The death of sportscaster Harry Kalas reminds us that the end of an era is fast approaching.
Mr. Kalas, the longtime play-by-play voice of the Philadelphia Phillies, died just minutes before Monday's game with the Washington Nationals. Kalas collapsed in the radio booth, where he spent most of his adult life, including 38 years calling games for the Phillies. His passing came less than six months after the team won its second World Series of Kalas's tenure, but the only one where he called the final out. A television contract prohibited local broadcasters from calling the final game of the Fall Classic; the ban was lifted in 1981--a year after the Phillies won the series.
With his booming baritone and accessible personality, Kalas became an institution in Philadelphia--and beyond. If you never heard a Phillies broadcast, you knew the voice that graced everything from football highlights (he was the primary narrator for NFL films for three decades) to soup commercials (Campbell's Chunky...it fills you up right"). When a Hollywood studio needed someone to narrate the trailer for the football comedy Leatherheads, they called Harry Kalas.
But it was his work as a baseball broadcaster that put him in Cooperstown and secured Kalas' reputation as a sports broadcaster. Arriving in Philly in 1971, he faced the unenviable task of replacing longtime play-by-play announcer Bill Campbell. Kalas quickly won over the tough Philadelphia audience and, in the process, he became one of the last, legendary sportscasters whose professional identity was intertwined with that of a single team, or a particular city.
It was part of a lineage that began with Mel Allen, Red Barber and Harry Caray, and continued with men like Jack Brickhouse, Chuck Thompson, Ernie Harwell, Bob Price, and Jack Buck. By the time Kalas began his tenure in Philadelphia, most of the legendary baseball voices were deep into their careers, or in the case of Mr. Barber, already in retirement.
Along with Atlanta's Skip Caray, Marty Brennaman in Cincinnati, and Bob Uecker of the Milwaukee Brewers, Mr. Kalas became one of the last, iconic local announcers, forever associated with their ball clubs and their fortunes. Great moments in team history were captured by their calls, filled with drama and excitement. Over four decades in Philadelphia, Kalas described more than a few memorable moments, from Mike Schmidt's 500th home run, to no-hitters by Terry Mulholland and Kevin Milwood, and of course, the 2008 World Series Championship.
Listening to Kalas and his peers was a throwback to another era, when summer was defined by the America's Pastime, best enjoyed on a long evening with a cold drink and a radio, the sounds of the game--and that familiar voice--wafting into the darkness.
With the advent of cable TV, radio broadcasts over 50,000-watt clear channel stations became less important for team revenues. Legendary outlets like WSB and KMOX--whose nighttime signal covered dozens of states--no longer carry baseball. Announcers also became interchangeable, moving from team to team like free agents. No one really wants to do radio play-by-play anymore," a broadcast executive told me a few years ago. "They all want to anchor SportsCenter."
That's one reason that Mr. Kalas' passing is particularly sad, even for those who don't reside in the Delaware Valley. With his death, we're another step removed from summers past, when the season seemed to revolve around the game.
There are a number of fine play-by-play announcers who still call major league baseball (Jon Miller of the Giants and ESPN comes immediately to mind), but the list of the truly great ones has dwindled again. If you live in Southern California, consider yourself lucky. You can still experience the magic of the game, in the hands of a broadcasting maestro named Scully, now in his 58th season with the Dodgers.