“The Legendary Harry Caray: Baseball’s Greatest Salesman”
The publishing info:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, $34, 352 pages, released April 12
The review in 90 feet or less
Using the Dodgers’ annual trip to Wrigley Field as a news hook, as noted in the Day 23 review, there will likely include a recorded version of Harry Caray singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch.
That’s still a stretch in our book.
The guest singers who have stepped in to do it since Caray’s death in Rancho Mirage just before his 84th birthday as spring training approached in 1998 are able to make the song live and personal. Like, when Bob Costas and John Smoltz did it Tuesday night (and avoided singing they would “root, root, root for the Cubbies.”).
Keeping the artificial spirit of Caray alive with the recording … not necessary.
But the process of recording anything that is attached to the life of Caray, things can get a little hairy.
The Baseball Hall of Fame resident in the broadcasters’ wing — getting there 13th in line — isn’t someone you may recognize by the portrait used by the Cooperstown-based website. Instead, there is this cartoon version from his 13-year run with the Cubs that too often defines him.
That brings us to Zminda, a Chicago native now L.A.-based SABR member who spent decades working at STATS LLC in publications and research. The Northwestern grad has several important books published on the game, and decided to jump into this one when the publishers came asking one day if he had any projects he wanted to work on upon his 2016 retirement.
What do we need to know about him after knowing there were books done that include Caray’s own sorta biography (“Holy Cow!” with Bob Verdi, from 1989).
After his death, we remember “I Remember Harry Caray,” by George Castille with Rich Wolfe and a forward by Jack Brickhouse in 1998, plus “Where’s Harry?: Steve Stone Remembers 25 Years with Harry Caray” by Steve Stone in 1999. Eventually came “Harry Caray: Voice of the Fans” by Pat Hughes, with a CD of calls, from 2007.
We can even throw in there as a dessert topping: “The Harry Caray’s Restaurant Cookbook: The Official Home Plate of the Chicago Cubs” by Jane and Michael Stern in 2003.
The menu of Caray’s life and times can look like a heaping helping of beer-soaked brats with relish and … even more beer. The Yelp reviews would simply be: Holy … you know the rest.
What Zminda revisits and re-concentrates are the true reveals that get buried in the Caray story telling. Caray was not the Will Ferrell character from “SNL” skits about him as a loud grandpa slurring words and gushing with homerisms. We still imagine him as the guy sitting next to Bill Murray, just having some fun at a ballpark, and happening to have a mike in front of him.
There are parts of him that many didn’t care for, a litany of feuds he created with players, managers, owners and fellow broadcasters. That’s accurately deposited on many pages. There’s also the times Caray would trip himself up and look buffoonish in the media — like the odd story in 1995 where Caray made what sounded an awful like a racist joke about the Dodgers’ Hideo Nomo that he never could bring himself to apologize for.
Caray was never apologetic for who he was, or how he became himself.
Yet there will be many, like Bill James, who don’t apologize for being a Caray fan.
Writing in the 1985 Baseball Abstract, James admits:
“I realize with a sense of shock how much of my own attitude about the game and about my profession, which I thought I had found myself, I may in fact have picked up from hundreds of hours of listening to Harry Caray as a child. … I love Harry Caray. You have to understand what Harry Caray was to the Midwest of my childhood. In the years when baseball stopped at the Mississippi, KMOX radio built a network of stations across the Midwest and into the Far West that brought Major League Baseball into every little burb across the landscape. Harry’s remarkable talents and enthusiasm were the spearhead of their efforts and forged a link between the Cardinals and the Midwest that remains to this day, even now, some of my neighbors are Cardinals fans.”
So “St. Louis Harry” had some residual effect in the MLB’s expansion to the West? Holy cowabunga.
It’s a balancing act to find what’s fair and what’s foul about Caray. It could detract, of course, from those who want to preserve a memory of fandom. But honesty and someone taking a detached look at painting a full portrait of an otherwise beloved national treasure, someone larger than life in Chicago when he became more famous for the WGN Superstation reach than just the local TV feeds, then here we go.
How it goes down in the scorebook
A seventh-inning stretch mark.
We’ve always been amused by how Harry Caray (born Harry Christopher Carabina) and the Japanese word Harakiri, when pronounced by Westerners, sounded so much alike, and carry such different in meaning. What any of that matters in this review may not fit, except we know that the meaning of the right words in the right places can have a long-lasting impact. It always seemed, however, that Caray was just one breath away from career suicide at every ballgame he did in his later years.
Caray’s words defined him, on and off the field, as someone often far too honest for his own good, blasting players on the air to a point where they wanted to just get out of town to preserve their sanity (i.e., Bill Melton, traded from the White Sox to the Angels).
For all his political incorrectness later in life, Caray was ultimately a salesman – a word that means enough to be put on the cover as a perfect way to frame what he accomplished. He was also “legendary.”
As Vin Scully is quoted upon Caray’s death, and included in the book: “People in the bleachers as well as the man sitting in the box seat knew they shared their love of baseball with a true fan. Harry will be sorely missed.”
What Scully had, as our Los Angeles measure of legendary, was a class and demeanor that Caray couldn’t have, because that just wasn’t him.
As Ned Colletti, the former Dodgers GM who started in media relations in Chicago, says in the final quote used in the book: “I only knew one like Harry.”
Read between that line if you will.
In some ways, this is a bio that reminds us of what Curt Smith did on the “untold story” of Mel Allen in 2007, some 10 years after his death. The book picked up some momentum when it came explaining all the messiness about why Allen was let go from the Yankees in 1964, at age 51, at the peak of his game. Rumors and rumors and more rumors are ruminated.
Yet, when Smith did his 2005 book, “Voices of Summer,” he ranked Caray as the sixth of all time, one spot behind Red Barber, and five behind Vin Scully (and four behind No. 2 Allen).
Caray’s only notable demerits are that he didn’t have “continuity” with one team and didn’t do a lot of network coverage, or do other sports.
Zminda (pictured, right, with Scully in the Dodger Stadium press box) writes as he goes over Smith’s criteria: “Whatever one thinks of this system or the resulting rankings, it puts Caray near the top of his profession. And the system perhaps slights some of Harry’s greatest strengths. … Disregarding his brief experience with the St. Louis Browns and Oakland Athletics, he worked for three different franchise and made an indelible impact on all of them. For fans of the Cardinals, White Sox and Cubs, he was a trusted and greatly loved voice — their voice. That is an amazing accomplishment.”
The work Zminda puts into this is impressive and far exceeds anything done in a journalistic fashion on Caray’s career — this isn’t something meant to make readers feel warm and fuzzy. He got the help as well from Ron Rapoport and David Israel, two more Chicago writers based in L.A. now, to help in the process of finding more info, and people who knew things and could point him in many directions.
(Odd, is that as nice of a photo as used of Caray on the cover, the book for some reason was made without a book jacket, with this just embossed into the cardboard, loosing a lot of its luster as well as some classiness. Maybe that’s appropriate).
This is probably a book that had to be written, by someone, at some point. We can just say we’re glad we weren’t the one engaged to do it.