originally posted on Deadspin.com
This piece was originally published in the October, 1968 issue of Sports Illustrated. It is reprinted here with permission from Cope’s family.
Even before the World Series got under way Wednesday, it was shudderingly clear that one result was as predictable as bunting on the commissioner’s box: Millions of television and radio listeners, whose eardrums may have healed in the year since the Cardinals-Red Sox Series, are once again going to be exposed to a feverish clamor coming from a Cardinals delegate to the NBC broadcasting team. It was equally certain that across America the baseball public would then divide into two camps—those who exclaimed that by God! Harry Caray was almost as exciting as being at the park, and those who prayed he would be silenced by an immediate attack of laryngitis. Caray, should you be among the few who still have not heard him, is an announcer who can be heard shrieking above the roar of the crowd when a hitter puts the ultimate in wood to the ball: “There she goes…! Line drive…! It might be…it could be…it is! Home run…! Ho-lee cow!” You may not know that with a second home run his more dignified colleagues have preferred to flee the broadcasting booth before the ball has cleared the fence.
In the past decade the trend of play-by-play broadcasting has been decidedly in the direction of mellow, impassive reporting, a technique that strikes Harry Caray as being about as appropriate as having Walter Cronkite broadcast a heavyweight championship fight. “This blasé era of broadcasting!” Caray grumbles. “‘Strike one. Ball one. Strike two.’ It probably hurts the game more than anything, and this at a time when baseball is being so roundly criticized.” Never one to burden himself with restraint, Caray more or less began hoisting the 1968 pennant over Busch Stadium clear back in early July when, following a Cardinals victory, he bellowed, “The magic number is 92!”
The fact is that Harry Caray’s 24 years of broadcasting St. Louis baseball have been one long crusade for pennants, a stance that might be expected to have endeared him to all Cardinals past and present, but which, on the contrary, has left a scattered trail of athletes who would have enjoyed seeing him transferred to Ping-Pong broadcasts in Yokohama.
“What’s Caray got against you anyway, Meat?” asks Mrs. Jim Brosnan in a passage from The Long Season, a reminiscence her pitcher-husband wrote in 1960.
“To hell with Tomato-Face,” answers Brosnan. “He’s one of those emotional radio guys. All from the heart, y’know? I guess he thinks I’m letting the Cardinals down, and he’s taking it as a personal insult.”
“Well, you ought to spit tobacco juice on his shoe, or something. It’s awful the way he blames you for everything.”
Caray remembers Brosnan’s peevish prose with equanimity now that Brosnan is out of baseball. “I’ve seen him many times since,” he says, “and we get along splendidly. Of course,” Caray adds, repaying Brosnan with a needle straight to the ego, “he doesn’t throw the home run ball anymore.”
In the prudent little world of sports announcers, most men stand ready to go to the North Pole, if necessary, to avoid any conflict. The announcer is hired and fired by the ball club or sponsor, or by the two in concert; he is, in short, an organization man, whose paycheck is a writ of mandamus that says, “Be positive.” Inasmuch as the Cardinals are owned by a brewery, Anheuser-Busch, Inc., and in a sense are a continuous promotional campaign for its various beers, their announcer figures to be positive through hell, six percent, and 10-game losing streaks. But the trouble with Harry Caray—born, orphaned at 10 and raised in St. Louis—is that he has never got it through his head that he is not still sitting in the bleachers, still endowed with the right to issue a loud raspberry.
“Harry is a fan,” says Cardinals Manager Red Schoendienst. “Hell, he dies with the Cardinals.” Their acts of heroism move him to deafening cheers, but their failures make his teeth grind. And because his exasperation leaks from his lips into his microphone, he has been despised by more than one Cardinals manager, denounced in print by a clutch of Cardinals players, and called onto the carpet so often that it is almost threadbare. Pinching his forefinger and thumb together, Caray says, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been this close to getting fired.”
A fairly typical example of Caray’s attraction to turbulence involves Eddie “The Brat” Stanky. As he lunches at Busch’s Grove, a posh suburban St. Louis restaurant not owned by Cardinals President Gussie Busch, Caray traces Stanky’s antipathy toward him. Caray’s face is, as Brosnan suggested, right off a tomato counter, but at 51, a thickset man measuring a fraction of an inch under six feet, he is a picture of sophisticated leisure. Fresh from a $15 tonsorial treatment by Walter of the Colony Salon, his wavy hair is graying gracefully. He wears a black blazer, white turtleneck, tattersall slacks, white loafers and, of course, large sunglasses. He orders another Scotch sour—”Have Otis make it,” he specifies to the waiter—and then delves to the bottom of the Stanky-Caray Seventeen Years War.
It seems that one day in 1951, when Stanky was on his last legs as a New York Giant second baseman and Caray was at the mic during a Giants-Cardinals game, an umpire gave Stanky the heave-ho. His replacement then made a sensational play to snuff out a Cardinals rally. “Great stop!” Caray cried into his mic. “There’s a case where the Giants get a big break. If Stanky’s not out of the game, it’s a base hit!”
The next year Stanky—a clean-living, churchgoing family man but equipped with a blowtorch temper—became the Cardinals’ manager. “You’re the guy,” he groused at Caray, “who said I couldn’t get off a dime.”
“I did not,” Caray fired back. “I didn’t say anything about a dime. I didn’t mention the word.” Much preferring offense to defense, Caray then drove Stanky to the wall, so to speak, by railing, “When you deliberately twist someone’s words, doesn’t it hurt your conscience, you being such a devout man?” In the ensuing years the dialogue between manager and broadcaster lacked flavor only in that the two antagonists did not wear spurs on their heels, but somehow Stanky never got around to taking a punch at Caray. “Oh, no,” says Caray over his Scotch sour at Busch’s Grove. “Nor I at him.”
As the Cardinals sank toward seventh place in Stanky’s fourth season as manager, Gussie Busch’s Anheuser-Busch lieutenants took a hard look not only at Stanky but at Caray as well. “Stanky was very unpopular with the fans,” Caray recalls, adding with heavy sarcasm, “and the reason he was unpopular was me.” Caray fingers Busch’s top public-relations adviser, one Al Fleishman, as the man who advanced this theory in high councils, although Fleishman maintains he did nothing of the sort. “Fleishman’s approach was that I should be more sympathetic to Stanky,” Caray insists. “I can’t recall ever criticizing his managing tactics. I got enough headaches as a broadcaster without worrying about Stanky’s image. He’d step onto the field and there would be a loud boo. The thinking was that there was something I could do to keep that boo from being so audible over the mic.”
In the end it was Stanky who was fired, but the two continued to search out one another’s jugular vein from a distance. The Cardinals, bewildered by a slump last May, could cure themselves by consulting Harry Caray’s keen baseball mind, Stanky acidly suggested in a radio appearance. “KEEP UP THE WONDERFUL WORK,” Caray wired Stanky as the White Sox, with Stanky as manager, staggered through a torrent of defeats that led to Stanky’s resignation.
One reason that Caray has been able to survive the acrimony of field managers and high-echelon counselors in the Anheuser-Busch palace is that for two decades he has possessed the most fanatical following of any broadcaster in baseball. Through a network of 124 stations in 14 Midwestern, Southern and Southwest states, his unabashed trumpeting of Cardinals rallies brings genuine excitement to small towns and villages. Moreover, untold numbers of Cardinals fans, long since transplanted to the distant East or Northwest, sit glued to car radios to pick up the extremely powerful nighttime signal of Caray’s St. Louis station, KMOX, which under the right conditions can be heard in 45 states. “Cardinals win! Cardinals win! Cardinals win! Cardinals win!” the faithful hear Caray scream as if he were on closed circuit to the Home for the Deaf. When he appears at smokers and Elks Club gatherings in the provinces, grown men beg him to describe an imaginary home run. He does, and as the imaginary ball clears the imaginary wall the grown men bolt to their feet cheering.
No sir, Caray is having none of that drawing-room dignity affected by the boys with pear-shaped tones. Nor, as he settles into his Busch Stadium chair for a series with the Giants, is he having any of that kid-glove technique the ballplayers love so well.
“Here’s Ty Cline, who’s modeled a few uniforms,” Caray announces in the first inning. “His name reminds you of Ty Cobb.” Then the withering appendage: “And he’s batting .185.” From the enemy Caray soon turns to the home team. “Here’s slumping Orlando Cepeda, with two strikes on him and two runners waiting to be driven in. Struck him out, on a bad ball!” Back to the Giants. At bat is Willie Mays, of whom broadcasters speak encomiums. Steve Carlton fires. “Hooo! What a cut he took!” Carlton fires again. “Hooo! What a cut! Man, I’ve never seen Mays take a more vicious cut in his life. Looked like he left both his feet!” Carlton fires a third time, and Mays lands among the mortals. “Struck him out—on a bad fastball over his head!”
Although one might interpret these outcries as nothing more than blunt reportage, legions of ballplayers categorize such technique as the work of a “ripper.” In the peculiar accountancy of many baseball players all criticisms and harsh truths are entered upon the memory with indelible ink, while compliments are apt to fade away like dandelion chaff in a spring breeze. (“And the funny thing is,” points out a San Francisco Giants official, “that ballplayers take it for granted that every nice word said about them is absolutely accurate.”) Sensitivities being what they are, it was not surprising that Tracy Stallard, pitching for the Cardinals three years ago, rose to a boil when Caray said of him over the air, “I’m surprised more clubs don’t bunt on him. He’s slow fielding bunts and slow covering first base.” To St. Louis Globe-Democrat baseball writer Jack Herman, Stallard issued a furious denunciation of Caray, who was deeply wounded when he read Herman’s story. Caray hints he’d done Stallard personal kindnesses. “He’s a real nice kid, he really is,” Caray adds. “He’s a big, good-looking guy, a night person, my kind of guy.” One night, shortly after Stallard had leveled his blast, Caray was standing at the bar of a St. Louis club. Stallard, seated at a table with a young lady, arose and strode to the bar. “This girl I’m with would like to meet you, Harry,” he said. “Would you sit down with us for a minute?”
To the real nice kid Caray answered, “Drop dead.”
Caray’s detractors insist that he can damn a ballplayer in his broadcasts without misstating a single fact, but merely by employing the inflection of disgust. It is said, for example, that simply by repeating time and again the number of base runners ex-Cardinal Ken Boyer left stranded, Caray planted St. Louis fans squarely on Boyer’s back. Around the National League, ballplayers do takeoffs on Caray’s narration of a Boyer turn at bat. “It’s the last of the ninth,” goes one version. “The Cardinals have the tying run on second. Two out. Boyer’s the hitter. We’ll be back in one minute with the wrap-up.”
“Listen,” says Caray in defense of himself, “I don’t believe any ballplayer ever put on a Cardinals uniform who shouldn’t have known that I wanted his success as much as he did. But I refuse to fool the audience. These ball club-controlled announcers think they can, but they’re crazy.”
Put in perspective, Caray’s skirmishes with players and managers are infrequent happenings spaced over a broadcasting career of more than two decades; yet, because he works in a world of play-by-play pacifists, he emerges as a sort of Roland daring the Saracen jockos to take him on 50 at a time. Still, a great many ballplayers like him. A fun-loving man who talks the earthy language of the ball field, he hears raucous, good-natured greetings as he approaches enemy dugouts. “Harry is my friend,” says Cepeda with evident sincerity. Caray seldom passes a ballplayer’s restaurant table without sending over a round of drinks, and when players find themselves short of cash on the road, they know he always will come up fast with $100.
Up in Caray’s booth, the athletes are not always getting the short end of his critical stick—not by a long shot. “I have never seen a better play!” he bellows orgiastically as Mike Shannon makes a rather pretty play along the third-base line. Second Baseman Julian Javier charges a slow roller and goes into the Hall of Fame alongside Napoleon Lajoie and Frankie Frisch. “Beautiful! Ho-lee cow, he got him! There’s no play he can’t make, that Javier!” A batter pops a foul back toward Caray’s booth, whereupon Caray, who may have stripped to his shorts in St. Louis’ hot, humid climate, seizes a long pole, a fishing net attached to its end. He crashes over an empty chair to his right, lunges halfway out of his booth in an unrewarded attempt to snare the foul, and then returns to his chair grimacing, having given his elbow a terrific crack on the railing.
To Caray’s left in the booth sits a mountain of unopened fan mail, and beside that rises a growing hill of messages scrawled on crumpled pieces of paper and bits of cardboard. The messages, constantly being delivered by an usher, come from fans who have traveled to Busch Stadium from outlying points. (Surveys have shown that 40 percent of the Cardinals’ summertime crowds come from Caray’s out-of-town strongholds.) “My favorite town!” he crows as he glances at a note and reports the name of a fan in attendance from Monkeys Eyebrow, Ky. or Number Nine, Ark., at which the high-powered public-relations firm of Fleishman, Hillard, Wilson & Ferguson, the P.R. men representing Anheuser-Busch, scowl, calculating that for every fan Caray mentions he offends 20 others.
“Fleishman said this bit isn’t class,” Caray snorts. “I said, ‘You’re talking about people who come to the ball park. If I got a guy here from Timbuktu, I’ll help him to be proud of Timbuktu.’ I told Fleishman, ‘Class, my ass!’ ”
An analysis of Caray’s audience impact—one that is repeated so often it is almost a refrain—is that Cardinals fans either love Caray or hate him, there being no middle ground. The haters, most of whom seem to be concentrated in St. Louis, where big-city sophisticates doubt his melodramatic word pictures, worry Fleishman, the Philistine in Caray’s nightmares. “Anheuser-Busch’s motto is ‘Making Friends Is Our Business,’ ” Fleishman points out. A tanned, slightly paunchy man with white hair and a cigar clenched in a curled forefinger, Fleishman recalls that Caray, in reply to a critical letter from a woman listener, exploded on the air, denouncing the woman in terms that judges save for those who molest old ladies. Top-level conferences had to be called. Indeed, when Caray’s eye lights on a harsh fan letter, he is apt to dictate a reply that is doubly nasty. His secretary, Mrs. Bea Higgins, surreptitiously throws the dictation into the nearest wastebasket and sends out a gentle thank-you-for-your-interest note instead.
Fleishman, meanwhile, denies that he has ever tried to have Caray fired (“Never, never—that’s not my role!”) and, in fact, relates that when Anheuser-Busch purchased the Cardinals in 1953, it was he who convinced Gussie Busch to keep Caray at the mic. Of course, he did not foresee the fun to follow. “About six years ago,” Fleishman says, “Harry called me a liar in a dispute over a contractual matter. I said, ‘The fact that you call me a liar doesn’t make me one. Only the facts can do that.’ This was in Mr. Busch’s presence.” Busch wearily ordered them to knock it off and shake hands. “But we’ve really gotten along—amazingly enough,” Fleishman says.
Caray agrees this is so. “But I never walk with my back to him,” he says.
Unable to purge himself of his unruly bleacherite ways, Caray goes on inviting little enemy fires around his existence which, on an annual income somewhat in excess of $100,000, is cushy indeed. Besides broadcasting Cardinal baseball, he does a daily 10-minute sports show on KMOX and broadcasts University of Missouri football. “When he hollers ‘Touchdown!’ ” says one Caray critic, “your ears can fall off.” The father of five children, two by his present wife, Marian, and three by an earlier marriage, Caray lives in an exclusive suburb called Ladue, in a 10-room colonial-style house with heated swimming pool, three French poodles, a black Labrador retriever, and a shaggy Sicilian donkey named Buzzy. The donkey is a result of a conversation Gussie Busch and Caray had at the side of the Caray pool.
“You don’t have a Sicilian donkey,” Busch suddenly observed, as if no home is complete without one.
“Of course I don’t have a Sicilian donkey,” Caray replied.
“You ought to have one,” snapped Busch.
At 7:30 the next morning a Sicilian donkey stood at the Carays’ doorstep. Somewhat grimly, Caray points out that it cost him $1,380 for a corral and shed as well as a harness and rig for the amusement of his children. The feed bill runs from $45 to $55 a month, Marian Caray points out, and the donkey keeps kicking the shed apart. Gussie Busch, fretting not long ago that Caray’s donkey needed a companion, had one of his employees phone the Caray residence to say that a second Sicilian ass would be sent over in the morning. “Forget it!” screamed Caray. The fact is, however, that he could afford a herd of elephants, for in addition to his broadcasting income, he has invested shrewdly in securities, principally Anheuser-Busch stock. Even his St. Louis friends who know him as an irrepressible check-grabber are unaware that Harry Caray, ex-orphan, is a millionaire.
Born Harry Carabina of French-Italian-Rumanian parentage, he spent his early years in a tough neighborhood a few blocks from downtown St. Louis. When he was an infant his father died, and when he was 10 his mother died of cancer. Passed around through foster homes, he was the only child in his grammar school class who did not own a pair of white duck trousers for commencement. “It was a mortifying feeling I’ll never forget,” he says. In his teens he landed with an aunt, Mrs. Doxie Argint, and moved to Webster Groves, a tony suburban address at the time. But soon after, Mrs. Argint’s husband moved out, leaving her to raise Harry and two children of her own. Among Webster Groves’ affluent youth, Harry was a pauper child.
“I was always a nut about baseball,” he says today, describing himself as having been a weak hitter but a dazzling fielder. “Well,” says a St. Louis advertising executive named Frank Fuchs Jr., once a high school classmate of Caray, “in his mind, he was damned good. He was a wiry little guy, but a competitor. Even if you benched him he’d be throwing every pitch, swinging every bat.” Following graduation from high school, Caray hoped to fatten up his 130-pound physique and become a big-league hitting prospect. He spent two years working as a flunky in a fight camp but then took a $17-a-week office job in St. Louis, married a home-town girl and finally, at 23, when it was too late, began to put on weight. Casting around, he hit upon an idea.
Seated in the bleachers at old Sportsman’s Park, Caray found that baseball made him quiver with excitement, and he felt that what St. Louis baseball needed was an announcer who could breathe that excitement into a broadcast. One day he wrote a brash letter to Merle Jones, then general manager of KMOX, informing him that he, Harry Caray, who had never spoken into a microphone, was that announcer. Jones auditioned him and, Caray likes to recall, immediately declared, “You have the same exciting timbre as Ted Husing and Graham McNamee!” Nevertheless, the best that Jones could do was recommend him to a station in the industrial town of Joliet, Ill. There, in the summer of 1940, Caray scored his first success. As a man-in-the-street interviewer he accosted immigrant housewives lugging shopping bags and dirty-faced children and demanded of them, “Did you marry your first love? Have you ever caught your daughter necking?” The housewives fought for the privilege of telling him their intimate secrets.
Inching upwards, Caray moved on to Kalamazoo, Mich. and finally, in 1944, what with big-city stations losing personnel to the wartime draft, landed back in St. Louis as a staff announcer and then sportscaster. (The army had rejected him because of myopia, a development that his critics of today may view with a knowing nod.) Late that sameyear Caray got his big break. Griesedieck Brothers, a St. Louis brewery, decided to sponsor Cardinals and Browns broadcasts. The company’s ad agency formed a completely new team of broadcasters and hired Caray to be No. 3 man. “I was to read commercials, that’s all,” he says. Then the ad men set out to find a big-name, play-by-play broadcaster who could hold his own against a competing station. But as the winter dragged on, the search yielded no star. So Caray barged into the office of Ed Griesedieck, the brewery president, and said, “Why not me?”
Griesedieck frowned at his uninvited visitor. Look, he said, the job demands a man of experience and craft. “When a real pro is at work,” Griesedieck went on, “I can have a cup of coffee and read a newspaper without having my concentration interrupted.”
“That’s why you want to hire me,” Caray cried. “You’re spending big money to put your message across. Shouldn’t you have a broadcaster who makes people put down their newspaper?”
For a full minute Griesedieck stared at Caray. Finally he said, “Dammit, you’re right.”
Off and running, Caray battled the competition—play-by-play man Johnny O’Hara and his famous sidekick, folksy Dizzy Dean—with his breathless excitement. It is said that Dean, seated in a booth adjacent to Caray’s, one day overheard Caray describe a routine infield play in terms suited to a miracle of acrobatics, whereupon Diz leaned into Caray’s booth and slowly shook his head, as if to say, “Are we broadcasting the same game?”
The next year, 1946, Caray made his big breakthrough. That season the Cardinals forged into the thick of the pennant race, whipping public interest to a fever pitch. Accordingly, the radio stations decided that on days when the Cardinals were playing on the road and the Browns were idle or rained out, the Cardinals game would be broadcast in “recreated” form—that is, the announcers would broadcast from their St. Louis studios, giving the play-by-play as it came in on a Western Union ticker. The chief flaw in this arrangement was that the ticker frequently broke down, sometimes for as long as five minutes, leaving the listening audience with deadly stretches of silence or meaningless helpings of trivia from the announcers. Caray, however, put his wits to work.
“I developed a helluva flair,” he says. “When the ticker slowed up or broke down, I’d create an argument on the ball field. Or I’d have a sandstorm blowing up and the ballplayers calling time to wipe their eyes. Hell, all the ticker tape carried was the bare essentials—B1, S1, B2, B3. So I used the license of imagination, without destroying the basic facts, you understand. A foul ball was a high foul back to the rail, the catcher is racing back, he can’t get it—a pretty blonde in a red dress, amply endowed, has herself a souvenir!’ ” It sold Griesedieck beer.
Also, it sold Caray to Cardinal club owner Sam Breadon the next year when Breadon assigned exclusive radio rights to a single station. Choosing Caray’s Griesedieck beer over O’Hara’s and Dean’s Falstaff, Breadon told Caray, “You put people in my ball park.” In the years since, Caray has proceeded on a course that somehow has continued through four Cardinal presidents—Breadon, Bob Hannegan, Fred Saigh Jr. and Busch—and enough strife to reduce the ordinary play-by-play man to quivering jelly. Regarded, for example, as a second-guessing so-and-so by onetime Cardinal Manager Eddie Dyer, Caray reported to club headquarters one day in 1950 for a press conference at which Dyer was scheduled to announce his resignation. “Stay out of the room,” Saigh told Caray, blocking the entrance. Dyer had warned Saigh that if he laid eyes on Caray he would punctuate his swan song by belting him in the teeth.
“Baloney,” said Caray. “He saw me yesterday. He had a chance to punch me yesterday.”
“Do me a favor,” Saigh said wearily. “Just stay away, will you?”
The St. Louis press devoted generous space, possibly with relish, to Saigh’s quarantining of Caray in an anteroom. Understandably, the newspapermen bore him little love, for on his increasingly popular afternoon sportscast, Sports Digest, he had adopted a tired, but nevertheless effective, artifice: “You won’t read this in the papers, but”—as if to convey that only he shared his information with the public.
Though his radio fans multiplied, Caray’s pugnacity inevitably carried him to a precipice overlooking oblivion, where he teetered on an evening in 1957. That year Cardinal General Manager Frank Lane resigned, embittered by interference from Busch’s brewery lieutenants. Soon after, Busch held a formal dinner party at his home, Grant’s Farm. The guest list consisted of the Carays and a dozen important St. Louis men and their wives. During cocktails, Busch hovered about Caray, repeatedly asking him, “What do you think about Lane? Don’t you think we’re better off?”
Caray sidestepped Busch’s questions, but Busch persisted into dinner. “All right,” said Caray finally, “if you’re forcing me to, I think Frank Lane would have been great, just perfect, if there weren’t so many stumbling blocks thrown into his path. Hell, are you kidding?” he roared at Busch. “Who the hell do you have who can carry Frank Lane’s briefcase?”
A whisper could be heard as clearly as a cannon in the horrified silence that followed. Then, far down at the foot of the table, a slender matron in a sequined gown leaned into the ear of her neighbor, Mrs. Gussie Busch, and whispered.
“If I were Gussie,” she hissed, “I’d fire the son of a bitch.”
Marian Caray, a black-haired woman seated to Gussie’s left at the head of the table, came up from her chair with fists clenched and dark eyes flashing. “Did I hear you call my husband a son of a bitch?” she demanded.
“No, no,” came the reply. “I was talking about the stableboy.”
“You are not telling the truth,” snapped Marian.
“Shall we have after-dinner drinks in the living room?” Mrs. Busch interrupted sweetly.
As the guests filed into the living room a member of the Cardinals board of directors, Mark D. Eagleton, drew alongside Caray and said, “I admire your guts, Harry, but I don’t know about your judgment. I hope things work out all right.” Next, Robert Baskowitz Sr., a glass manufacturer who sold bottles to Anheuser-Busch, sidled up and said, “Harry, it took a lotta guts. Good luck.”
“Well,” said Caray to himself, “there’s gotta be some good jobs around somewhere.” To his wife he sighed, “Come on, Marian. Let’s get out of here.” Then, suddenly, he heard Busch’s rasping voice bellow at him.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“I’m going home. I got indigestion.”
“You’re staying right here,” Busch commanded. With that, he threw his arm around Caray and growled, “You son of a bitch. Are you afraid I’m going to fire you? Hell, if you’d have given me any other answer to that question about Lane, you would have been fired.”
In retrospect Caray suspects—and Busch confirms the suspicion—that Busch knew of his admiration for Lane and deliberately had been putting his veracity to a test. “You see,” says Caray, “everybody’s got the idea that you gotta be a yes-man to Gussie Busch. Hell, he’s the most democratic bastard in the world.”
Certainly Caray stood in need of the democratic tycoon’s goodwill when, four years later, the brewery hierarchy sat down to what one of them—a man named Curt Lohr—has described as the Court Martial of Harry Caray. The prelude to this crisis sounded when Caray popped up before his Sports Digest mic and read an editorial from a Lexington, Ky. newspaper condemning the St. Louis Hawks basketball club and the Boston Celtics for a lackluster exhibition they had played in Lexington. “The gist of it was that you saw more action in a University of Kentucky practice session than in an NBA game,” Caray says. In almost less time than it takes to say “I’ll have a Bud,” the long tentacles of the advertising industry had Caray by the throat.
Gardner Advertising of St. Louis, you see, had just come off a hard sell to Hawks club owner Ben Kerner, persuading him to switch Hawks broadcasts from Falstaff to Busch beer. Caray’s Sports Digest also was sponsored by Busch. So Kerner bearded the Gardner boys in their lair and said in effect, “First you tell me how much you love me, and in the next breath you’re letting that guy blast my property.” Gardner raced into conference with Anheuser-Busch executives, then fired off a telegram to Caray informing him that he was suspended indefinitely from the air.
Caray at once suspected a plot to rid the airwaves of him once and for all. “I think it was a squeeze play,” he says. Kerner, he believes, was trying to pave the way for his friend Buddy Blattner to seize Caray’s chair in the Cardinal broadcasting booth. “And the agency felt that I’m hard to control.” For four months Caray remained suspended while broadcasting people, a species that by instinct can spot a vulture 20 yards and beat it to a dying body, buzzed excitedly that Caray was a goner.
Finally, the Gardner ad men called for a meeting to settle his fate. Busch presided, surrounded by his big guns in advertising, P.R., and beer sales. Through the room ran the sentiment that life would be simpler if Caray’s contract were terminated. But then, as Busch patiently heard each man in turn, he at last got to Curt Lohr. Lohr, a stocky, fair-skinned man who at the time headed the brewery’s sales in the St. Louis area, spoke his piece bluntly.
“All Caray did,” he said, “was read an editorial that was printed in a newspaper that already had been read wherever it was circulated. What this boils down to is a personality clash. A good company does not deal in personalities.”
Now Busch himself spoke. “Has everybody had his say?” he asked. “Okay, then pack up your briefcases and get the hell out of here. You’ve taken up enough of my time. If you think I’m gonna fire the greatest broadcaster in baseball just because you people can’t get along with him, you’re crazy.”
Actually, with each passing crisis, Caray has seemed to grow stronger. He wound up, ironically, doing telecasts of Ben Kerner’s Hawks games, while his eldest son, Skip Caray, did the Hawks’ radio broadcasts. Busch gives Caray absolute freedom of speech, although Busch points out that “I can go crazy when he gives it that ‘Ho-lee cow, it’s going out of here!’ and then it’s a foul ball.” In recent years, both insiders and the general public have come to suspect that Caray is a power behind the Cardinals throne—a voice in Busch’s ear telling him which Cardinals to value and which to get rid of. Cardinals Public Relations Director Bob Harlan recalls that when he spoke at a smoker in a southern Illinois town, a fan in the audience asked him if it was Caray who persuaded the club to trade Ray Sadecki to San Francisco for Orlando Cepeda. “Nobody laughed, either,” says Harlan.
“Caray plays cards with Gussie, doesn’t he?” notes a St. Louis sportswriter pointedly. Caray not only does, Busch agrees with a wry smile, but vehemently accuses him of cheating.
During the 1964 season, when Busch was thinking of replacing Manager Johnny Keane with Leo Durocher, it was Caray whom he ordered to make contact with Durocher, then a Dodger coach, and speed him quietly from a St. Louis hotel to Grant’s Farm at an early morning hour. And before Busch eventually gave the job to Red Schoendienst, it was Harry Caray whose opinion he sought. But Caray disclaims the role of court sage.
“I’m positive Gussie already had made up his mind about Schoendienst before he talked to me,” he protests. “He asked me about Red at a party. Listen, I’d like to believe I’ve had something to do with some of these things but, honest to God, I haven’t.” Busch himself pinpoints exactly how much influence Caray has. “Not a damn bit,” he specifies. If he were to consult Caray on a trade in the works, Busch adds, “Harry probably would blab the trade all over town.”
At any rate, Caray contends that he has his hands full just trying to survive. “What play-by-play announcer do you know who criticizes players, who criticizes a trade?” he demands. “I like to think that if I’ve accomplished anything, well, I’ve tried to develop the feeling in the little man, the man we call the fan, that I have his interest at heart. In the baseball business I’m the last of the nonconformists. I feel that eventually, in this day and age, my kind of guy’s gotta get fired.”
Or perhaps confined to a padded cell. In Caray’s scrapbook rest four lines of doggerel clipped from an unidentified newspaper, that say: “If you lack the tickets to see the Cards, you can listen in your own backyards, and the greatest show, no ifs or buts, is to hear Harry Caray going nuts.”
Myron Cope was a sports journalist and sportscaster best known for broadcasting Pittsburgh Steelers games. His collection of sports writing, Broken Cigars, is a classic and a must-read for any serious fan of the genre.