19to21: April 22, 2009
Baseball Takes Another Hit
19 to 21…
Far more than that have been done too soon.
It was a tough week for major league baseball, as the sudden death of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart in an auto accident was followed by the sudden death of Phillies Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas, and then, shockingly, just a few hours later, by the death of one of the game’s great characters, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. Just as Adenhart’s untimely death came just after his finest moment on a baseball diamond, so too did Kalas’ passing come less than six months after what could well have been his finest moment in a baseball broadcast booth… October 29, 2008, when he called the final out, the final unhittable slider of Brad Lidge, that ended the 2008 World Series with a Phillies victory. You can go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Kalas#Memorable_calls to hear it again. “Struck him out…” Thanks to my fellow Earlham College alum, Jamie McVickar, for pointing this out.
Like all Phillies fans, and Philadelphians, McVickar is a dedicated Kalas fan. The voice of the Phillies since 1971, as noted by a highly emotional Phillies President Dave Montgomery (“We lost our voice”) in announcing the death prior to yesterday’s game with the Nationals, Kalas truly did have a Hall of Fame career, winning the Ford Frick Award in 2002. The Frick Award, as noted by the Hall’s website (the story was/is literally all over the Internet) is “bestowed annually by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the United States to a broadcaster for major contributions to baseball." Although he called more than 5000 Phillies games, Kalas’ distinctive baritone transcended the Phillies and baseball, since he was also the voice of NFL Films for the past 35 years or so (plus doing a lot of commercials), reaching a level of fame seldom seem by members of the electronic media.
Radio (and eventually TV) broadcasters have been a part of baseball since August 5, 1921 when Harold Arlin, broadcasting on KDKA in Pittsburgh, did the first play-by-play from Forbes Field, calling a Phillies-Pirates game (an 8-5 Pirates win – times were different then.) Arlin, an engineer by trade, has also been credited with being the very first full-time radio announcer. Since Arlin’s time, uncountable numbers of play-by-play and color guys have brought baseball to uncounted millions. The first player-turned broadcaster, Jack Graney. Others of that kind, notably Phil Rizzuto, whose fame as a broadcaster got him elected to the Hall as a player in 1994, years after he never came close to being elected in any other fashion. Ralph Kiner, Jerry Coleman, Joe Nuxhall and George Kell are among the many others who fit this category. Then there were the diversified celebrity types like Curt Gowdy, Lindsey Nelson and Joe Garagiola (of whom Jim Brosnan once wrote, regarding Garagiola’s Missouri heritage, that the similarity between Garagiola and Mark Twain was strictly residential). To try and fully re-cap such a history would be folly. Indeed to even try and realistically hit the highlights among the great broadcasters would take a book. However, a listing of the other Frick Award winners is a good place to look:
1994 — Bob Murphy
1995 — Bob Wolff
1996 — Herb Carneal
1997 — Jimmy Dudley
1998 — Jaime Jarrin
1999 — Arch McDonald
2000 — Marty Brennaman
2001 — Rafael "Felo" Ramírez
2002 — Harry Kalas
2003 — Bob Uecker
2004 — Lon Simmons
2005 — Jerry Coleman
2006 — Gene Elston
2007 — Denny Matthews
2008 — Dave Niehaus
2009 — Tony Kubek
Ladies and gentlemen, that list is baseball. It is perhaps most fitting that the first two inductees went in together. Red Barber and Mel Allen came to fame together calling the games of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees. Ironically, a couple of southerners (Barber was from Mississippi/Florida, Allen from Alabama) they became their teams in a fashion very similar to the way Kalas became the Phillies. Another similarity might be that Allen and Kalas will go down in history as probably the two most recognizable voices to ever grace baseball’s airwaves.
Kalas, Allen and Barber weren’t the only broadcast legends. Russ Hodges, for his famous call of Bobby Thompson’s home run (“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”). Ernie Harwell, who became the Detroit Tigers, although some time after he was traded to the Dodgers by the Atlanta Crackers – a transaction believed to be unique in baseball history. Certainly the only current broadcaster who has been with “his” team for longer than Kalas -- Vin Scully -- still is the L.A. Dodgers (even though he started off in Brooklyn.) And it should be noted that Scully’s moving tribute to Kalas made him just one of several baseball people (e.g., Jayson Stark, Mike Schmidt, John Kruk) to state that Harry was the Phillies. Jack Brickhouse was the Cubs. Bob Prince, the Gunner, and the worst (or best, depending on your point of view) homer in the history of broadcasting, was the Pirates. Harry Caray, though he moved around a bit from St. Louis to Chicago, was such a strong personality that he was identified with three different teams, the Cards, Cubs and White Sox. Mentioning Caray recalls the 2008 season, and the last time a broadcaster of Kalas’ stature left the game. That was August 3, 2008, when Harry’s son, Skip, collapsed and died in the yard of his Atlanta home while feeding the birds. As much the Voice of the Braves as Kalas was the Voice the Phillies, Caray, like Kalas (who had a stent put in his chest in February), suffered serious health problems during his final season, but carried on. It is to be hoped that Skip will someday join his dad as a Frick Award winner so that his son, current Braves broadcaster Chip, may do the honors for his famous family in Cooperstown. It is also to be hoped that Kalas’ son, Todd, a broadcaster for the Tampa Bay Rays (much was made of this “family feud” during the 2008 Series) will also build a similar legacy.
Another broadcaster who deserves the Frick Award is Kalas’ long-time friend and partner, Richie Ashburn. Like Rizzuto, he’s also a member of the Hall as a player, and he was equally beloved by Phillies fans as was Kalas, and as was Rizzuto by Yankees fans. Together, Kalas and Ashburn spent 26 years in the Phillies’ broadcast booth, until the old centerfielder died of a heart attack in New York following a Phillies/Mets game in September 1997. It is some consolation that both Kalas’ and Ashburn’s last games were wins, just as it is a consoling thought that Kalas was able to call the last out of the 2008 World Series… a circumstance that came about largely because of the uproar that ensued in 1980, when the Phillies’ already beloved duo were NOT allowed to call the final out of that Series triumph. There was such a hue and cry over that injustice that now local announcers are now allowed to do Series broadcasts.
There are numerous Kalas and Ashburn stories. Both were loved for more than their professional persona. Both were genuinely nice people, to the point where Kalas would record ring tones and voice mail messages for fans, using his signature, “Outta here” home run call (that’s something else famous broadcasters often have in common – signature calls… “holy cow” by Allen , Rizzuto and H. Caray probably being the most used) the most memorable of which took place in 1987 on the occasion of Mike Schmidt’s 500th. The byplay that took place so often between Kalas and Ashburn may be the best story. Whenever something remarkable or unusual would happen on the field, you could bet your bottom dollar that Harry would point it out and Whitey would say, “hard to believe, Harry.” (Ashburn’s signature, by the way.) Kalas was also famous for “giving” Mike Schmidt his name. An emotional Schmidt himself said this in an interview yesterday… noting that Kalas started calling Schmidt by his entire name, Michael Jack Schmidt, and thus that is how the great third baseman, the Harry Kalas of third basemen, if you will, is now so often known.
How beloved was Harry Kalas? How important was he to Philadelphians, and Philadelphia Phillies? Read Jayson Stark. A professional writer and journalist (not just a sportswriter, a writer, one of the best, ever) for almost as long as Harry Kalas was in the Phillies’ booth. Go read his column on ESPN.com. That’ll tell you more than I ever can. Or take Stark’s daughter, Hali. The ring tone on her cell phone is Harry calling the final out of the 2008 World Series. Or take one of my oldest friends, Dave Glielmi. His daughter’s ring tone is Harry’s call of that same Brad Lidge strikeout. (If I can persuade my daughter Maggie to show me how, I’m going to do the same thing on my cell phone.) Struck him out!
Another Earlham alum, and a long-time Houston Astros fan, the one-and-only Mark S. Van Hoose (aka Schoose), commented to me decades ago that Kalas was a good announcer (Kalas came to the Phillies from the Astros.) He knew because he first started listening to the then-Colt 45s in the mid-1960\'s on WWL in New Orleans. Van Hoose was a master on understatement. Harry wasn’t just good, he was the best. Our game will not be the same without him.
-- John Shiffert