Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Harry Kalas, RIP

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.


♥♥♥♥♥ Jennifer™® ♥♥♥♥♥ said...
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lgude said...

You're right - there is something special about baseball on the radio. I dated a girl in College who became a Yankees fan in the 50s listening to the radio with her dad as they worked around the yard. When he finally took her to a game she was completely disappointed! Radio sportscasting is a form of storytelling and a special example of the power of the human voice to fire the imagination. I think the great ones make themselves transparent in a way them causes each listener to feel like they are personally experiencing the game emotionally. My favorite was Johnny Most of the Boston Celtics who could go from poetic minimalism....Cousy to Sharman, bouncepass to Heinson in the corner, fadeaway..scores! To showboating...KC into the forecourt, he slows it down...he fiddles and diddles. To instantaneous emotional explosion: ...AND HAVLICEK STEALS IT!!!!

Anonymous said...

You failed to mention the Ol'Lefthander - Joe Nuxhall, the long time partner of Marty.

It was dangerous to have seats below the WLW radio booth while Nux was there. He tipped many a beer over in his excitement at a REDS home run.

Marty and Joe often discussed their tomato gardens on the air.

While growing up, I couldn't fall asleep until the 'Ol'Lefthander rounded third and headed for home'.

Rich said...

The most challenging game to call play-by-play
is also the fastest, hockey. With both red and blue lines, teams that change on the fly and puck that continuously moves. . . the radio announcing needs to be fluid, spontaneous and "abruptly emotional". Jim Gordon was unsurpassed, and made me NY Rangers fan.
Like Kalas, these and other brilliantly talented professionals should not be forgotten for their great contributions to their sports, the media, and the bar they set for their trade.

Unknown said...

Great comments, all. The great radio voices of the game are leaving us, and they are not being replaced. Most of the "younger" broadcasters are good, but not great (Jon Miller may be the exception, and he's no spring chicken), and, as noted in the post, they jump from job to job like ball players.

I heard Most of a few Celtics broadcasts carried by the Armed Forces network. He had a minimalist style that was unique, and you never forgot the voice. No one would ever confuse Most with the guys who had great pipes like Kalas or Ernie Harwell, but he was an institution with the Celtics.

As for hockey, I never bothered to learn the game, so my knowledge of hockey play-by-play is limited. However, one of the best at that trade was a man named Dan Kelley, the long-time voice of the St. Louis Blues on KMOX radio. Kelley was absolutely superb; never lost track of the puck or the action. Incidentally, his "color man" was an African-American sportscasters named Bill Wilkerson. A few people were surprised to see a black guy doing a hockey broadcast, but Wilkerson knew his stuff, and he and Kelley were a great team. Incidentally, they were also the radio voices for the University of Missouri football program for many years.

BTW, the sports department at KMOX in the late 70s/early 80s featured this line-up: Jack Buck; Bob Costas, Mike Shannon, Gary Bender, Dan Kelley and Bill Wilkerson, among others. Some pretty talented folks, to say the least.

sykes.1 said...

Johnny Most and Curt Gowdy were the background music to my youth. Both my mother and father always had the radio on listening to the Sox or Celtics. When driving, I still search for one of the big am stations for play-by-play, WBZ, WLS WLW, all good background.

JoeC said...

I remember Harry Caray as the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals long before he went to Chicago in a disagreement with Augie Busch. Harry was baseball to me when I was growing up and I miss his rabid opinionated support for HIS baseball club. Hall of fame broadcaster Milo Hamilton of the Houston Astros embodies a lot of that same baseball image I carry from listening to Harry and it will be a sad day to me when he passes on. But, entropy happens to my favorite summer broadcast heroes as it is happening to me, and not a d*mned thing I can do about it... except enjoy their play-by-play as long as I can.

Steve Felix said...

i never had the privilege of hearing harry kalas call a game but i did grow up as a yankees fan listening to many, many games on the radio. to do radio broadcasts of a baseball game is a special talent; one that gives the announcer a chance to bring you there but leaves something to your own imagination. today, there is little to no depth of field as it were regarding announcing of any type. too many words. too many people yelling just to hear their own voice. i have gone online today to get the harry kalas experience and it is powerful stuff.

Freedom Fighter said...

Vin Scully...what a baseball icon.

He's so damned good at it that a fair number of people actually bring radios to the stands in Dodger stadium during the games so they can listen to how he describes what's going on right in front of them!