Harry Caray, whose zesty, raucous style of baseball play-by-play electrified airwaves and roused fans for more than half a century, died Wednesday at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 78.
Caray, who lived in Palm Springs, Calif., during the baseball off seasons, had been in a coma since he collapsed at a restaurant Saturday night while having dinner with his wife, Dutchie. Doctors said that his heart had suddenly changed rhythm, restricting oxygen to his brain. He suffered a stroke in 1987.He died of cardiac arrest with resulting brain damage, Bill Wills, a family spokesman, said.
Caray cut a humorous, opinionated and sometimes controversial figure, whether his loud and pungent voice was calling (and rooting for) the St. Louis Cardinals, the Oakland A's, the Chicago White Sox or the Chicago Cubs.
A short man with oversized glasses, Caray punctuated home-team home runs by shouting: "It might be! It could be! It is!" He made "Holy cow!" his on-air trademark of astonishment long before Phil Rizzuto adopted it. And after a victory for the Cubs, who were perennial losers during his tenure at Wrigley Field, he roared in delight: "Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win!"
In later years, as his craft occasionally turned to self-parody, he became best known for his off-key warbling of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," during the seventh-inning stretch of White Sox, then Cubs games. He had been singing the old ditty in broadcast booths for years until the former White Sox owner Bill Veeck secretly amplified it for all of Comiskey Park to hear.
"Probably the Great Veeck knew a lousy singing voice when he heard it," Caray said in his autobiography, "Holy Cow!," written with Bob Verdi.
Caray was born Harry Christopher Carabina in St. Louis. His father left the family early, and his mother died when he was 8. He was raised by an aunt.
He grew up with a passion for baseball, and a desire to be a broadcaster. He sensed the thrill of watching a game at Sportsman's Park, the Cardinals' home, but felt the radio broadcasts were, he wrote, "dull and boring as the morning crop reports."
While still a salesman for a company that made basketball backboards, he audaciously demanded an audition at KMOX-AM in St. Louis. Impressed more by Caray's gumption than his talent, the general manager recommended him for an announcer's job at a Joliet, Ill., station.
After a stint at a radio station in Kalamazoo, Mich., he was hired by WIL-AM, in St. Louis, which was seeking a big-name announcer to call Cardinals' games. Possessed of a big mouth, but not a big name, the 25-year-old Caray made a brash case for his talents as a salesman of baseball and Griesedick Brothers beer, which sponsored Cardinals' radio broadcasts.
Nearly a decade later, Caray moved to KMOX-AM when Anheuser-Busch acquired the Cardinals, and he started a long partnership with Jack Buck.
Caray insisted that his on-air manner - which favored the home team but featured withering criticism of player miscues - stemmed from his identification with fans. (He once called a Cubs' game from the Wrigley Field bleachers.) He dismissed criticism that he was a homer, insisting that he was often at odds with those on the home team he scorned, by word or by inflection.
"When I'm at the ball park broadcasting a game, I'm the eyes and ears for that fan at home," he wrote. "If I'm such a homer, why hasn't there been any other announcer in America whose job has been on the line so often?"
After years of idolatry in St. Louis, Caray was fired in 1969 - the news was delivered to him by phone while he was in a saloon.
He spent a year calling Oakland A's games for the maverick Charles Finley, then began an 11-season stint with the White Sox.
Midway through his tenure there, John Allyn, the team's owner at the time, vowed to fire him for being critical of his players. But by the next season, Veeck owned the team, and Caray's reputation as the hard-partying "mayor of Rush Street" - a nightclub district - grew unabated.
Despite his popularity with the White Sox - and a salary that rose as team attendance increased - he left for the Cubs in 1982.
Caray's popularity, once intensely regional, blossomed on WGN-TV, a Chicago station picked up by cable systems nationally.
Devoted fans nationwide - many unborn when Caray started 42 years before - inundated him with cards and letters after his stroke. President Reagan called him on the air during Caray's first game back.
"It was never the same without the real voice of the Chicago Cubs," Reagan said. Caray thanked him and then quickly said, "And in the excitement, Bob Dernier beat out a bunt down the third-base line."
In 1989, Caray was awarded entry into the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. "I always tried, in each and every broadcast, to serve the fans to the best of my ability," he said in his acceptance speech. "In my mind, they are the unsung heroes of our great game."