My mother’s and father’s were the first two voices I heard after I was born. Now I’m not sure, but I would bet the third was the voice of Harry Kalas.
It was a stunning voice. His rich, regal baritone felt like the wind shaving across a midwestern field. He was an Illinois boy, honing his craft in the fields of Iowa – closely neighboring the fields where Richie Ashburn rooted. He moved to Hawaii, then to Houston, then to Philadelphia. Despite his youth, he carried that majestic voice, deep and hearty, assured and personable. It honestly felt like baseball.
And for millions of us, Kalas’ voice wasn’t simply something that felt like baseball, it was baseball. It was the first sound heard when we turned the radio dial, then it was the first sound heard when we clicked to the television. It greeted us to the park as if we sat there ourselves. His words wrapped around the hollow concourses of Veterans Stadium, echoed into the field, warmed us on those chilly summer nights. And yet it defined our lazy summer afternoons, sitting at the public pool, or on the stoop, or in our living rooms. It cradled our hopes and ambitions of a team that always let us down.
Harry never let us down.
Even if we had the opportunity to meet the man, he didn’t let us down. I attended a Philadelphia Sportswriters Banquet years ago, and during an intermission my brother took me outside for a cigarette. As we stood outside, I – no more than 12 – noticed him, that iconic image: Clean black tuxedo, well-quaffed gray hair, a cigarette in one hand, a glass of scotch in another. All alone, he contemplated the night sky. My brother and I walked past him, and I let it out, as if showing my father I could ride a bicycle:
“Long drive … watch that baby … outta here!”
He glanced over, chuckled and tipped his head to me. I could have floated in air.
That wasn’t my first run in with Harry. At age 6 he mulled over my scorecard during Terry Mulholland’s no hitter. Upon learning this news, no longer was the greatest joy that I witnessed a no hitter, but that Harry Kalas spoke about me on the air. That voice spent a few seconds with me.
Since those moments, I cherished Harry as he had grown older and, sadly, sicklier. We all knew it, and we all recognized it, but we didn’t dare speak about it. Scott Franzke denied ever thinking Harry would leave the booth. Even though we mocked his missed calls and premature vocal rises, we never, ever wanted him to leave the booth. Not our voice. Not our baseball.
Harry Kalas was baseball. And he was Philadelphia. He was as much part of the city as William Penn’s hat. As much part of the city as the green of the Walt Whitman Bridge. We would hear him on NFL Films and think “he’s our guy.” We would hear others speak about the golden voice and think “he’s our guy.” Our pride for Harry was greater than maybe our pride for the Phillies themselves.
Of course, that pride grew in 2008, the special season that redeemed our faith in the local baseball club. And when Brad Lidge uncorked that final slider, it was Harry’s call we longed to hear:
“The oh-two pitch – swing and a miss! Struck him out! The Philadelphia Phillies are two-thousand eight world champions of baseball!”
Just as we knew he’d call it. And it remains our lasting memory of Harry. It joins the bin with his iconic call of Mike Schmidt’s 500th home run as his greatest moments. There are numerous others, from Pat Burrell’s defiant home run off Brian Wilson last season, to Garry Maddox’s final out of the 1980 National League Championship Series. The phrases are etched in our minds: “Long drive!” “Struck ’em out!” “Could it be?!” “This ball’s outta here!” The character follows.
And what a character. We knew Harry loved a good drink, and we knew Harry loved a good time. Even at his most downtrodden when calling a game, he sounded somewhat optimistic. With Ashburn, he played the surprised straight man to Whitey’s guffaw and bluster. Together, they played like two uncles, men you knew instantly. And even after Richie died, Harry remained warm and cordial, sometimes straight to Larry Andersen’s dumbfounded northwestern everyman. But more than anything he grew into an exalted man, the kind of legendary person that Philadelphians hardly find. His name adorned a Citizens Bank Park restaurant. Yes, he was baseball.
In simpler times, though, Harry was the lazy summer afternoon, the chilly summer night, the open cornfields of Iowa, the steel and brick of Philadelphia. He was soothing even in the darkest days. He kept us coming back to the team no matter how bad it seemed. Not many can do such a thing.
To me, Harry is part of my family. He is my fifth uncle, my summer retreat. He is Phillies baseball. Throughout the 24 years of my life, there have been few constants, and besides my family, there has been the Phillies, and there has been Harry Kalas. For millions across the Delaware Valley and beyond, the feeling is exactly similar. So listening today was tough – Tom McCarthy and Chris Wheeler, and Gary Matthews and Larry Andersen filled the gaps well, but there was no voice. There was no regal baritone serenading me to the field. There was no optimistic tingle in the hearty chords. There was no “High Hopes.” There was no “outta here.”
In a way, there was no baseball.
But baseball proceeds. There will be a game Wednesday. And a game Thursday. And so on until the season ends, and another season begins. And so on. And we will proceed without Harry, without the voice. At some point, a new voice will emerge. Who knows which voice fills our lazy summer afternoons and chilly summer nights. Who knows which voice fills our stoops and living rooms. Maybe that voice will engage millions more the way Harry engaged us, but it sure won’t be the same. Not at all.
For yes, Harry Kalas was baseball in Philadelphia. He was my baseball. He was my voice. He was my uncle. And he was our friend.