Monday, April 13, 2009

Harry Kalas, RIP

I remember my first memories of baseball being me, as a toddler, getting mad when my dad would tune in to the games on the black and white TV in the family room. I wasn't mad at him; I was mad that it meant there would be no cartoons. It seemed to me that the only thing that ever happened was that there was a long shot of the field from behind home plate, some guys talking, and that little seemed to happen - but every so often my dad would get pretty exercised when things didn't go the Phillies' way.

By the time I was 6, I started paying more attention to what it was that he and my big brother were watching, and even though I understood little, I slowly got into it. But it wasn't the Sunday afternoon broadcasts that really drew me in. What hooked me was the sound of the games on the radio, in particular when I would join my dad in his study and he had the "hi-fi" on. It was probably 1970 when I first listened, and I loved to sit in the black leather recliner in the study as he sat at his desk, writing bills, reading surgical journals, or talking on the phone. Behind him were shelves where the stereo sat, and delivered a crystal clear signal of a baseball game that might be 25 - or 3,000 - miles away. The soothing voice of Harry Kalas would draw me in, and I would sit there listening, drinking in the ambient background noise, wishing I could have been there, and filling in the mental images evoked by his words.

I remember falling asleep many times on that recliner, and begging to be allowed to listen to at least the first inning of a west coast game. Many times my dad carried me up to my bedroom; the first thing I would ask on waking was what the final score was. The first game I ever saw was at Connie Mack Stadium in 1970, a year before Harry became the Phillies announcer. I recall that there was a certain aura about Bill Campbell and Byron Saam, the announcing team at the time. I also remember that there wasn't an all-out embrace of Harry when he first arrived (surprising, I know, that Philly wasn't all warm and fuzzy). I loved him. It was his deep voice that cut through the background stadium sounds on those nights in my dad's study. It was his crescendo delivery that let you know that something special was unfolding. It was his chemistry with Richie Ashburn that made it all so much fun - and made me a fan forever.

One of his signature lines that my brother and I loved was Harry prepending the word "that" to a person's name. For example, if he thought the answer to a trivia question was Dizzy Dean, he would proffer the answer "How about that Dizzy Dean"? I might not have understood why he threw "that" in there, and my brother and I would get a chuckle using it ourselves when we could - but it was definitely a Kalas calling card. One of the things that I remember being struck by was video of Harry doing a call. In my mind, he was like the announcer in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, climbing onto the table as he went crazy watching a Bull Blast or a Schmitty homer clear the fence. Instead, he sat there, very still from the shoulders down, his voice doing all the work of conveying emotion - the baseball announcing equivalent of Debbie Harry of Blondie singing with her emotionless affect. His banter with Whitey Ashburn made many a losing game bearable. His partaking in the champagne-soaked celebrations at the end of the 1976, 1977, 1978, and most memorably, the 1980 seasons, live on in happy memory. I was out of Philadelphia by 1993, so I don't remember the post-game celebration then, but I am sure with Harry and Whitey there, it was special.

Philly fans have been spoiled in their announcers. Harry Kalas was a rock for 38 seasons, 27 of those with Ashburn. Gene Hart was the voice and the living encyclopedia of the Flyers for 29 seasons. Merrill Reese has been the voice of the Eagles for over 30 years. The first two are in the Hall of Fame in their sports, and Merrill Reese is deserving in his. We lost a great deal of Flyers history (although thankfully he wrote "Score" before passing away, preserving some great history in the process), when Gene died in 1999. Harry was the voice of the Phillies from the opening season at Veterans Stadium through their first World Series title in 1980, the opening of Citizens Bank Park, and their second championship last season. It isn't, and probably won't ever be, possible for me to watch a Phillies' game without Harry's voice running through my head, describing the action. In fact, when I did watch a Phillies' game on TV and Harry wasn't calling it, I often thought "I wonder what Harry is saying" about some exciting play on the radio. That he wasn't allowed to broadcast the 1980 World Series was a blotch on baseball and its obsequiousness to the broadcast contract of the day (since rectified) - but knowing that he was in the clubhouse for the celebration, and that he went out with the Phils as reigning champs, makes today's news easier to take.

Baseball has had some great announcers, and it is difficult to say who was "best". But if you ask me who my favorite baseball broadcaster of all time is, forgive me if I answer "How about that Harry Kalas!"

1 comment:

Daria said...

Excellent post, Paul! Thanks for the memories; hard to believe Harry is gone, but he will live on in the hearts of Philly fans forever. :)