“The taxi driver, the bartender, the waitress, the man in the street, those are my people,” Harry Caray once said. Caray was a larger-than-life figure who loved the game and broadcast it with enthusiasm. He was respected by colleagues for his play-by-play ability but unlike many sportscasters, he never hesitated to editorialize. A typical moment from Harry’s play-by-play: “Egan tries to pick the runner off first, and he throws the ball into right field! Now if he could only hit it that far.” Caray had fun with the game, handing out bottles of beer to fans in the bleachers, singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and (sometimes purposely) mispronouncing players’ names on the air. “Let’s face it, a broadcaster has to be an entertainer. The game isn’t all balls and strikes,” Harry said in 1979. “You have to have a sense of humor and believe me, there’s nothing like having fun at the old ballpark.” In over a half-century of broadcasting, Caray led the fun in St. Louis, Oakland, and Chicago, describing the games of the Browns, Cardinals, Athletics, White Sox, and Cubs.
Caray kept his early life shrouded in mystery. Even his birthdate was not clear. Various sources differ on his year of birth, putting it at anywhere from 1915 to 1920. When asked about it, Caray would generally shrug off the question of his age. After his death in 1998, it was reported that according to St. Louis city health records, Harry Christopher Carabina was born on March 1, 1914, on Olive Street in St. Louis. His father, Christopher Carabina, left around the time of Harry’s birth. Harry never met his father and never knew anything about him. According to his autobiography, Harry’s mother, the former Daisy Argint, remarried when Harry was about 5 or 6 years old and died when he was about 7 or 8. (A search of Missouri marriage records shows a marriage between Daisy Argint and Sam Capuran in September, 1926, when Harry would have been 12. Missouri records also show that Daisy Capuran died in April 1928 of lobar pneumonia at the age of 37.) After his mother’s death, he was raised primarily by an aunt, Doxie Argint.
Coming from a poor family, Harry went to work selling newspapers at the age of 8. One of the brightest parts of his childhood was being able to watch the games of the St. Louis Cardinals. Whenever he was able to afford it, young Harry attended games at Sportsman’s Park. At Webster High School in Webster Groves, a St. Louis suburb, Harry played second base and shortstop and played well enough that he was offered a baseball scholarship by the University of Alabama. Unable to pay for the expenses for room and board or books, he did not accept the scholarship.
Working odd jobs after completing high school, Harry picked up additional money by playing semipro baseball on the weekends. Playing for such teams as the Smith Undertakers and the Webster Groves Birds, he attracted the attention of some scouts and was invited to participate in a tryout camp for the Cardinals in Decatur, Illinois. Harry didn’t have the physical skills to make the tryout, but through a friend on the Webster Groves baseball team, he landed a steady job as an assistant sales manager with a company that manufactured lockers, gymnastic equipment, and other products.
Harry continued to attend Cardinals games as often as possible. However, he noticed that the games he saw in person were invariably more exciting than the play-by-play descriptions he heard when he listened to the games at home on the radio. Convinced that he could do a better job broadcasting Cardinals games himself, he brashly sent a personal letter to the home address of Merle Jones, general manager of radio station KMOX asking for the job. Impressed with Harry’s drive and enthusiasm, Jones arranged for him to audition for the station. Jones thought Harry had a great voice but needed some experience. He helped Harry to land a job as a sports announcer at a Joliet, Illinois, radio station, WCLS.
By the spring of 1940, Harry was working on WCLS covering sporting events like high-school and junior-college basketball games, summer softball-league games and bowling-league events. At the suggestion of WCLS station manager Bob Holt, Harry changed his last name from Carabina to Caray.
After a year and a half of working at WCLS, Caray was hired as sports director of WKZO in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he worked with the young newscaster Paul Harvey. The station carried Harry Heilmann’s broadcasts of Detroit Tigers games and Caray hosted locally produced pregame and postgame shows. He also provided play by play of Western Michigan University basketball and football. During his stint at WKZO, Caray also got his first experience with baseball play-by-play, broadcasting a semipro tournament in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Caray later claimed that it was during the broadcast of this semipro tournament that he first uttered two phrases he would employ throughout his career. When a player hit a home run, Caray exclaimed, “It might be … it could be … it IS … a home run!” Another expression he claimed to have first used during this early broadcast was “Holy Cow!” Caray later explained, “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.” The expression itself was not unique to Caray’s broadcasts; it had been used over the air by Minnesota sportscaster Halsey Hall as early as the 1930s and was later picked up by New York Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto. Harry later said, “Not that it’s so unique — everybody uses ‘Holy Cow.’ The unique part was that I finally did it on a major-league broadcast, in 1945, with a lot of radio stations across the country listening to it.”
Rejected for military service because of bad eyesight, Caray moved back to St. Louis, where he was working at radio station KXOK by early 1944. Working first as a staff announcer, Caray soon had a 15-minute nightly sports show. Unlike other radio sports show hosts of the day, he not only provided sports news, he also editorialized and criticized. His controversial approach won a lot of attention in a year when both St. Louis teams met in the World Series. In the fall of that year, Caray was hired to do play-by-play of the minor-league St. Louis Flyers hockey team, college basketball, and other sports events sponsored by the Griesedieck Brothers Brewery over station WIL.
Griesedieck Brothers were planning on sponsoring broadcasts of Cardinals and Browns home games in 1945 and were looking for a famous sportscaster to handle the play-by-play duties. Caray went directly to brewery president Edward J. Griesedieck to lobby for the job. Griesedieck initially turned him down, explaining that he preferred to hire an announcer in the style of veteran St. Louis broadcaster France Laux. Laux, Griesedieck explained, described the action in a way that allowed a person to listen and yet read the newspaper undisturbed. At this, Caray exploded. “You’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to sponsor baseball, and when your commercial comes on, when your handpicked announcer is selling your product, you’re busy reading the paper!” Caray continued, “You need someone who’s going to keep the fan interested in the game. Because if they’re paying attention to the game, they’ll pay attention to the commercial!” Convinced by Caray’s argument, and certain that Caray could keep the fans interested, Griesedieck hired him immediately.
Starting in the spring of 1945, Harry was teamed with former catcher and manager Gabby Street to broadcast the home games of the Cardinals and the Browns over WIL. In St. Louis at the time, there were no exclusive broadcast rights. Several local St. Louis radio stations aired the baseball games in direct competition with one another through the 1930s and into the mid-1940s. Caray and Street were competing with such established St. Louis announcers as France Laux and Johnny O’Hara as well as colorful former pitcher Dizzy Dean. Between the enthusiasm of Caray and the analysis and expertise of Street, the duo built a following in the St. Louis area. As the Cardinals won the National League pennant in 1946, Caray and Street gained increasing recognition and popularity from St. Louis fans. Caray’s only regret about the 1946 season was that he did not get the opportunity to broadcast the World Series, which the Cardinals won in seven games.
In 1947 Cardinals president Sam Breadon granted exclusive broadcast rights to Griesedieck Brothers. This meant that Caray and Street would be the only broadcasters for all of the Cardinals’ home and road games. The Cardinals radio network was baseball’s largest network, with 54 affiliate stations in 1948. The network included 91 stations by 1954, introducing listeners in states like Oklahoma and Mississippi to Caray’s play-by-play descriptions. By 1954 Caray had survived changes in Cardinals ownership (August A. Busch, Jr. bought the team in 1953) and a change in broadcast sponsors (from Griesedieck to the Anheuser-Busch Brewery.) Caray and Street worked together until the former catcher died in 1951. Caray’s later broadcast partners in St. Louis included Joe Garagiola and Jack Buck.
Caray’s style was viewed by many as controversial. He said in 1977, “You can’t be controversial by design because it comes off as phony. It has to be spontaneous. I’m like a fan. If I see something on the field I don’t like, I react the way a fan does. If I think a player isn’t hustling I’ll say so. If I think a manager is making mistakes platooning I’ll say so. When I was with the Cardinals I was always in the hot box with managers like Eddie Stanky and Eddie Dyer. I’ve always said the managers and owners don’t like me, but the people love me.” Stan Musial said of Caray years later, “He said it like it was. I guess some of the ballplayers were perturbed, but he was a fan. … He didn’t mean anything by it. A little later he’d be rooting for you. He wanted the ballplayers to do well.”
One of the highlights of Caray’s broadcasting career came on October 3, 1951, in a game that did not involve the Cardinals. Harry shared a booth with Russ Hodges (separated by a curtain) for a special broadcast back to St. Louis of the National League playoff game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Caray was one of many announcers at the microphone as Bobby Thomson hit his famous home run to win the pennant for the Giants. Another exciting moment came in May 1958 as Harry broadcast the play-by-play when Stan Musial got his 3,000th hit. A rather memorable moment occurred on April 17, 1964, as Caray excitedly announced a surprise second-inning double by pitcher Roger Craig by saying, “I can’t believe it! Roger Craig just hit the left-center field fence! The Cardinals are going to win this pennant!” Caray made this statement during the fourth game of the season. His enthusiastic call turned out to be prophetic as the Cardinals (who were never in first place until the final week of that season) would clinch their first pennant in 18 years. Harry broadcast the World Series over NBC radio and TV as the Cardinals beat the Yankees in seven games. Caray also had NBC network announcing duties as the Cardinals went to the World Series in 1967 and 1968, and he also broadcast the All-Star Game in 1957 (on NBC radio).
When not broadcasting, Caray enjoyed partying and mingling with fans at local taverns. He said in 1996, “Everywhere I’d go, if I didn’t know anybody at the bar I’d make a friend out of the bartender in two minutes. If there were two people at the bar, I’d say, ‘Give the house a drink, and be sure to lock the front door so nobody else gets in.’ ” Spending so much time on the road with the Cardinals and celebrating with fans afterwards took a toll on Caray’s personal life. In 1949 Dorothy Caray, his wife of 12 years, divorced him. Their 10-year-old son, Skip, remembered being devastated as he learned of the divorce when he saw it headlined on the front page of a newspaper as he walked to school. After the divorce Skip, his brother, Christopher, and his sister Patricia would see even less of their father as he kept up the grueling travel schedule of a professional sportscaster.
Caray’s career and his life nearly came to an end on November 3, 1968. “I was walking across the street leaving a St. Louis hotel at 1:15 in the morning when I was hit by a car,” he said in 1970. “The driver was a 21-year-old veteran just back that morning from Vietnam. He had no driver’s license … no insurance. The car knocked me 35 feet in the air. I suffered two broken legs, a broken shoulder and a broken nose. They said I would be in the hospital for seven months. But I wound up walking out after 3½ months. I never missed a game.”
Caray recovered and returned for his 25th season with the Cardinals in 1969. It turned out to be his last in St. Louis as he was fired at the end of the season. Rumors circulated that Caray was involved in an affair with Susan Busch, wife of August Busch III. Caray himself would never deny the rumors, commenting that it was good for his ego for people to believe such a thing to be true. He wasn’t unemployed long. In 1970 he was hired to broadcast the games of the Oakland Athletics.
“I’ve criticized the Cards and got into hot situations with the management, and I’ll tell the truth about the club here, too,” Harry said as he introduced himself to Oakland in 1970. “The biggest thing I must have as an announcer is believability.” Harry didn’t change anything about his broadcasting style in Oakland. (Athletics owner Charlie Finley tried to persuade Caray to change his trademark expression from “Holy cow” to “Holy mule” in honor of the team mascot but Harry rejected the suggestion.) By now married to his second wife, Marian, Harry claimed to enjoy his time in Oakland but refused to move there. “St. Louis is still my home,” he said in June of that year. “I have a nice home in Ladue, a suburb, and I didn’t want to give it up. And Marian and I didn’t want to take our daughters, Michelle and Elizabeth, out of school.” Missing the Midwest, after one year Harry left Oakland for Chicago.
Replacing legendary broadcaster Bob Elson, Caray became the voice of the White Sox in 1971. The White Sox under owner John Allyn were experiencing difficult financial times. Unable to offer Caray a salary as high as the one he earned in Oakland, the White Sox offered an attendance clause in Harry’s salary. Knowing that Caray had a reputation for promoting the game and drawing fans, the White Sox offered Caray a $10,000 bonus for every 100,000 spectators the Sox drew over 600,000. (More than 800,000 fans came to see the White Sox play that year.) Beginning in 1973, Caray added television to his duties, providing play-by-play on WSNS-TV for the first and last three innings and switching to radio play-by-play for the middle three. By the mid-1970s, all of the White Sox home games and most of the road games were televised and Harry was becoming one of the most popular figures in Chicago.
Caray loved Chicago and as he had in other cities, he tried to provide fun for the fans. He would occasionally take a cooler of beer to the outfield bleachers at White Sox Park (passing bottles of beer to the fans) and broadcast the game from there. He continued to mingle with the fans in area taverns celebrating into the early-morning hours after the games. He soon became known as “the Mayor of Rush Street.” As much as he cheered on the White Sox when they did well, he remained unafraid to criticize them when he felt it was warranted. His criticisms often put him at odds with players like third baseman Bill Melton and manager Chuck Tanner. By the end of the 1975 season, owner John Allyn had heard enough of Caray’s criticisms and was going to fire him. However, in December 1975 a group of investors led by Bill Veeck bought the team. Veeck, knowing the popularity Caray had with the fans, kept him on.
It was because of Veeck that another one of Caray’s trademarks began. One night Veeck noticed Caray singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the booth during the seventh-inning stretch. Inspired, the next night, Veeck secretly installed a public-address microphone in the booth and turned it on when Caray began singing the song. Caray was surprised to hear his voice singing over the public-address system. He recalled in 1996, “When the game was over I walked up to Veeck and said, ‘What the hell was that all about?’ He said, ‘Harry, I’ve been looking for 45 years for the right man to do this, sing this song.’ I began to puff up with flattery. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘everybody, no matter where they were sitting, as soon as they heard you, they knew they could sing better than you, so they’d join in.’ ” Thus began the tradition of Caray leading the fans in an off-key rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.
After working with a series of partners in Chicago, Caray was teamed primarily with former center fielder Jimmy Piersall beginning in 1977. Piersall was even more outspoken in his commentary than Caray. Caray loved working with Piersall. Though they often said things on the air that angered players or management, the White Sox broadcasts became more popular than ever with the public. By 1981 the team was sold to a group led by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn.
By late 1981 Reinsdorf and Einhorn were planning on putting the White Sox telecasts on a subscription-only pay TV channel. Caray felt strongly that asking the White Sox fans to pay a subscription to watch the televised games would not work. Caray, who already had reservations about working for Reinsdorf and Einhorn, contacted the Chicago Cubs and asked if they would be interested in hiring him to replace retiring TV announcer Jack Brickhouse. They were. In November 1981 it was announced that Harry Caray would be the new voice of the Cubs.
With Caray working the first and last three innings on television (and the middle three on radio), the games were telecast on superstation WGN, which was seen in 30 million homes by the late 1980s. Caray became even more of a celebrity than he had been when broadcasting on a large radio network with the Cardinals. Caray made the jump from the South Side to the North Side of Chicago seamlessly. At the time of his crosstown move, Caray quipped, “Moving to the Cubs and day baseball shouldn’t be too hard. I hear the bars on Rush Street are going to start closing at 2 A.M. soon anyway. It’s those 4 A.M. and 5 A.M. nights that give you a headache.” At Wrigley Field, he continued the tradition of occasionally broadcasting games from the outfield bleachers and he led the fans in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
On February 17, 1987, Caray suffered a stroke while playing cards with friends in Palm Springs, California. It was uncertain whether he would work again. Well-wishes were sent by fans all over the United States. “I couldn’t move my leg, I couldn’t move my arm, I couldn’t control my speech,” Caray said. “And then I got boxes of mail, expressions of love in letters and flowers from people I didn’t know, and it breathed a little more hope into me.” He worked with a therapist to improve his speech so that he could return to the broadcasts. Caray wasn’t able to be back with the team by Opening Day, so the Cubs used a series of guest broadcasters in his place, including sportscaster Brent Musburger, columnist George Will, and comedian Bill Murray. On May 19, 1987, Caray made his return to Wrigley Field. During the game he received an on-air phone call from President Ronald Reagan welcoming him back to the booth. (It wouldn’t be the last time Caray received greetings from the White House. Reagan visited him in the Wrigley Field booth on September 30, 1988, and broadcast part of the game. In 1994 First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton joined Harry in leading the singing during the seventh-inning stretch.)
Caray broadcast for some exciting teams in Chicago, as the Cubs won the National League East title in 1984 and 1989. However exciting the game might be on the field, though, Caray made sure to have fun in his broadcasts as well. Partner Steve Stone recalled how when Caray thought the game was moving too slowly, he would pronounce players’ names backwards. He would also mispronounce the names of players, sometimes on purpose. On Caray’s broadcasts, Rafael Palmeiro became “Palermo.” Delino DeShields became “Delino DeSanders.” Five years after the stroke Harry admitted, “I’m not as sharp as I used to be. I mispronounce a lot of names, I know. I’ll never be able to say the name of the Cubs’ catcher (Hector Villanueva). I say Valenzuela. I say Villanova. But people should understand that I’ve never been able to pronounce names correctly—even when I was younger.”
Toward the end of his life, Harry reflected, “If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have missed my kids’ growing up. I missed a lot, and I have regrets. But I think I’ve made up for that now and I have a wonderful family.” By the early 1990s, that family included three generations of Carays broadcasting baseball. His son Skip worked to establish his own name in the business and became the voice of the Atlanta Braves in 1976. Skip’s son Chip Caray would begin broadcasting the games of the NBA Orlando Magic in 1989 and would join his father in the Braves booth two years later. On May 13, 1991, Harry, Skip, and Chip Caray were together at the microphone as the Braves and Cubs played at Wrigley Field. Both Skip and Chip were present during another proud moment in 1989 as Harry received the Ford Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Another of Harry’s grandsons, Josh Caray, has worked as a minor-league baseball broadcaster.
During a road trip in Miami in June 1994, Harry collapsed and was hospitalized. Doctors discovered that he had an irregular heartbeat. He returned to broadcasting the games a month later, but cut back greatly on his travel schedule. Doctors ordered Harry to restrict his alcohol consumption as well. “I’m reduced to drinking O’Doul’s,” Caray said. “Can you imagine Harry Caray unable to drink a martini? Without a cold Budweiser? It’s not me.” By now twice divorced, Harry had found a lasting partnership with his third wife, Dutchie. After his stroke, Harry insisted that Dutchie accompany him on road trips. As the years went on, Dutchie’s presence on the road became more important to him. “I don’t want to die alone in a hotel room like my friend Don Drysdale did,” Harry said.
Shortly before the 1998 season, Harry’s grandson Chip was hired to announce the Cubs games with him. Harry was excited at the prospect of working with his grandson. Sadly, it was not to be. On Valentine’s Day 1998, Harry collapsed while having dinner with Dutchie at a Rancho Mirage, California, restaurant. He never regained consciousness and died four days later of cardiac arrest with resultant brain damage. Harry’s Funeral Mass was held at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. He was buried at All Saints Cemetery in suburban Chicago.
On Opening Day 1998, Dutchie Caray led the Wrigley faithful in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It’s a tradition that still continues on the North Side of Chicago with “guest conductors” filling Harry’s place as leader of the seventh-inning stretch. After Harry’s death, a statue of him was dedicated outside the entrance of Wrigley Field. In 2010 the statue was moved to the outfield bleacher entrance. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts explained the move saying, “As a real fan, he was always comfortable in the bleachers. He liked the atmosphere in the bleachers.” Harry probably would have agreed. He himself said in 1975, “I don’t mind being known as a fan. Listen, baseball is part of Americana and no one is going to supplant it. And no other sport can match it. … I’m a fan, a fan’s announcer.”