We continue our special series on the media legends of Chicago, and today we shine another spotlight on a sportscaster who is so very great with words, both on TV and radio; I am talking of course about Harry Caray, who had been calling baseball games for the Chicago White Sox and then for the last sixteen years of his career was the announcer for the Chicago Cubs…
Harry was born Harry Christopher Carabina in St. Louis, Missouri on March 1st, 1914; He was born to an Italian father and a Romanian mother in St. Louis. His mother died of complications from pneumonia when Harry was just 14 years of age, and he did not have any much recollection of his father, who would go on to fight in the First World War. Caray would then go on to live with his uncle John Argint and Aunt Doxie at a place called 1909 LaSalle Avenue.
While in his youth, Caray attended Webster Groves High School, and he was said to be a talented baseball player, possessing the tools to play at the next level; Right after high school, the University of Alabama had offered Caray a spot on the team, but due to financial difficulties, he would not accept. The Second World War was occurring around this time, so Harry tried to enlist in the Armed Forces, but was denied due to poor eyesight. So, being unable to advance his physical side of baseball, as well as not even enough in terms of selling gym equipment, Harry Caray would then find something that would keep his love of baseball alive-Through the talent of his voice.
Caray would spend a few years learning this new trade at radio stations in such places as Joliet, Illinois and Kalamazoo, Michigan; While he was working in Joliet, a man by the name of Bob Holt, who was a station manager at WCLS, suggested that Harry change his surname from Carabina to Caray, and that’s because, according to Holt, it sounded to awkward on the air.
Harry Caray would land his very big break in 1945 when he landed a job with the St. Louis Cardinals; According to several histories of the franchise, he proved to be an expert at selling the sponsor’s beer as he had been selling the Cardinals on KMOX. Before taking the job of announcing the Cardinals, Caray had also announced hockey games for the St. Louis Flyers.
Harry Caray was almost killed in November of 1968 after he had been struck by an automobile while crossing a street in St. Louis; although he had suffered two broken legs because of the accident, Harry recuperated in time to go back to the broadcast booth for the start of the 1969 season with the St. Louis Cardinals. Gussie Busch, who was then the CEO of Anheuser-Busch, spent lavishly to ensure that Caray recovered, flying him on the company’s planes to a company facility in Florida to rehabilitate and recuperate. Fans began to cheer on Opening Day when Harry Caray threw aside two canes that he had been using to cross the field, and under his own power, continued to the broadcast booth.
After calling their games for 25 years, the Cardinals declined to renew Caray’s contract, stating that the action was taken by the recommendation of Anheuser-Busch’s marketing department. In 1970, he began to be accepted a job with the Chicago White Sox and joined the team the following year; He quickly became popular with the South Side faithful while having to enjoy a reputation for joviality and public…um…carousing…But such an announcer is he, Harry Caray was not always popular with the players-He had an equivalent reputation of being critical of home team blunders.
And yes, there was a time in which some announcers would wish they would not experience: On July the 12th 1979, what had begun as a promotional effort by a Chicago radio station would then turn out to be known as “Disco Demolition Night”; a disc jockey by the name of Steve Dahl blew up a crate full of disco records on the field after the first game of a White Sox/Detroit Tigers double-header, and then thousands of rowdy fans began to pour from the stands and onto the field at Comiskey Park. Harry Caray and his new partner, Jimmy Piersall, tried to calm the crowd via the public address system while imploring them to return to their seats in vain; The field was then cleared by the Chicago Police and the White Sox had been forced to forfeit the second game due to the damage on the field.
After the 1981 season, Harry Caray would leave the Chicago White Sox, then having been replaced by Don Drysdale; Then the following year the mega-popular Caray had been hired by the Chicago Cubs for the 1982 season. The Cubs’ own television outlet, WGN-TV, became among the first of the cable television superstations to offer their programming to providers across the United States, and Caray would become just as famous nationwide as he was locally.
He would then become known for using a signature that would become something of a trademark: during the seventh inning stretch, Harry Caray would continue a tradition that he began when he joined the White Sox by leading the home crowd in singing, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”.
Harry Caray suffered a stroke in February of 1987 while living in his winter home near Palm Springs, California, just before spring training for the Cubs’ 1987 season, leading to his absence from the broadcast booth throughout most of the two months of the regular season, as WGN filled his seat with celebrity guest announcers while he recuperated.
However, time would eventually take a toll on the broadcasting giant; Age and illness began draining some of Caray’s skills, even though he had recovered from the 1987 stroke. There had been calls for him to retire, but he had been kept past WGN’s normal mandatory retirement age, and that happens to be an indication of just how popular Harry Caray really was. Harry Caray, the man who had also happen to go by the nickname of “The Mayor of Rush Street”, passed away on February 18th, 1998, at age 83.