.
Thankfully Steve would return for a couple of years in 2003, but at that point it was evident... they weren't the same Cubs without Harry. For those of you who may be too young to know, or to understand, perhaps the best way to describe the difference is this:
It would be a great, if not impossible feat for me to try and watch many Cub games during seasons of mediocrity. Even with today's broadcast team, who are far better than even Steve Stone (with Chip Caray) was, I wouldn't want to watch a Cubs team I knew to be likely to lose. But I didn't have that problem with Harry in the booth. I'd watch them all day, every day. That was what Harry Caray brought to the games he called -- his passion, his enthusiasm, his demeanor, his character ... these are all irreplacable things that turned him into a ratings winner even in the long years of the mid 90's. His job has since been filled by capable men, but he will never be replaced.
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