Chicago’s Cult of Harry: Harry Caray at 100

When I moved to the Midwest in the summer of 2000, I learned that Phil Rizzuto was not the baseball announcer who had coined the phrase, “Holy cow!” I also learned that there was a controversy about this, and that, as a Yankee fan and native New Yorker—and worse, someone unaware of a controversy—I was on the wrong side of said dispute. Born wrong.

No, I was informed, the recently departed Harry Caray was the first to use the phrase on-air and was the announcer with whom it should be associated. Not the beloved Yankees announcer. For Cubs fans, a long-simmering resentment against all things New York became easy to openly express after a “Seinfeld” episode featuring a Phil Rizzuto keychain that exclaimed “Holy cow!” when its head was squeezed unfairly cemented in popular culture the notion that the saying was Rizzuto’s.

Upon learning that I was from New York and a sports fan, one new friend—in our very first conversation—brought up the issue. “You know who used to say ‘Holy cow,’ right?” As an astute observer of humankind and its many denizens, I picked up that there was only one answer and if I said “The ‘Scooter'” I would be inciting conversational violence. But I was not certain what the correct answer was. From my lofty, ivory tower, New York post, I was oh-so dimly aware that Harry Caray, the voice of several Midwest baseball teams over several decades, who had passed away just two seasons before, had been in a feud with my beloved Yankees announcer. Or that Cubs fans were in a feud. I also “knew” that it was possible that both used a really common euphemistic exclamation, Caray in the broadcast booth and Rizzuto on the field and later in the booth.

When I am confronted with a statement that is either false, uninformed, or ill-informed, but I do not see the value in debating the merits of facts, I will respond to such statements with a nod and say something like, “That is an idea.” Period. No emphasis on any syllable. Or even more aggressively passive-aggressively, “That is a sentence.” As if I am attempting an escape from a hostage-taking situation. I shared my theory about how both iconic baseball figures may have come up with the expression independently, since it is a common euphemistic exclamation, with my new Midwestern friend. He replied with a nod and said, with no emphasis on any syllable, “That is an idea.”

Harry Christopher Carabina was born in St. Louis, Missouri, 100 years ago today, March 1, 1914. For over fifty years he was a mostly regional, sometimes national, baseball and college football announcer. At some point in his career, he realized that as an announcer, he was not only the eyes of the fan in the broadcast booth, he was the fans’ voice, too. He wasn’t their representative, he was one of them, one lucky enough to be paid to watch a game he loved to watch. Thus, even though he had been an official broadcaster for teams that Cubs fans naturally detest—the White Sox and the Cardinals—when he became the voice of the Cubs in 1981, he was embraced as if he had always secretly been a Cubs fan. WGN, the station that broadcast the Cubs, was also one of the first “superstations,” which made him a nationally famous quirky regional personality. (Upstate New York, where I am from, did not have WGN, so Harry Caray was as much a rumor to me as Phil Rizzuto, heard on the non-national non-superstation WPIX, was to my Iowa friend.)

By the late 1990s, Will Ferrell started performing his Harry Caray impression on “Saturday Night Live,” and many other performers followed suit, but really, they are performing an impression of Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray impression. From my lofty ivory tower New York perch, I only knew Ferrell was poking fun at an elderly and much-loved baseball broadcaster, one much like my own beloved ‘Scooter’ Rizzuto. I did not understand why the impression continued after Caray’s death in 1998, but again, I was living in New York.

Former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster is noted for his pretty funny impression of Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray:

Because it is almost the same distance to every major metropolis with a major league sports team, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I lived, is one of the luckiest cities in the country for a sports fan. “Local” television broadcasts include the Cubs, the White Sox, the Cardinals; and the Bears, the Vikings, the Rams. I became a Cubs fan in part, I believe, because of all the day games that they play and that I could listen to while at my job writing instruction manuals. In August 2001, my “That is a sentence” friend and I drove to Chicago for a memorable day: a Friday afternoon loss game against the rival St. Louis Cardinals and dinner at Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse, a day that made me feel like I was finally a Midwesterner. The meal was terrific, and the Harry Caray name is now more associated with the seven establishments bearing his name and caricature (see the photo at the top of this post) than with the memorable broadcaster himself.

Which is too bad. Harry Carabina, born in desperate poverty in St. Louis, authored one of the unique success stories in baseball, in broadcasting, in America, when he invented Harry Caray. The success of those restaurants some sixteen years after his death, the fact that comedians still get gentle laughs at his memory, his long career, all stem from one man’s brilliant and rare talent at becoming beloved.

A last word from Harry Caray himself, from the last day of the 1991 season:

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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