Monday, April 13, 2009

On the Passing of Harry Kalas

In my notebook are the beginnings of a post I was going to put together for this blog talking about how the game of baseball and, more importantly, the experience of being a baseball fan has changed since my childhood. Today, the baseball of my childhood truly ceased to be. Harry Kalas passed away this afternoon.

Baseball first became a big part of my world view towards the end of the 1977 season. At the age of 10 I was swept up by the excitement of the Phillies' run for the NL East pennant. I discovered that I loved this game and I loved the Phils. I voraciously read every book my elementary school library had about baseball; when that library was exhausted, I began reading through the baseball shelves at the Lancaster Public Library. In the spring of the next year, 1978, I started buying baseball cards the moment they became available, and studied those scraps of cardboard more diligently than my own schoolwork, learning all the active players on every team. And, either by commandeering the family TV or with the aid of a scratchy hand-me-down AM radio, I watched or listened to every Phillies game. Every single game.

Harry Kalas had been in the Phillies booth for six years by the time the 10-year-old me discovered baseball. Harry's play-by-play and Richie "Whitey" Ashburn's color commentary brought the games to life. They were knowledgeable and professional, but they were also unabashed fans. They loved the game and they loved the Phils, and were never afraid or ashamed to let their emotions show when the team won a big one or defied the odds in a come-from-behind victory. They had a great friendship, and that came through as they shared stories and laughs during slow innings. And, they loved the fans.

For twenty years, until Ashburn's passing in 1997, I listened to them calling games. To this day, Harry and Whitey are, to me, what baseball should sound like. When "His Whiteness" left us in September of 1997, I remember wondering whether Harry would keep going - and for how long.

Keep going he did, never losing a stride. Harry Kalas was among the last of his breed of baseball announcers: a voice that was instantly recognizable and also the envy of anyone who ever has had anything to do with broadcasting at any level. (Joe Buck, who calls games these days for FOX, was once quoted as saying, "If I had that voice, I'd just walk around the house and talk to myself!"), and a style that was often imitated but never quite copied.

His midwestern nasal twang and just-this-side-of-staccato delivery was perfect for some of the classic Phillies names: "MI-chael Jack Schmidt," "Mick-ey Mor-an-DI-ni," "Ma-ri-AH-no DUN-can" and others became almost melodic, and his home run calls were the stuff of legend. You'd hear the crack of the bat and suddenly Kalas' voice would raise in both pitch and volume. "Swing and a long drive, watch this baby!...could it be?...yes! It's OUTTA HEEEEERE!" You felt as if you were riding along on the ball's flight out of the park. Even something as mundane as a Phillies pitcher striking out an opposing batter was given the special Kalas treatment: "Struh-keem-out!"

In recent years, talk of Kalas' retirement would bubble up now and again. He no longer called full games, and he'd occasionally miss a game. But with each new season, Harry would be back, and all would be right with the world.

This afternoon, I was skimming through article titles in my Google Reader when I was caught off guard by an entry from the Phillies Nation blog: "BREAKING NEWS: Harry Kalas Rushed To D.C. Hospital." That was shortly after 1:30. Within half an hour, he would be gone. It was too sudden almost to process. I posted the news - what little detail there was - here and on Twitter, but to say I was shaken would put it mildly.

I never met Harry Kalas, although I did sing along with him at Veteran's Stadium in August of 2002 as he led the sold-out crowd on Harry Kalas Day in a chorus of "High Hopes." But Harry had been a part of my life - had been, to me, the voice of baseball - for the past 32 years. My father said it best in an email to me this afternoon, "'s as if we have lost a friend." I know that so many Phillies fans feel that way today. That's how much Harry connected with us.

You can read the black and white facts about Kalas' life and career many places. I didn't want to just recite them here, I wanted to try to find the words to express how Harry's passing has affected me. Perhaps those words are really this simple: baseball will never be the same.

Harry and Whitey are back together again in Heaven. I hope I live my life well enough that I may get to hear them calling games again when my time comes.

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