Harry Kalas 1936-2009
Photo: George Widman / The Associated Press © 2002.
Harry Kalas died on Monday.
If you live — if anytime in the past 38 years you ever lived — in what they call the Greater Philadelphia Area, you've probably heard and definitely heard of Harry the K. He was the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies for almost four decades, so established, so resonant, and so loved that his collapse in the visitors' press box before Washington's home opener shocked and saddened millions.
Football fans will recognize Harry's voice from narration on Inside the NFL. He also did voice-over work for commercials, including the TV spot for last year's football movie Leatherheads. But he belonged to baseball.
Mr. Kalas grew up watching the game in Chicago, and after a stint announcing for the Houston Astros arrived here in April 1971. I was only six months old at the time, and so never knew baseball without him. While not an athletic kid, lacking both the natural aptitude and the desire to continue playing much of anything beyond my tee-ball years, I did enjoy watching baseball with my grandfather during summers in Wildwood. From Camden (right across the river) to Cape May (90 minutes further south), South Jersey always got more from Philadelphia than just its vacationers: We got its TV stations, its newspapers, its Tastykakes, its sports franchises, and more or less its atty-tood about them, too.
I was a kid in the days of Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Gary Maddox, and that great 1980 World Series championship — which I was too young to fully appreciate, frankly. My 10 years of age were a mere eyeblink to those fans who'd suffered for generations before the Phils' first overall title in the franchise's 97-year history.
To be honest, I didn't really follow baseball until I returned to the area after college, living just outside the city and commuting daily. It's probably strange when your avocation becomes your vocation no matter the field; I sure found it true for the world of comic books, as I worked for a longtime retailer while writing freelance and experiencing a lot of the behind-the-scenes politics and lore generally referred to as, well, "inside baseball". The medium itself ultimately wasn't diminished for me, but I did need to escape from it sometimes, when for most of my life it had been my escape from everything else.
Right on cue I rediscovered the stats and poetry of America's pastime, and in particular the frenetic Phillies of 1993. That ragtag crew of bruisers (nicknamed "Macho Row") was Harry the K's favorite lineup, his broadcast partner Chris Wheeler said this week, probably because he shared with them that blue-collar perseverance that Philadelphians loved too. And while Harry's velvet voice could even make John Kruk's name sound cool, nobody who has heard it will ever forget the six-syllable symphony that was his introduction of Mickey Morandini.
Harry was a maestro at the microphone, knowing that a stretch of silence that brings the sounds of the ballpark to the fore is as delicious for the listener as a shaggy-dog story from the late Richie Ashburn or Larry Anderson, two former Phillies who joined Kalas in the broadcast booth to great effect. The naturally resonant baritone that he coated with scotch and cigarettes is probably most associated with one simple phrase: "Outta here!" My favorite, though, was his sign-off after a game wrapped up — usually "Good night, everyone," but if the game ran a minute past midnight it changed to "Good morning." An indescribable chasm exists between those words as read on a flat screen and Harry's businesslike yet impish inflection, and I certainly can't do justice to this: "The 0-2 pitch... Swing and a miss! Struck him out! The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World Champions of Baseball!"
Of course it's ridiculous for a North American monopoly to call its finalists the world champions, but I promise you that when your teams are playing it's both thrillingly provincial and the most important thing in the universe. We all need diversions in life, sometimes the more ridiculous the better. The apparent insanity of being able to compartmentalize — to spend a night at the movies, thrill to sports, or burrow into a good book despite the constant and terrible injustices of the world — is what keeps us sane.
I know that asthmatic, comic-book-collecting kids aren't supposed to care about sports, but take a summer breeze, pipe in Harry Kalas reporting a Curt Schilling strikeout or Jimmy Rollins' latest stolen base, and you have for me a taste of heaven. God rest your soul, Mr. K.
Kindred Posts: Stan Musial 1920-2013; Hello, Goodbye; Leon Saner 1914-2011