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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RIP Harry Kalas

Longtime Phillies announcer Harry Kalas passed away moments ago at a hospital in Washington, DC.

Source: Phillies Nation

I am shaken. I will have words later. For now, my condolences to the Kalas family.

BREAKING NEWS: Harry Kalas Hospitalized

Word just reaching the wires that legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas was rushed to a Washington, DC hospital aftre being found unconscious approximately one hour ago. No further details at the moment - more to come.


Updates from Philles Nation:

UPDATE (1:41 p.m.): Statement from David Montgomery: “I think it’s serious. Our thoughts and prayers are with Harry.”

UPDATE (1:29 p.m.): Allegedly Kalas was found passed out in the press box at Nationals Park. Kalas recently recovered from heart surgery, missing spring training but joining the team for the season opener.

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New Wave for the New Week #6

Following up on last week's entry, here's another from the "where'd they go?" file. Horizontal Brian released one top-notch album, Vertical, in 1983 on the Gold Mountain label. From it came this fantastic single, "Practicing First Aid."

A witty, hooked-filled confection with some sly wink-wink lyrics, "Practicing First Aid" bounces along, giddily stringing out it's lyrical euphemism ("playing doctor" didn't scan as well, I guess). And just in case you don't follow the metaphor, the video's imagery underscores it plainly enough.

The rest of the album stays pretty much in the same ballpark as the single, which is in this case a good thing. But Vertical remains Horizontal Brian's lone artifact. Indeed, finding information about the band is no easy task - the long-out-of-print LP was not ever reissued on CD to my knowledge, the Gold Mountain label morphed into Gold Castle by the end of the '80s before disappearing altogether, and the only band bio I've found online is this brief entry at Trouser Press.

So, not much else to tell you - just sit back and enjoy a true cult classic - this week's New Wave for the New Week, Horizontal Brian's "Practicing First Aid":

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