Friday, April 17, 2009

Mourning for a Legend

Philadelphia and the entire baseball world is in deep mourning this week with the passing of a legend, Harry Kalas, on April 13. He was not only a Hall of Fame broadcaster, more importantly Harry was a Hall of Fame human being. For 38 years he was the voice of the Phillies, and every year the welcoming sound of his voice would signal that Spring was finally coming to the Delaware Valley. He was a man without pretense who treated everyone that he met, as if they were a friend.

He brought joy to millions of baseball fans, especially seniors like our late, beloved Aunt Em, shut-ins, and those who were visually impaired and totally dependent on the radio broadcast to enjoy the game. Like all legends he always gave his best no matter whether the Phillies were 20 games out of first place or playing in the World Series. When he was asked once why he gave his all even in meaningless games, Harry replied, "because somebody might be listening who never heard me broadcast before."

Such is the measure of true greatness. For a baseball broadcaster's job unlike that of other sports announcers is that of storyteller. Baseball is a game with a perfect summer rhythm given to breaks in the action, and it is such story telling which adds color and uniqueness to the sport and which contributed to my love of the game. I can still remember the hot summer nights in the 1960s sitting in my grandparent's backyard,listening to the games with my grandfather on his transistor radio. Those were the days of Bill Campbell and By Saam, and " baseball and Ballantine." When I first heard of Harry's passing those happy memories all came flooding back.

Harry came to the Phillies in 1971 from the Houston Astros. For 38 years he was an institution here. The first 27 of those years he teamed up with the late, great Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn, to form in my opinion the best color/play-by-play team in baseball history. In his illustrious career he opened three stadiums, the Astrodome in 1965, Veterans Stadium in 1971, and Citizens Bank Park in 2004. He called many special moments in his career: 6 no hitters, Pete Rose's setting the National League hit record in 1981, Mike Schmidt's 500th home run in 1987, and the 911 Game in 2001. He also was privileged to call 3 World Series, including last year. I am thrilled that it was Harry at the mike to make the call " the Philadelphia Phillies are the 2008 World Champions of Baseball." Especially since Harry and the local broadcast team were prevented from doing the 1980 World Series due to network TV contracts.

In 2002, he was elected to the baseball of Hall of Fame and thousands of Phillies fans made the trek to Cooperstown for his acceptance speech, and what a speech it was. Harry concluded his speech with a poem to the fans of Phildelphia in which he stated how much he loved them. Pure class all the way. His adopted home town of Media threw him a parade, to celebrate the occasion.

Harry's broadcasting talents weren't limited to baseball however. In the 1970s he did Big 5 college basketball and more recently nationally televised college hoops. He also broadcast NFL football on the Westwood One radio network. In addition, he became the voice of NFL Films which was no easy task. Who else could follow the legendary John "the voice of God" Facenda and maintain any credibility. Not very many, besides Harry the K.

Of greater importance was the essence of Harry Kalas the man. Even though he was every much a celebrity as any Phillies player, Harry got it. It was all about the fans, with him. He knew that the fans were the reason for the game. He loved us and we loved him back. There have been thousands of stories these past few days about fans describing chance encounters with Harry and his kindness toward them. One fellow told of how his elderly father died a few weeks before his grandson's Bar Mitzvah. The boy, a big fan of Harry's and the Phillies, was in a funk and his father wanted to lift his spirits before his big day. He wrote to Harry and asked if Harry would call the boy or drop him a note. Harry did him one better. He showed up at the boy's Bar Mitzvah and spent the afternoon with him.

I myself had two chance encounters with Harry the K, and I am much the better for it. The last of these occurred in 2007 at Phillies Camera Day in which fans are allowed onto the field before the game to take pictures with the players. It was a hot July afternoon and very crowded. Harry and the broadcast team were also on the field. I spotted Harry, who was smiling as usual, and asked if would take a picture with my son Mark, then 8 years old. Harry replied warmly "sure" and he gestured Mark to come over to him. He then placed his hands on Mark's shoulders and smiled and waited patiently while I fiddled with the camera to catch the perfect pose. It was a smile borne of the milk of human kindness, and not one of those fake, celebrity "I can't wait to get the hell out of here" smiles. As Mark continued to take pictures with the players, I marveled at how Harry repeated the same sequence over and over, smiling and posing with fan after fan and enjoying every minute of it.

His unmistakable pipes and signature calls will live forever. Some fans are so enamored of "the voice" that they have recordings of Harry on their telephone answering machines. They generally go something like this : Hello, Peggy and John are not home right now. They went for a long driiive! They're Outta Here! What a lasting tribute to the man. Just like the makeshift memorials at Citizens Bank Park ,where the piles of flowers and mementos placed there since Harry's death looks like a tidal wave.

Unfortunately, the dulcet tones are now quiet. One by one our Philadelphia broadcasting legends are leaving us. The incomparable Dave Zinkoff, the aforementioned Richie Asburn in 1997, and the legendary Gene Hart in 1999. The games go on, but sadly these giants will never be replaced. They represent a past when heroes were larger than life, and make no mistake about it these men were heroes to millions of young fans like myself. Sadly, in many ways those days are gone forever.

Goodbye friend Harry. I for one will never forget the "outta here's" and "long driiives", and spontaneous renditions of "High Hopes". You were a joy to hang out with and talk Phillies baseball. At least now you're in a place where they play doubleheaders every day and the sun is always shining. I know you'll be calling the games up there Harry, and when you get a chance, please say hi to Whitey and Em for me.

1 comment:

Doc Paul said...

Prosit! Well-stated, and the solace in this sad event is that Aunt Em gets to be there for the reunification of Harry and Whitey.