Baseball Way Back: Caray's arrival at Comiskey made waves
When the White Sox unveiled former Cubs TV voice Len Kasper as the team's new radio play-by-play guy, comparisons were immediately made to Harry Caray's move from the South Side to the North Side in 1981.
But my thoughts drifted back even further, to 1971, when Caray was introduced as the new White Sox radio voice.
In terms of impact, Caray's move from Comiskey to Wrigley was one of the factors that turned the Cubs into a national presence in the 1980s.
But, marking the 50th anniversary of Harry's arrival at 35th and Shields, it would be difficult to find an example of an announcer having a bigger impact on team popularity.
Harry helped breathe life back into a moribund franchise, even before Dick Allen swept onto the scene.
The booth simply couldn't contain him. He would broadcast shirtless from the center field bleachers. He hauled a net into the booth to snag stray foul balls. And he responded to fans yelling "Harry, Harry" from the upper deck.
Radio ratings climbed, and the Comiskey turnstiles clicked.
Caray's arrival was announced Jan. 8, 1971. As with anything associated with the beer guzzling, name-mutating play-by-play man, his hiring was not a simple matter.
Caray arrived in what was in essence a trade with the Oakland A's.
In 1969, Caray's legendary 25-year stint as St. Louis Cardinals announcer ended abruptly when Anheuser-Busch Inc. fired him.
Caray landed in Oakland, but on Oct. 14, 1970 it was reported that he would not return as A's announcer. Instead, calling games on the "bright side of the Bay" would be the White Sox radio team of Bob Elson and Red Rush.
The venerable Elson had called Chicago baseball as far back as the Great Depression, but his increasingly ossified announcing style was alienating Sox fans. The considerably more animated Rush was known for his Gonnella bread commercials.
"Gonnella is swella fella," Rush would inform us.
An additional complicating issue was the radio situation of the White Sox, who found themselves radio refugees after being evicted by WMAQ after the 1970 season.
With Caray's arrival, a network of suburban stations began to sprout, including WEAW in Evanston, with its tower on the John Hancock building, WTAQ in La Grange and WJOL in Joliet, the city where Caray began his broadcast career.
Needless to say, the new audio digs were far less glamorous than anything he enjoyed in St. Louis.
Nevertheless, Don Unferth, Sox public relations director, raved, "We made the greatest off-season trade of the year when Oakland got Bob Elson and Red Rush and we grabbed Harry Caray."
At first glance, it was a strange marriage, as even Harry would allow. It seemed that even with a year of American League seasoning, you could take Harry out of the National League, but you couldn't take the National League out of Harry.
On Jan. 15, 1971, Harry said, "I'll have to admit I'm still a Cardinal fan at heart. I pulled for them and the Cubs to fight it out to the end last year."
But he knew how to ingratiate himself with his new bosses, even as he could alienate old ones.
He called Chuck Tanner "the most dynamic manager I've ever met. If enthusiasm is a winning trademark, the Sox will be unbeaten this year. Also, Roland Hemond, player personnel director, is just a tremendous young man. He has a certain air about him that makes you feel like a million dollars."
He touted the young team on Jan. 24, 1971. "Challenge ... that's exactly why I took the job," he said. "The Sox are a young team that's definitely on the incline. I want to be part of it, to receive some reflected glory."
And he already seemed to be auditioning for the title of Mayor of Rush Street. David Condon in the Chicago Tribune noted on Jan. 13, 1971 that "In a one day-night tour of Chicago he fed at Fritzel's, Eli's Steak House, Tommie O'Leary's Key Club and the Corona. And picked up the tab at all places."
Even before the Sox embarked for spring training, the acquisition of the future Cub Fan and Bud Man would make an impact.
Unferth pointed out on Jan. 24, 1971, "Before Harry came along no one was particularly interested in carrying our radio broadcasts. We couldn't even line-up a home station."
He said most Chicago stations had switched to hard rock and popular music.
Also, "Elson and Rush were practically putting our listeners to sleep."
With Harry on board, the radio network began attracting other stations, including outlets in Bloomington and Springfield.
Caray was upbeat. But he warned that he wouldn't be a house man, saying, "the only people who tried to ever put a gag on me were public relations men for the Anheuser Busch brewery in St. Louis."
Prophetic words, it turned out. As he poured out Holy Cows, Harry would puncture more than a few sacred cows.
But for the time being, the horizon was rosy. By 1973, the team would be back on WMAQ, with Harry sharing the microphone with Gene Osborn, and Harry would supplant Jack Drees as the TV voice as well when the Sox switched from Channel 32 to Channel 44.