Sunday, July 29, 2012

Harry Carey Taunted Me

Tomorrow I'll be headed to Chitown for another radio event, but will arrive a day early so I can take in my first game at Wrigley Field in over two decades with my old chum and co-editor of our high-school underground comedy paper, Scott Whitney.  I used to see many a contest there when I lived in the City of Broad Shoulders.  Of course, you could sit in the bleachers then for a buck.  It's about forty times higher than that now. But there's nothing like taking in the ambience of America's pastime in one of it's cherished old cathedrals.

Many know of my rabid, vocal support of hockey.  Others have seen me wax nostalgic with legendary tales of football lore with the 70s Steelers.  Some know of the great affection I’ve had for the fledgling American Basketball Association, as well as the terrific NBA battles between the Celtics and Lakers in the 80s. 

But it’s baseball that will always have a special tug within me.  Whether reminiscing about the Pirates’ amazing double play combo of Gene Alley and Bill Mazeroski, or recounting stupendous slugfests at Wrigley Field, or sitting with Fifty-three other lonely souls at Fans Field in Decatur, Illinois watching the San Francisco Giants’ Single A minor league affiliate bumble their way through yet another loss in 1972, or somehow retaining hitting statistics from players who have been retired for thirty years…baseball will always take the biggest share of my sports heart.

Part of the romance of the ballpark stems from the play-by-play announcers that captured my imagination as a little sprout.  Every summer night I would wander up and down the AM dial from my Ohio and Illinois homes listening to Ernie Harwell describe Al Kaline’s exploits for the Tigers; Jack Brickhouse’s friendly banter on Cubs’ broadcasts; Phil Rizzouto’s chatterbox style with the Yankees; Joe Nuxhall’s sign-off of, “this is the old lefthander rounding third and heading for home” at the end of each Reds’ game; and the inimitable Bob Prince’s zany metaphors for my battlin’ Bucs (“He couldn’t have hit that pitch with a bed slat,” and “that play was closer than the fuzz on a tick’s ear” were two of my faves).

But there was one character who was always even more colorful than the rest…one who perhaps more than any other defined an era of baseball with his larger-than-life persona: Harry Carey.  Many a night I would hear him on KMOX calling a Redbirds game in St. Louis.  When the muggy Mississippi River valley afternoons would send temperatures at old Busch Stadium soaring well above 110 degrees on the field, Harry was known to actually strip down to his underwear in the press box, and stick his feet in a tub of ice water while describing the action.  

After a run-in with owner Augie Busch (it is rumored that Harry had an affair with his wife), Carey was suddenly canned by the Cardinals in ’69.  He broadcast for the A’s out in Oakland for a few years, but eventually ended up in Chicago, going to work for another renegade: the unpredictable Bill Veeck, owner of  the Chicago White Sox.

In 1972, my church youth group decided to make the three hour ride north to the Windy City to see the Sox take on the Detroit Tigers.  The original Comiskey Park was one of the oldest structures in baseball even at that point (and it remained so until it was torn down in the early 90s).  The wooden seats had been painted dark green so many times that in some cases the openings between the boards were sealed-over and no wood grain was remotely visible.  All the screws that held each seat together and to the concrete flooring had long-since been encased in heavy duty all-weather Lucite.  Cement steps leading down each section had literally been worn down a few inches from millions of footfalls over seven decades of traffic.  The scent of spilt beer, stale popcorn, and rancid cigar smoke was imbedded in the place. And it smelled great!

One of the oddities of the stadium was that the press box was actually located at the top of the balcony behind home plate. Most baseball parks had the broadcast booths tucked underneath the upper deck...but on Chicago’s south side, the announcers were pretty much on the same level as the fans upstairs.

So when we learned that we could purchase seats immediately beneath Harry Carey’s broadcast vantage, we leapt at the chance.  Veeck had placed several loudspeakers on the outside of Carey’s booth, so anyone in that area of the upper deck could hear his call of the game.  You could turn around and see him sitting there, big as life, with his oversized black horn rim glasses, mussed-up white hair, and distinctive jowls flapping away.  Anytime a batter would foul a ball back towards him, instead of running for cover, Carey would quickly grab his trusty butterfly net and try to catch the ball before it could harm anyone.  Even if the ball was fifty feet away, he would toy with the crowd by waving it about—and we loved it.   

So there we were, all dressed in support of the various teams we cheered for:  I was decked-out in Pirates’ gold and black, Duke had on his Cub’s hat and sweatshirt, Jon had on his Cardinals gear, Mike had his Yankee pinstripes, etc. etc.  All of us had brought our gloves hoping to snag one of those wayward balls sometime during the contest.  My buddy Steve Samuelson was getting bored, and decided he would have better luck standing down along the aisle way along the first base line.  Sure enough, about ten minutes later, Detroit centerfielder Jim Northrop lofted a foul right into that region, and I saw Steve with his distinctive bright red St. Louis cap and warm-up shirt run over to catch it, only to have it glance off his glove and into the hands of a portly gentleman.

With head down, Steve returned to our perch overlooking home plate, and we teased him incessantly for the next half hour or so about his lack of fielding acumen.

In the bottom of the sixth, the mighty Richie Allen, who was at that time leading the American League in home runs, came up to bat again for the Pale Hose.  Catching a ball hit by him would be the coup de grace.  Of course, there were about 27,000 others in Comiskey that night thinking the same…so the chances were nil that we would be so lucky.

Harry was setting the scene: “Richie Allen, with twenty-two dingers to lead the Junior Circuit, could give the White Sox the lead with one swing of the bat.  Oh…for the long one!”  The first pitch was a ball, low and outside to the bespeckled right-handed slugger.  “Mickey Lolich peers in to Freehan for a sign…he knows how dangerous Richie can be.  Allen waves his 34-ounce bat menacingly as he awaits the pitch.  The crafty lefthander rocks and fires…there’s a swing and a pop up coming our way.”

Arcing at least ten stories above us, the ball spun high and backward from the batter’s box.  It had a great chance of coming down in the upper deck…in fact, as it reached its apex, we realized it had a wonderful chance of coming right towards us…and within the next few seconds I knew that it was coming straight down towards me.  

Harry reached for his butterfly net, while simultaneously shouting, “Here comes a free souvenir for a lucky Sox fan!”

As the ball began plummeting from the dark Chicago sky, framed by hundreds of white- hot 1,000 watt lamps in the light standards around the stadium’s ring. I lifted my well-oiled Rawlings Roberto Clemente Special above my head, aligning the ball’s downward trajectory with the soft spot of my mitt.  I was about to become the owner of an actual American League baseball endorsed by the commissioner himself, and touched by two All-Star players just a matter of seconds before. 

I was set and poised.  Being an outfielder by trade in Pony League, I had utmost confidence in my ability.  However, I didn’t normally have to fight with other people to catch a ball, and just as the precious sphere was about to nestle into my grasp, a balding man wearing an Ashland Oil work shirt thrust is greasy hand under my glove in his vain attempt to make a bare-handed grab.  The ball glanced off my leather, and careened off several other hands and shoulders before a curly headed little blond girl picked it up from the sticky cement.

“Ohhh…a young lad wearing a Pirate’s hat really bungled that one!” Harry barked out, much to the delight of my chums and the rest of the crowd around us.  Not only had I missed out on the prized artifact, but I had been slammed by a hero and a future Hall of Fame announcer.  The teasing we had given Steve over his muffed chance a few innings earlier was nothing compared to the needling I got the remainder of that trip.

I didn’t lose any sleep over it, however. I figure there aren’t that many baseball aficionados who can say they were taunted by Harry Carey.  

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