The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

August 4, 2008

“So long, everybody”

The sports broadcasting world lost another great Sunday with the death of Skip Caray, longtime Atlanta Braves announcer, at 68.

Obviously this is not an Atlanta business magazine. (For one thing, Monday's high is forecast to be 83, not 95.) But many people my age and younger got a chance to watch a lot of Braves and Chicago Cubs baseball thanks to the Atlanta and Chicago satellite-delivered superstations. That is why the Braves (who called themselves “America’s Team” during the 1980s) and Cubs have a nationwide following, more than any other team except the Yankees. Skip’s father, Harry, was the Cubs announcer during the 1980s, while Skip was one of four Braves announcers who rotated through broadcasts on TV and radio.

Harry was something like having your slightly addled grandfather announce a game — he may go far afield from the game, and he may not always know what he’s talking about, but you love him just the same. For instance, Harry, shall we say, enjoyed adult beverages, which sometimes became apparent in later innings.

Harry Caray was a legend in St. Louis, where he announced for 25 years until he was fired over a rumored affair (there is more than one version of the story, one of which was told to me by a former colleague of Caray’s). From there, he announced for one year in Oakland, then announced White Sox games before moving to the North Side of Chicago, where he announced Cubs games and became a legend in Chicago too until his death in 1998.

Skip didn’t want to be a second version of his father, so he headed to Atlanta and adopted a quite different on-air persona. (I always thought his voice sounded like Edwin Newman, while his style was more like David Brinkley.) Where Harry was the hail-fellow-well-met guy, Skip was much more sarcastic and more witty, refusing to take the game too seriously. Like his father, Skip was worth watching in the pre-1990s days of terrible Braves teams merely for what he would say next. Some examples from
  • At the beginning of a game in a middle of a long losing streak, he said, “And like lambs to the slaughter, the Braves take the field.”
  • Until Braves owner Ted Turner made him stop, upon reaching the bottom of the fifth inning: “We’ve come to the bottom of another fifth.”
  • During a late at-bat of a Braves hitter during a game in Los Angeles: “He has twice grounded to short. [After the swing] He has thrice grounded to short.”
  • When the Braves loaded the bases against the Florida Marlins: “The bases are loaded, just like [Marlins manager] Jack McKeon probably wishes he was.” Later (after he stopped drinking due to health problems), when the Braves bullpen also allowed the bases to be loaded, he said, “The bases are loaded again, and I wish I was, too.”
  • During a period where Turner prohibited CNN announcers from using the word “foreign,” mandating “international” instead, a batter called time out and stepped out of the batter’s box because, Caray explained, “he had an international object in his eye.”
  • Caray described one poorly attended Braves home game as “a partial sellout.” Another home game, with entire sections of empty seats, was called “Blue Seat Night, folks — you dress up like a blue seat, you get in free.” In another game, he announced, “The stadium is filled tonight, but many fans have come disguised as empty seats.”
  • During a blowout loss: “This is as much fun as writing an alimony check.”
  • According to Caray, he once encountered a panhandler, and said before the panhandler could say anything, “Nothing for me today, thanks.” The panhandler’s reported reply: “Jenny Craig is just a phone call away.”
  • Caray once interviewed the San Diego Chicken (which, like almost all mascots, is of course mute), asking him one question: “Why did you cross the road?”
  • Caray, about opposing pitcher Roger Mason: “Boy, Mason is really getting jarred tonight.” Partner Joe Simpson: “Put a lid on it.”
  • Caray once mispronounced the name of Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt, omitting the M and adding a Z sound at the end. After coming back from commercial, his partner, former Milwaukee Braves pitcher Ernie Johnson, asked, “What was the name of the Phillies third baseman again?”
  • In one of the strangest games in baseball history, a 19-inning twice-rain-delayed game against the New York Mets on Independence Day 1985, a game that began at 7:40 p.m. and ended at 3:55 a.m. with, yes, the scheduled fireworks display, Caray (who always called extra-inning games “free baseball”) said it was the first time he had come home at 5 a.m. for a legitimate reason.
  • Like former Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell used to do, Caray would announce that a fan from some randomly-named Georgia community caught a foul ball. So when the Braves held Bark at the Park Night, where fans could bring their dogs to the game, he at one point announced that a foul ball had been caught by “a Weimaraner from Newnan.”
  • Caray was talking to fellow announcer Don Sutton about former Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax’s brief inability to throw to first base, and asked Sutton if he had spoken to Sax recently. After Sutton’s answer, Caray replied, “Maybe you should just phone Sax.” (You have to say it to get the joke.)
  • When the Cincinnati Reds brought in relief pitcher Todd Coffey: “Well, the Braves are going to try to cream Coffey here in the seventh.”
  • Near the end of yet another Braves loss: “If you promise to patronize our advertisers, you can go walk the dog.”
After the death of Cardinals announcer Jack Buck, who worked with Harry Caray in St. Louis before replacing him (and whose style was closer to Skip’s than Harry’s was), Skip told the story about how Buck and Harry Caray worked a Cardinals spring training game in Florida following a long night out. The Cardinals were playing the White Sox, who had catcher Gerry McNertney, whose name proved unpronounceable for Harry Caray and Buck. It got worse and funnier as the game wore on, until the two hatched upon the solution of announcing a pinch-hitter for McNertney, even though he was still in the game. (This is the sort of thing that can be done only on the radio.)

For one of Caray’s two greatest broadcast moments (other than the chance to work with his father and his son on the same Cubs–Braves game), the sudden ending of the 1992 National League Championship Series, click here. Like the Brewers’ success last and this season for long-time (and long-suffering) Brewers announcer Bob Uecker, the Braves’ successes of the 1990s, including five National League titles and a World Series win in 1995, were great reward for someone who previously had called a lot of bad baseball.

Interestingly, even though Skip (whose real name was Harry Jr.) tried not to emulate his father, they both had the same sign-off: “So long, everybody.”

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