Harry Caray, Inimitable Cubs Announcer, Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This town's baseball fans were left brokenhearted Wednesday by the death of Harry Caray, the ebullient cotton-mouthed Chicago Cubs announcer who entranced millions of Wrigley Field visitors with his croaking seventh-inning stretch rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Wrigley Field was dark and empty, but at nightfall a brace of candles flickered next to a row of unopened beer cans near the home plate entrance. It was an anonymous but loving tribute to Caray, 77, who was pronounced dead at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

He had been taken there by ambulance Saturday after collapsing at a Valentine's dinner in Palm Springs.

Caray's prognosis had been poor from the moment he fell on his dinner table as he stood to acknowledge applause that echoed while the nightclub's band played "Chicago."

In the days since, Chicagoans have obsessed over Caray's fading health with the same forlorn fascination that Vatican watchers reserve for dying popes.

The announcer's decaying condition has led Chicago's newscasts. Respiratory specialists came forward to explain Caray's condition, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, a loss of oxygen and blood flow to the brain.

At Caray's popular downtown restaurant, devoted patrons bawled out emotional versions of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" each night at 7:30, still hoping against hope that Caray might return to lead them.

If Chicago's heartsick vigil for Caray may have seemed excessive for a broadcaster, it made perfect sense in a town that adores the common touch in its heroes. Caray's gargling, malaprop-laced baseball narratives were a link to the golden age of sports broadcasting, to the silky banter of Mel Allen and the barnyard wisdom of Red Barber, iconoclastic regional voices replaced by a younger generation of sportscasters who thrive on statistics and cheap controversy.

Caray, a Hall of Fame broadcaster, captivated radio and television audiences with his giddy shouts of "Holy cow!" and other trademark outbursts.

Jack Brickhouse, the 82-year-old former play-by-play man who preceded Caray as the voice of the Cubs, said Caray "was a born entertainer who was able to take that talent to the world of sports." And Caray, Brickhouse added, "was sincerely a fan and an absolute expert about baseball. He knew the game real well."

But to Chicagoans, Caray was more than a venerated play-by-play man. He was an Everyman who relished plunging into a crowd. He was a tourist attraction who kept Wrigley Field crowds hanging on until the seventh-inning stretch even as the Cubs played--as they often have--pitifully. He was a pub crawler who bought so many rounds for the house at downtown bars that he became the unofficial "Mayor of Rush Street," one of the town's many pub strips.

And for generations of Chicago kids, Caray's was the last voice they heard before drifting off to sleep, the shepherd of their age-old love affair with the Cubs.

"It won't be the same without him," 13-year-old Devon Giltner wailed into his mother's arms outside Wrigley Field on Wednesday night. Shelly Giltner had walked young Devon over to the ballpark from their northside Chicago home "because we just had to be here. Even if there was nobody else here, we just had to pay our respects. This is where we saw Harry, and this is where we'll remember him."

They gathered with a knot of other fans around a brass plaque honoring Caray that has been embedded for years in the sidewalk outside Wrigley. All night long, fans pulled into the stadium's parking lot and left mementos in honor of the broadcaster. Some left candles. Some left bottles and cans of Budweiser, Caray's favorite brew.

Megan Ward and Jill Gerdzos, two 18-year-olds from the suburb of Oak Forest, drove an hour to leave a spray of carnations. Ward, a sad-faced girl with an eyebrow ring, said: "Harry was like family to us. . . . We grew up with him. He's like your grandparents--you can't imagine them not being there."

Caray had been a fixture in Chicago for nearly three decades, broadcasting for 11 years with the White Sox, then for the last 16 with the Cubs. Although the Cubs management and WGN-TV, both owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Co., had no plans to retire Caray or phase him out in coming years, they had planned to pair him this year with his grandson, Chip, now a broadcaster for the Orlando Magic basketball team.

"He was really looking forward to working with Chip," said Jimmy Murphy, 49, whose tavern sits across the street from center field at Wrigley. "That's the saddest thing."

Caray was born Harry Christopher Carabina in St. Louis. His precise age was uncertain--the Cubs' official media guide listed it as 77, but Caray's years as a young orphan, and the need for a jobless youth to add to his age to find work--led many to speculate that he was years older. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported finding a copy of his birth certificate that listed his birth date as March 1, 1914, which would have made him 83.

Caray had been a play-by-play man on radio and later on television since 1941, when he started with the St. Louis Cardinals. Jack Buck, who worked with Caray in the Cardinal radio booth, called Caray "bombastic, contentious and a real fan of the game. He was critical of the players when he had to be, but he always spoke for the fans. And he was one of the greatest ticket salesmen in the history of the game."

Caray developed his trademark raspy rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with the White Sox. It developed, Caray said in later interviews, out of his own woozy attempts to lead sing-alongs with fans sitting near his broadcast booth--and from a suggestion by legendary team owner Bill Veeck. When Caray moved to the Cubs, he took the routine with him.

And "holy cow," Caray explained, came from his lifelong reluctance of using profanity in public. As a young orphan, "I knew the profanity that had been used up and down my street wouldn't go on the air. So I just trained myself every time I was excited to say 'holy cow' instead of some profanity. Not that it's so unique . . . the unique part was that I finally did it on a major league broadcast in 1945 with a lot of radio stations across the county listening to it."

During his 16 years as a Cubs broadcaster, Caray spiced up inevitable Cubs losses with a variety of time-filling ploys that became favorites with baseball fans. He spelled names backward. He interrupted play-by-play narratives to mention fans, including his favorite bartenders, who were visiting the ballpark.

He won the loyalty of the 5th Battalion firefighters stationed across the street from Wrigley Field last year by mentioning the impending retirement of their commander, Lt. Bill Connors.

"That was a big thing with us," said fire Lt. Joe Santucci. "He made us feel like neighbors. He had the common touch."

Even celebrities gushed in his presence. "Nobody could sing 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' like he could," said First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a lifelong Cubs fan since her childhood in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge. "And I hope he's doing a seventh-inning rendition in heaven."

Veteran Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully said that "people in the bleachers, as well as the man in the box seat, knew they shared their love of baseball with a true fan."

In the darkness outside Wrigley Field, fans who have sat all over the stadium kept coming to the brass plaque with Caray's name on it. They stayed only a few minutes before the bitter wind drove them on. After all, this was the off-season, but even in a long winter without baseball, they were thinking ahead to the first seventh-inning stretch of 1998.

"When the time comes, we'll all look up there over home plate toward his booth," Shelly Giltner said, "and Harry won't be there. I'm sure we'll all sing. But we'll be a little lost without him."

Times researcher John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this story.

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