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Today in Cubs history: Harry Caray passed away

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It’s hard to believe the broadcast legend has been gone for two decades.

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Harry Caray is beloved by most Cubs fans for his tenure in the WGN-TV booth from 1982 through 1997, sixteen seasons of play-by-play that, like Jack Brickhouse before him locally, helped the Cubs get the national fanbase they have now via WGN’s national cable/satellite broadcasts.

Harry died 20 years ago today, February 18, 1998, after collapsing at a restaurant in Palm Springs, California four days earlier:

Mr. Caray, who lived in Palm Springs, Calif., during the baseball off seasons, had been in a coma since he collapsed at a restaurant Saturday night while having dinner with his wife, Dutchie. Doctors said that his heart had suddenly changed rhythm, restricting oxygen to his brain. He suffered a stroke in 1987.

But Harry’s contributions to sports broadcasting long predated his time in the Cubs booth, all but one year’s worth with Steve Stone as his partner.

It’s an oddity that as beloved as he is by Cubs fans, the bulk of his career was spent calling games for their two biggest rivals, the Cardinals and White Sox.

Harry was born Harry Carabina in St. Louis; both his parents died by the time he was eight. As you can see in the article linked above, he had for years had his birth year listed as 1920, but not long after his passing it was revealed he’d actually been born in 1914, making him 83 when he died.

Carabina, having shortened his name to the more broadcast-friendly “Caray” at the suggestion of one of his first radio station managers in Joliet, talked his way into broadcasting Cardinals games basically by simply telling station managers that he could do a better job than the guy they had. (Try doing that in broadcasting today.)

That led to 25 years at the microphone at KMOX in St. Louis as the voice of the Cardinals. In the 1960s, national networks used a local broadcaster as part of their World Series crew, so Harry called three World Series (1964, 1967, 1968) for NBC. He was fired by the Cardinals after the 1969 season, allegedly because he was having an affair with the daughter-in-law of Cardinals owner Gussie Busch (both denied it). A year earlier he had nearly died after being hit by a car on a rainy night in St. Louis.

The Oakland Athletics hired him for the 1970 season, but it wasn’t a good fit for broadcaster or team, and he left after one year to join the White Sox. The Sox had been so bad that they couldn’t get a major Chicago radio station to carry their games; in 1971 they had to cobble together a “network” of sorts by having three suburban stations, one north of the city, one west, one south, to carry their games.

The Sox improved and Harry’s voice became popular not only among Sox fans, but among Chicago baseball fans in general. I enjoyed listening to him and Jimmy Piersall call games on WSNS-Ch. 44 from 1977 through 1981.

After the 1981 season, when Brickhouse retired (a forced retirement, some said), Milo Hamilton was slated to become the Cubs’ lead TV voice. But new White Sox ownership under Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t care for Caray and let him go. The Cubs were also under new ownership, and realizing Caray’s popularity, hired him. Hamilton was shuffled to radio, and reportedly bore a grudge against Caray for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, Harry was becoming a legend among Cubs fans. He called a number of games from the bleachers and brought his “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” seventh-inning stretch rendition to Wrigley Field, where it became even more popular than it had been on the South Side. The tradition continues to this day. Here’s video of what turned out to be the last time he led the crowd, September 21, 1997:

Harry slowed a bit after he suffered a stroke in 1987; Stone and “guest” announcers filled in while Harry was away, most memorably Bill Murray for the game on April 17:

But it was Caray’s voice and presence that Cubs fans remember best. Here’s his call of the last out of the final game of the 1991 season, October 6, in which he prophesied the Cubs would someday be in the World Series:

The Cubs had hired Harry’s grandson Chip to share the TV booth with Harry in 1998, but sadly, with Harry’s passing that never happened.

Harry Caray was one of a kind. He’ll be remembered forever by Cubs fans and baseball fans everywhere for his love of the game and his unique broadcast style.