Holy Cow

As another Major League Baseball season gets started, the age-old argument in Illinois renews once again: Sox-versus-Cubs-versus-Cards. For more than a century baseball fans in the Land of Lincoln have sparred over the competition between the three big league teams with the largest following in Illinois.

There’s always much to argue about, and this year will be no different. But they do all have one thing in common: some of the most memorable moments in the history of each club were narrated by the great Harry Caray.

Harry Caray achieved lasting, national fame as the voice of the Chicago Cubs on WGN, but he got his start in St. Louis. Born there just weeks before the start of the baseball season in 1914, Caray dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. He played the game into his late teens, but was not able to make the leap to the pro circuit. Instead he worked as a salesman before finding another way into the game he loved: broadcasting.

Caray called minor league games in the early 1940s in Joliet and then Kalamazoo, Michigan, before making it to the majors as one of the voices of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1945. Along the way he excited fans with his thrilling home run call, “It might be! It could be! It is! A home run!” It was a call he would make countless times for more than half a century.

It was a great time to be a baseball announcer in St. Louis, as the team was the defending world champions and would win another World Series in 1946, led by future Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter. Though Caray could not have known it, a defining part of his fame was occurring 300 miles away in his inaugural year in the majors.

That year, 1945, the Chicago Cubs won yet another National League pennant, a fairly routine occurrence in those years. But it would be their last title for more than 70 years, a streak famously summarized by Steve Goodman in his song A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request. Many years later these decades as the “lovable losers” would help characterize the jovial Caray as the most lovable of them all.

Caray called St. Louis Cardinals games for 25 years, including world championship teams in 1946, 1964 and 1967. But in the late 1960s things took a turn for the worse. Just weeks after the end of the 1968 World Series, Caray was stuck by a car outside the Chase Plaza Hotel in downtown St. Louis, breaking both his legs. He soon had a falling out with the Busch family which owned the Cardinals, and he was fired following the 1969 season.

He was not unemployed for long, as he was quickly hired by the Oakland Athletics for a single season. He came back to the Midwest in 1971 as the voice of the Chicago White Sox. These were interesting times (to say the least) at Comiskey Park, and the flamboyant showman who owned the Sox, Bill Veeck (“Veeck, as in ‘wreck’” he famously quipped) needed just the right kind of broadcaster for the wild exploits that would come to characterize a night at Comiskey.

Caray seemed like a perfect fit for the White Sox of the 1970s. Veeck brought zany promotions to Comiskey: things like uniforms with shorts and an exploding scoreboard after every Sox home run. Caray was known to sometimes broadcast from the bleachers, surrounded by fans. But it was a suggestion from Veeck which would help define Caray’s career and remain the announcer’s lasting legacy long after his death.

One evening Veeck asked Caray to lead the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. Caray was reluctant, as he felt he had no singing skill whatsoever. Reluctantly, Caray joined with Comiskey’s organist Nancy Faust to lead the singing of baseball’s most famous song. It was an immediate hit, and it would become Caray’s trademark for the rest of his career.

Caray’s rendition of the song was even a small part of the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” at Comiskey in 1979, when desperate team officials asked him to lead the singing of the song to try to get the mob of unruly fans off the field before the Sox had to forfeit the game. The effort did not succeed.

Two years later, Caray’s time with the White Sox came to an end, but he once again was quick to find a new broadcast booth, this one just across town at Wrigley Field. From 1982 until his death after the 1997 season, Caray was the voice of the Cubs and the nation’s #1 Cub fan.

Somewhere along the way he started exclaiming “Holy cow!” after a great play or another amazing moment on the field. It became his signature phrase, and it combined with his oversized glasses and larger-than-life personality to make Caray the character most fans remember. So beloved and recognized was Caray that he once told the story of waiting for a tow truck alone on a dark street only to be approached by two would-be robbers who held him at gunpoint until they realized who he was. They then put their weapons away and waited for the tow truck with him.

Moving to the Cubs and WGN brought Caray national stardom. In the early 1980s WGN had become one of America’s first “superstations” broadcasting nationwide. Cubs games were now available in every part of the country. No longer just a local figure, Caray’s antics now had a national audience, and he was arguably just as beloved by fans of the other 25 major league clubs as he was on the North Side.

Over the course of the next sixteen seasons Caray covered a pair of division championship teams, as well as future Hall of Famers like Ryne Sandberg and Greg Maddux. His voice made it into the 1986 classic Chicago film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

President Reagan and Harry Caray at Wrigley Field, 1988. 
Caray’s blunders on the air only added to his charm. He was known to mangle the pronunciation of players’ names, or mix them up altogether. It became a running joke among baseball fans. He was just as exuberant off the field, being named the unofficial “Mayor of Rush Street” in the late 1980s. Even a stroke couldn’t stop him, as a series of guest announcers and guest conductors filled in for him on WGN and in the seventh-inning stretch until he returned to the booth.

Harry Caray was the head of a baseball broadcasting dynasty that would include his son, Skip Caray calling games in Atlanta and his grandson Chip Caray who was a broadcaster for the Cubs before following in his father’s footsteps with the Braves. All three worked together only once: during a May 1991 Cubs-Braves game.

Harry Caray led his last rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame on September 21, 1997. He died on February 18, 1998, just as pitchers and catchers were reporting for spring training. He was mourned not just by Cub fans but by baseball fans throughout the nation. At his funeral at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral the organist played a somber version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Ten times Harry Caray was named the Illinois Sportscaster of the Year, and in 1989 Major League Baseball honored him with the Ford C. Frick Award for “major contributions to baseball.” He is a member of the Radio Hall of Fame and the National Association of Broadcasters’ Broadcasting Hall of Fame. In more than 50 years in baseball, Harry Caray called over 8000 games.

Caray’s legacy at Wrigley Field lives on long after his death. His seventh inning stretch singing has remained a fixture of home games at the Friendly Confines, with fans singing along with a different guest conductor each day.

So famous was the singing that when Wrigley Field hosted its first hockey game, the outdoor NHL Winter Classic in 2009, a group of Chicago sports legends joined together during an intermission to lead the shivering fans in “Take Me Out To The Hockey Game.”

Photo from the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
Caray’s optimism about the Cubs never faltered, even through one losing season after another. At the end of the 1991 season he signed off the telecast by urging Cub fans to stay positive.

“Sure as God made green apples, someday, the Chicago Cubs are going to be in the World Series,” he said.

Twenty five years later, when the Cubs at last won that long-awaited world championship, joyous Cub fans decorated Caray’s grave at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines with green apples.