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In 1984, the Chicago Cubs baseball team captured the Eastern Division National League Championship — their first in many, many years. Many names stand out from that winning team, but it would have not been the same without hearing WGN-TV Cubs announcer Harry Caray whooping from the broadcast booth the day the Cubs clinched the title.
Harry Caray was WGN’s announcer for the Cubs from 1982 through 1997. Although he spent 25 years as the Cardinals’ announcer in St. Louis, Missouri, he gained national fame and friendship as the Voice of the Cubs. As “superstations” like WGN and WTBS from Atlanta became available on cable systems nationally, and then internationally, a whole new audience for these stations materialized. The Atlanta Braves baseball team may have billed itself as “America’s Team,” but with Harry Caray as their voice, the Chicago Cubs probably had more claim to the title.
Caray was born Harry Carabina in 1914 to an impoverished Romanian-Italian family in St. Louis, Missouri. He began broadcasting for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1945 and held that job until 1969. He went to Oakland, California to broadcast for the Oakland A’s for a year, and then to Chicago in 1971 as the Voice of the White Sox.
When Harry Caray came to the Northside of Chicago in 1982 and started his career with WGN and the Cubs, he brought his own joie de vivre and reputation as a “character” with him. Cubs fans immediately identified with his happy, carousing ways and his devotion to their team. However, Harry Caray was an astute broadcaster, with an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball and a deep respect for players who conducted themselves with class and played hard every day. He was a good interviewer and wrote and presented editorials with sincerity and skill.
While other teams totally remodeled their parks, building multi-million dollar stadiums, Caray seemed at home at Wrigley Field, built in 1914, with its ivy-covered walls. The stadium did not even have lights until 9 August 1988. It is the second-oldest park still in use and players still hit home runs literally out of the park, on to Sheffield or Waveland Avenues, if the wind is blowing “out” that day. Caray liked former Cub Ernie Banks’ nickname “The Friendly Confines” for Wrigley Field and used it often. The field, with its authentically nostalgic feel, paired well with Caray’s disdain for some of the modern advances in baseball and was the perfect setting for him to lead the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. He had done the same in Comiskey Park with White Sox fans, but those games were not nationally telecast.
Harry Caray not only demonstrated his love for baseball, but also for the fans. No matter in what city he and longtime broadcasting partner Steve Stone were calling the games, he always had correspondence from Cubs fans and read most, if not all, on the air. People were always sending little notes to the broadcast booth, just to let the world know that people in every town were Cubs fans. Like a small-town broadcaster from an earlier time, he read greetings and sent out birthday, anniversary and even bar mitzvah good wishes during every game. He was also known for his exclamations like “Holy Cow!” and “It might...it could be… it is! A home run!” and sweetest of all, “Cubs win! Cubs win!” Cubs fans all over the United States would hold up “Holy Cow” and “Cubs Win!” banners and signs at games, knowing everyone watching would understand their meaning.
Harry Caray had a stroke in February 1987, but refused to allow it to stop his career. He overcame incredible difficulties to resume broadcasting for the Cubs in May of the same year. He was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford Frick Award in 1988 for his contributions to baseball.
Caray’s broadcasting skills did deteriorate the last two or three years of his career, and became fodder for comedy routines. However, he was such a well-loved figure, WGN allowed him to continue, until he retired because of increasingly ill health in 1997.
Harry Caray died in 1998 of a heart attack, after a series of strokes. That season, the Cubs players wore patches on their uniform sleeves with his picture, in memoriam to the venerable broadcaster. When he died, editorial cartoonists nationwide paid him tribute, and his obituary was national news. These days, a guest still leads the crowd in singing his song during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley, and his likeness still beams from his restaurants in the Chicago area.