Harry the K, 1936-2009
I didn't really get into following major league baseball until the summer of 1971, following eighth grade, and that's when I started to watch and listen to the Phillies. Growing up in Scranton, PA, with a dad who was a die-hard Yankees fan, there was always a Yankee game on the TV or on the car radio, not a Phillies game. But my friends followed the Phillies and I followed suit, and Harry Kalas, Richie Ashburn and Andy Musser became the main soundtrack of my summers. I barely remember By Saam in the broadcast booth, and I never heard a Bill Campbell-called Phillies game. But I do remember Harry, Whitey and Andy on the radio and the occassional game on local TV (this was pre-cable, and the local ABC affiliate would televise Phillies games on Saturdays and Sundays mostly).
It was Harry Kalas' voice that stuck out for me on those sticky-hot summer nights, sitting in our backyards or on our front porch steps, or drifting off to sleep listening to the Phillies on a west coast road trip, WCAU's signal booming out of Philadelphia clear and strong to the small transistor radio under my pillow. I didn't know that 1971 was Kalas' first year with club; he sounded as sharp and established as the Mel Allen and Frank Gleiber that sounded all those Yankee games my dad followed. Back then Kalas had yet to make his home run call his signature. When we played whiffle ball in the street, it was Harry's strike out call that we mimicked: "STRUCKimmmouut with a fastball." He had a way with that call, and his extra enthusiasm for Steve Carlton-pitched games back then hooked me on Phillies games forever.
For me, baseball returned in the Spring when I heard Harry Kalas' voice on the radio again, calling a game from Clearwater. Phillies games will never ever sound the same again.
I was fortunate to meet up with Harry Kalas on several occasions. He emceed the annual Philadelphia Sportswriters Banquet when it was held at the Adam's Mark Hotel in Philadelphia, and I was the PR Director there. With a boatload of baseball, basketball, football and hockey players in attendance, it was startling to see how many autographs Kalas was asked to sign. And I watched him calmly and graciously sign every one, chatting and posing for pictures, shaking the hands of nervous Little Leaguers and veteran sportwriters with equal amounts of excitement and respect. And as folks thanked him for their photo op or autograph, he would thank them with a kind phrase, a variation of "with out you, I don't have anyone to talk to." I have never forgotten the simple humility of that phrase. And to this day, I have never seen anyone that famous act so humbly in front of adoring fans.
I had run into Harry the K a few more times, once at the original Frenchy's in Clearwater while on vacation there, and a few times at The Bellevue, when he was en route to emceeing a banquet at the Park Hyatt hotel, or to dinner at The Palm. And every time he had that glint of recognition, the outstretched handshake and a kind question about what I was doing and how life was treating me. A class act in every way.
I think it's true that he did lose something off his fastball after the passing of his broadcast partner, friend and foil Richie Ashburn, as many observers have noted. But nothing ever changed in That Voice, equal parts of smoke and silk and steady calm, reliably ready to explode with "---there it IS!" or "...watch that BABY---outa heeere!", and, still my favorite, "STRUCKimouut with a fastball!".
Beer writer Jack Curtin posted a brief and achingly poignant thought on Twitter yesterday, just minutes after Harry's passing (read it here), that for many of us who grew up listening to Harry and Whitey all those summer nights, brings a painful closure to an important part of our lives. I couldn't have said it better if I wanted to.
A Phillies game will never ever sound the same to me. And for that I am profoundly sad. I will miss That Voice.
"STRUCKimouut with a fastball."