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Book review: ‘The Legendary Harry Caray’

Love him or hate him, you cannot deny his influence on Chicago baseball.

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It is hard to imagine what the Chicago Cubs franchise and fanbase would be like today if Harry Caray hadn’t been the team’s broadcaster for 16 seasons from 1982-98.

That’s not an exaggeration. There might not be any single individual who had as much influence on making the Cubs as popular as they are now than Caray.

Don Zminda’s new biography of Harry, “The Legendary Harry Caray,” not only lays out exactly how important Harry was to the Cubs on WGN, but chronicles the life of a man who really did pull himself up from nothing. Orphaned at 14, he was raised by an aunt and uncle and loved playing baseball. Not good enough to play professionally, he wanted to stay connected with the game, so he entered broadcasting.

By the time he was 31 — and Caray insisted his birth year was 1920, rather than 1914, as was revealed upon his death — he was the lead broadcaster for his hometown Cardinals, having talked Cardinals ownership into giving him a chance basically by just saying he could do a better job than the previous broadcaster. Imagine someone trying to do this today.

Caray’s move from St. Louis to Oakland to the White Sox to the Cubs is fairly well known, but the book notes many crossroads that could have prevented him from ever being connected with the Cubs. He was nearly killed in a car accident in St. Louis in 1968, taking several months to recover. After the following season, he was fired after 25 seasons, reportedly due to rumors that he was having an affair with the daughter-in-law of Cardinals owner Gussie Busch. (This was supposedly who he was going to meet on the rainy night when he was hit by the car.)

So Harry could have wound up staying in St. Louis. In fact, during his tumultuous run as White Sox broadcaster from 1971-81, he nearly went back to St. Louis. The book details an offer he was made to return there in 1976, but the White Sox gave him a good enough offer to stay in Chicago.

And of course, had Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn not come in as Sox owners in 1981 and decided they needed to shake up everything, Harry might have stayed on the South Side. The book details his departure from the Sox and his sudden hire by the Cubs for the 1982 season, and the hatred Milo Hamilton had for him as a result — a hatred that had begun in St. Louis decades earlier.

Harry Caray was perhaps the best salesman the Cubs could have hired at the beginning of the Tribune Company ownership. The confluence of Harry, the Cubs being carried on national cable and the 1984 N.L. East title helped make the Cubs popular nationwide. Many of you are Cubs fans who have never lived in Chicago, and it’s Harry and WGN who made that happen.

You might have seen this before, if you haven’t, it’s a tribute that Budweiser made to Harry, using clips from his career to make it seem as if he were calling the final out in Game 7 in 2016:

Zminda’s book is not only a fine biography of a “larger than life” man, it’s also a fascinating history of baseball and broadcasting in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. If you lived through those years like I did, the book will bring back many fond memories. If you didn’t, the book is worth reading to understand how a man born in St. Louis and once tightly identified with the Cardinals wound up with a statue outside Wrigley Field.