Still Wild About Harry

by M.C. Antil on February 7, 2016

Harry mouth openAs I was watching the premiere of the Harry Caray special on MLB Network a few nights back, it occurred to me how lucky I was for having shared a few moments with the guy in the late 70s/early 80s, during the relatively brief time the two of us worked for the hand-to-mouth, Bill Veeck-era White Sox. And the more I thought about that larger-than-life, one-of-a-kind voice of the game, and the more I considered his remarkable place in baseball history, the more it dawned on me he’d actually been, if only for a sliver of time, my friend, and that I should share some of my personal memories of Harry with you today.

I’m not sure how or when I first met Harry Caray. But I sense I probably first showed up on his radar just a few days into the 1979 season. One Sunday in April of that year I’d been introduced at home plate to the fans and acknowledged for having walked 1,000 miles that winter to try to land a job with the Atlanta Braves.

Harry with Ted Williams(But that, literally, is another story for another time.)

Regardless, shortly after I’d been introduced to the Sox faithful that day, Harry started saying hi to me and calling me by name whenever he saw me around the park or in the Bard’s Room, a brawny, smoky tavern-like area built (using the rich and ultra-seasoned mahogany paneling, bar and fixtures retrieved from the nearby and now-razed Stockyards Inn) right into the office wing of Comiskey Park, a room that in its day wore many hats, serving at various times as Bill’s unofficial “office,” our employee cafeteria, and most importantly, a warm and welcoming hearth around which visiting dignitaries and baseball figures big and small would regularly gather to swap stories, talk a little strategy, and attempt to, if only for a moment, drink away the years.

One day early in my first season with the Sox, the start of that evening’s game was being held up by weather. And Harry, as was his wont during a rain delay, was in the Bard’s Room working on a cold one, making small talk, and for the most part just biding time. Eventually he spotted me walking by in dogged pursuit of what I’m sure was another in a long line of low-level but necessary game day tasks.

Will FarrellHarry, sitting alone with a small tape recorder in front of him, saw me and yelled out in his inimitable (OK, make that highly imitable) and almost cartoonish way, “Mike!” (The man never could seem to wrap his brain around the whole initial thing my parents bestowed on me as a child. He chose instead to only use my Christian name and regularly hailed me with a big, hearty “Mike!” whenever he saw me.)

“Come here, kid,” Harry bellowed across the room. “I gotta kill some time. You wanna do an interview about your walk?”

“Sure,” I said, surprised and with more than a trace of skepticism. But sit down I did. And that’s how one rainy and otherwise unassuming day in the Spring of ’79, out of the blue and with no fanfare (or notice) whatsoever, I found myself staring down the barrel of a microphone being held inches from my face by the one and only Harry Caray.

Here is an unedited version of that interview, in fact:

 

Harry with Frain usher

In time over the course of that season, I eventually began giving Harry rides home to his suite at the swanky Ambassador East, a posh, luxury hotel just a few blocks off Rush Street in Chicago’s famed Gold Coast. At the time I lived 30 or so blocks north of the Ambassador East, so it was an easy sidestep for me to drop him off. Plus, not taking a cab allowed Harry to have a few cold ones on the ride home, while also allowing him to sit up front in the passenger seat, survey the landscape, and enjoy yet another of the many privileges that went with being Harry Caray.

Of course, that’s not the reason I’m sharing this memory with you now. That’s just the send up.

The real story is this: Since I was just two years out of college and barely earning five-figures, when it came time to buy a car after moving to Chicago all I could afford was a rickety, 15 year old Chevy sedan, a car in name only and a vehicle with one foot in the grave and another on the proverbial banana peel. So when the two of us – me and the most beloved baseball announcer in the world – would drive home all those early mornings after all those late night talk and drink-a-thons, we did so in a wheezing, coughing and temperamental-as-hell chariot that seemed propelled as much by hope and good will as internal combustion.

Sox o GramWhat’s more, given that I didn’t like to drive up Lake Shore Drive where I’d run the risk being seen by any number of cops speeding along in a 15 year old rust bucket with a 65 year old legend by my side wearing thick black glasses, a loud sport coat, and big shit-eating grin (a guy who, by the way, was knocking back beer after beer and taking in the sights, while talking a blue streak) I regularly choose instead to wind my way slowly up Halsted Street, block by block, stoplight by stoplight.

Now, you’ll have to use your imagination here. But picture it midnight, maybe one in the morning. It’s a still, eerily quiet evening in Chicago; a hot, sticky summer one, to boot. The streets are deserted, but for a few random South Siders, most of them well lubricated, many of them kids, and a number of them black. They’re cruising up and down Halsted looking for something, anything to spice up the night.

Harry bleachersSuddenly, a carload of those South Siders stops at a red light. The driver, his right wrist draped over the wheel, nonchalantly turns to his left, his face expressionless, and his eyes trying their best to look all hard and cool. There he comes face to face with a rather jowly, gray haired old white guy wearing a pair of black-rimmed glasses so thick and prominent they look like they might weigh a good pound or two. The old fart catches his gaze and holds it. For a moment nothing happens. Then the white guy with the mammoth glasses breaks into one of his signature grins and hoists his beer, as if to toast the kid.

For another moment nothing happens. Then – pow – the realization.

The kid’s eyebrows arch skyward as if pulled by a pair of invisible puppet strings, his eyes brighten, and a massive radiant smile replaces what just a split second earlier had been a dark and brooding scowl. You hear the music blasting through his car’s closed windows as the kid, his face beaming, mouths the name “Harry” as if in slow motion while offering the old guy a joyous toast in return, while each of his passengers cranes his neck for a glimpse of the Chicago legend seated in the car next to them, all of them mouthing his name as well.

Harry soloBut then, just a half a beat later, you watch as the driver’s eyes lower to the rusted out Impala, a hubcap missing, the antenna bent, one side mirror cracked, and the entire thing looking like it was being held together by some hopeful combination of duct tape and baling wire. The kid’s eyebrows settle back to earth and he looks perplexed. He even cocks his head to one side. But then, as if by magic, a new and even better realization floods over him and the brightness in his eyes returns, only this time in a higher gear. You can almost see the wheels turning in the kid’s head.

“Only Harry…” you sense the young man thinking, as he shakes his head and gives the old guy an unbridled belly laugh and a big, hearty thumbs up.

Young HarryBut by then the light has changed and you, your gregarious, beer-loving shotgun-riding partner, and your sad excuse for a vehicle are off and headed north, as your nightly sojourn continues and the three of you wind your way once again toward the cluster of tall, majestic and well-lit buildings up ahead and the most precious real estate in Chicago.

It didn’t last long; both my late night rides with Harry and my time with the White Sox. My car died for good later that season, just as summer was turning to fall. And a year or so after that, tired of working so long and so hard for so little, I found a new job – a job, in fact, that took me out of Illinois altogether.

Fast forward. Now it’s 1991, or more than ten years after I left Chicago. I now have a nice career going for me in cable TV, where I’m making a decent living and slowly building a reputation as a pretty good PR guy and perhaps an even better writer. One morning at a major trade show, I happened to walk by the WGN booth and saw that Harry was scheduled to appear that afternoon for a meet-and-greet with the conventioneers. As I read the sign it dawned on me that for as long as I had known and worked with him, I had never once bothered to ask Harry for an autograph.

Harry and bartendersSo I jumped in a cab, told the driver take me to the nearest sporting goods store, where I bought an official MLB baseball that I immediately pulled out of its box and stuffed into my coat pocket with the intention of asking Harry to sign it for me.

Later, while waiting in line at the WGN booth, I said to myself there’s no way this guy’s ever going to remember me. Hell, I thought, it’s been over a decade since we’ve seen each other and he probably meets more people in one year than I’ve met my entire life. But when it was finally my turn, and I approached him seated behind a table in the booth, something happened I’ll never forget.

As I stood before Harry, I looked down at the ball I had just pulled out of my pocket, a ballpoint pen in the other hand. “Harry,” I said, “I doubt you’ll remember me, but I just…” But before I could finish, he popped out of his chair, a big bright smile on his face, and he shouted out to me as he bounded out from behind the table to give me a big, warm hug, “Mike!!! How the hell are ya? God, you look great.”

WGNSmiling back, I told Harry I was doing well, and that I just wanted to stop by to say hello. He then asked me what team I was working for these days. When I said I was working in cable TV, he looked sad. And I mean genuinely sad. “You mean you’re not in baseball anymore?” he offered almost tenderly, before quickly doing an about face, his eyes once again all bright and shiny, as if he’d just experienced an a-ha moment. “Do you wanna be? ‘Cause, you know, I can make a call. Hell, I’d be happy to do that for ya’. You just give me the word, OK?”

“No, Harry. That’s OK,” I told him, smiling. “I have a nice thing going. I’m happy and I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. But thanks. I mean that. That really means a lot.”

And that was the last time I ever saw Harry Caray.

CaraysHarry, of course, did eventually sign my ball that day. And a few years later, around the batting cage in Atlanta – in fact on the very day the Braves would clinch the first of their now-record 14 consecutive division titles – I got his son, Skip, a great and equally colorful play-by-play man in his own right, to sign it as well.

Now I guess I should try to complete the Caray circle on my ball and ask Harry’s grandson, Chip (who at one time was the voice of the Cubs and who later replaced his dad as voice of the Braves) to sign his name alongside those of his iconic, unforgettable and now dearly departed father and grandfather.

Harry finaleBut I’m not sure that will ever happen. Because, as I sit here typing away in my small office in on a cold and overcast Chicago day, I look at those two signatures on that now-yellowed ball sitting on that ever-yellowing stack of old clippings and I realize something.

I realize I’ve never been the type of guy who cared much for collecting autographs. Turns out, I’m the type of guy who’d rather collect memories.

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