Thursday, February 16, 2006

From the Archives: Hats off to Harry

Milo Hamilton, the Houston Astros Play-by-Play man and former Cubs broadcaster, has written a book. In the book "Making Airwaves", he has taken quite a few shots at a Chicago icon--Harry Caray.

Among the things he wrote about Harry in his book:

*After Harry left the White Sox to take over the Cubs job, he talked to Milo. Harry told him "Well, kid, if I were you, I'd leave town."

*Milo didn't like the way he broadcasted. "He rode the managers, he rode the players, it didn't matter. He treated everyone the same way. In short, he was a miserable human being."

*When Milo was hospitalized for leukemia in 1982, Harry responded on the air that he "Couldn't understand how a guy can take time off during the season. Unlike some other broadcasters I know, I've never missed a game."

In my nearly twenty years in Chicago radio (and even before that), I ran into Harry Caray many times. Does Milo's version of Harry sound like the Harry I knew? Judge for yourself. Here are a few examples of my Harry encounters.

*In 1984, my radio station in Champaign (WPGU) was carrying the Cubs. I got to go to the affiliate reception at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago with the General Manager of our station (who happened to be my girlfriend at the time). We met Harry, had a few cocktails with him, and he nearly pushed me out of the booth to hit on my girlfriend.

*In 1989, I was producer of the Steve and Garry show. It was their tenth anniversary on the air together, and I called people from their past to relive the memories on the air. Since Harry was the play-by-play man for the White Sox during Steve & Garry's famous Disco Demolition stunt, I called him at his home (he lived in a hotel in my neighborhood). When I told him what show I was calling for, he went nuts on me, and called Steve and Garry every name in the book. Needless to say, he didn't come on. (In fairness to Harry, I called Jimmy Piersall next and he was even more belligerent. I hadn't even heard some of those words before. Whew.)

*In 1994, I was the producer of the John Landecker Show. It was the week before the strike and Harry was our guest. We told him the interview would be about two things; the strike and Harry's encounter about Elvis (a great story we had heard him tell to Bob Costas. Remember, this was an Oldies station.) When John brought up Elvis, Harry said he didn't want to tell the story. When John said he thought the strike was really going to happen, Harry basically called John stupid--saying that there "was no way in hell that will happen. There's too much money at stake." The interview lasted about two minutes.

Granted, I cherry-picked those stories from my many encounters. There were other times he was a great guy, an accomodating guy, and a fun guy. I was actually a huge fan, and I never took any of this stuff personally. For every bad encounter, there wa s a good one. In short, he was human.

So is Milo right? Probably. Is Milo wrong? Definitely.

I could tell that Harry never remembered my name when I saw him, but he did recognize my face. He called me "Kid," like I'm sure he called everyone else under 70. Heck, Milo said he called him "Kid," so maybe he didn't stop at 70. Despite his flaws, Harry was larger than life. Anyone who ever met him, remembers it well.

When he died, I was inspired to write the following song. Landecker & The Legends performed it that whole summer, and it appears on "Landecker & The Legends, Volume 5." It's to the tune of "Hats of to Larry" by Del Shannon. You may not know the tune, but you can still see my affection for him in the lyrics.

"Hats Off to Harry"

When I went to Wrigley Field,
And the seventh inning came,
You weren't in broadcast booth,
It will never be the same,

We miss you Harry, Holy Cow,
I'm here at the old ballpark,
Waiting for your last bow,
But it's God's Plan,
To take away the main Bud Man,
Harry I'm crying in my beer for you.

Though you mispronounced some names,
You are in the Hall of Fame,
Baseball will never be the same.

Hats Off to Harry,
We'll miss your glasses,
We'll miss you in the booth,
Checking out the lasses,
Cruel twist of fate,
Chip's broadcasting behind home plate,
Harry I'm crying in my beer for you.

Bye Harry Caray,
It's not the same,
No more Ryne Sanderson,
No backwards names,
You're the only one,
Who could make a lousy team such fun,
Harry I'm crying in my beer for you.
For You.
For You.
For You.

I also wrote the following article for "Upbeat Chicago" magazine in 1992. This is to show you I didn't just get sentimental about him after Harry died. I really was a fan.

There's Nothing Like Fun From The 'Ol Ballpark
by Rick Kaempfer

From Upbeat Chicago

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon. My wife rolled out of bed around noon, her usual weekend wake up time, and I was ready for her. The picnic basket was packed to the gills, the cooler was packed with a few frosty cold ones, and the blanket was folded nicely.

"Are we going on a picnic?" she asked.

I nodded in the affirmative, and off we went to Lincoln Park. She was still groggy and groaning.

It was time for a bribe. I handed her a book she had been longing to buy. The groan was replaced by a smile, which was then quickly replaced by a scowl when I pulled the radio out of the picnic basket.

"Are we really going to be listening to a baseball game?"

I comforted her. "No, we're going to listen to two baseball games."

I always thought that listening to sporting events on the radio was an underrated form of entertainment. If the announcers are good, the experience can be more exciting than watching the game on television or live at the ballpark. I decided to attempt to prove this to the most skeptical anti-sport fan around.

She comes from a family of White Sox fans, so I thought I would hook her more easily with that game. After all, the Sox are a better team. They're in first place, and the city is catching White Sox fever. Right? Wrong. Not this groggy little filly. John Rooney and Ed Farmer are a good team on WMAQ. They are efficient, polished broadcasters. Unfortunately, they don't really inspire the same kind of excitement as their television counterparts. In fact, after about two innings we suddenly had two groggy campers. I switched it over to WGN.

It was the third inning. Thom Brennaman and Ron Santo admittedly had a better game to work with, but instantly that excitement I was looking for was in the air.

Brennaman is one of Chicago's most underrated broadcasters. He's young, but he is also a first rate baseball announcer. He has a natural delivery, a self assured confident air about him, and most importantly, an engaging personality. His barbs at Santo come frequently, but they are done without the slightest trace of animosity. It sounds like two good friends just chatting about the ballgame, complete with just the right mixture of unabashed rooting and playful sarcasm.

The age difference doesn't seem to matter. Brennaman was still more worried about getting his box of 64 Crayola Crayons when Santo covered the hot corner for the Cubs in the 60's and early 70s. Still, he directs the flow of the broadcast. At the age of 29, he handles the pressures of the big time with ease and grace.

I found myself wishing he wasn't about to switch over to TV, but I knew it was time for the man that is now the Cubs/WGN franchise; Harry Caray. He works the middle innings on the radio. It has become fashionable to bash Harry over the last few seasons. I admit that I laugh at his mispronunciations and occasional gaffes.

I don't know why, but this season I also appreciate Harry more than I have for years. It seems he has regained his edge; his ire turns on the Cubs more easily, his cackle at his own expense is infectious, and his love of the simple things connects with the fan in all of us.

The Cubs hit a long ball. "It might be", his voice raised to meet the excitement of the game. "It could be", the cheer of the crowd reverberated. "It is!" And it was like I was there. Only better. The imagination paints a much more vivid picture than reality.

I lifted my frosty cold one to toast the man when he said "There's nothing like fun at the old ballpark."

I turned to my wife to clink cans with her. Surely Harry must have turned her around. Finally, after all these years I had created the perfect scenario for her to appreciate what I have loved since childhood. She had a big smile on her face. Her imagination was painting a Rembrandt.

Unfortunately, she was fast asleep.