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Monday, April 13, 2009

Harry Kalas: The Death of a Good Uncle

I had the day off today and, fitting, was driving my son to our local baseball complex when I heard that Phillies' Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas died before today's game against the Washington Nationals. He was 73.

I grew up listening to Harry Kalas call Phillies games with Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn at his side providing the color commentary. You have to remember that in those days there wasn't cable TV and home games weren't covered, so the radio was all we had. And, in Philadelphia, we were most fortunate to have a harmonious duo that knew their stuff, told great stories, had good senses of humor and knew how to make it sound exciting when it really was. His home run call "that ball is outta here" was something to behold, making great moments all the more enriching because of his cadence and his timing.

I had an old radio on the night table next to my bed, the type that you could set on a timer so that it could shut itself off after a while. On many occasions, I set the radio to the Phillies (and, in the off-season, to a great all-sports show on WCAU Radio hosted, by among others, Bruce Bradley and Don Henderson). I would listen to bad teams (when Kalas first arrived in Philadelphia, in 1971, the team was plum awful) and outstanding ones (the teams in the late 1970's were very good), and I would listen to him describe the pitches of Steve Carlton, the antics of Tug McGraw, the grace of Garry Maddox, the glory of Mike Schmidt and the grit of Larry Bowa. The man had a gift for description and for affability. He was a joy to listen to.

As importantly, it was he and Richie Ashburn who taught many fans -- including me -- the finer points of the game.

He also reminded me of a good uncle, the type that would show up unannounced to visit the family and would leave you feeling like a million bucks. I had a great uncle like that, the husband of a first cousin of my grandmother, and he would stop by and play baseball with us in our small backyard, acting magical because he would insist upon swinging the bat upside down. He would always make contact, to our amazement, even though he was dressed like someone out of central casting -- knit shirt, baby blue pants, white shoes, frequently toting a cigar. I loved that man, whom I called Uncle Eddie, and he would come inside and share stories with my father. Stories about seeing the great ones play, stories about his youth, when the family had nothing and no one seemed to mind because they had each other.

Baseball-wise, that's what many of us had -- each other. The Phillies weren't good when Harry Kalas first got here and they had a dark period from the mid-1980's through 1993, but we always had Harry and Richie. We couldn't measure the enormity of what we had at the time, but over time we knew we were listening to a special duo. They taught many of us the game of baseball, particularly the nuances, and they were good at making us forget about everything other than we were listening to a great game on a warm summer's evening. Harry and Richie were like our good, if sometimes zany, uncles, taking the time to entertain, amaze with their memories and educate us.

Fittingly, Harry's final season ended on top, when the Phillies beat the Rays to win only their second World Series. Today, during the Phillies' broadcast on Comcast, they replayed his final call -- of Brad Lidge striking out the Rays' Eric Hinske to win the game -- several times. I couldn't help but well up and wipe away a few tears, because the last of the trio that made baseball so alive and enriching for me -- Harry, Richie and my father -- is gone.

And how special they all were!

Harry Kalas left a rich legacy of outstanding professionalism and being a great guy. I met him a few times at promotional events, and he was warm, humorous and engaging. He was clearly having the time of his life doing what he did for a living, and, while doing it, helped us have the time of our lives just by being along for the ride.

Harry, we were privileged to have had you as our teacher, our muse, our entertainer, our guide, and, yes, our good uncle. May you rest in peace.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the summer of 1977, I was in the middle of nowhere in central Poland, feeling very homesick for the US and Philadelphia. One late evening, while searching across the radio frequencies, I heard a familiar voice, Harry Kalas. The Phillies game was bring broadcast by Armed Forces Radio out of Berlin. It was a magical moment to hear Harry's warm voice miles from home. a faint glimmer of light in the dark Polish night.

8:54 PM  
Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon said...

Well said.

RIP, Harry Kalas...

4:22 PM  
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