11 August 2008
| Skip Caray
didn’t have Keith Jackson’s booming voice or his casually poetic way with sports colloquialisms. He didn’t have Howard Cosell’s way of presenting a sporting competition as if it were the culmination of all of human history. He couldn’t draw word pictures like Jack Buck, explain his game’s mechanics with the credibility of John Madden, evoke its history like Peter Allis.
But he was sure my favorite sports announcer. Ever.
Skip was the son of Hall of Fame announcer Harry Caray. The very first sports-announcerism I learned was Harry Caray's “it could be, it may be, it IS a home run” incantation, way back in 1964 as I made my initial foray into sports-fan geekdom. Turns out there was an acorn falling close by: the 25-year-old Skip, a baseball kid who had grown up a baseball fan in a baseball household, was already calling Tulsa Oilers' games by '64.
Many Southerners are natural Braves fans, but the seeds of my own Braves fanship weren't sown until I won a bunch of money off some Braves-following buds of mine in 1978 by betting against
Atlanta. That was pretty safe money in those days.
As it turned out, watching enough Braves games that year to follow my bet got me kind of interested in their young talent, including a pair of rookies named Bob Horner and Dale Murphy. And as much fun as it was to ridicule the team, the organization, and the cut-rate WTBS production values, those announcers weren't half-bad.
And you just couldn't get baseball every day anywhere else.
So over the next couple of years my curiosity about Horner and Murphy had me regularly checking Braves' box scores, and catching a game or two now and then. The timing was just right in 1981, when the Braves ripped off 13 straight wins to open the season at exactly the same time I got my first cable TV subscription in my own apartment.
By the time Claudell Washington's 2-run single with two out in the bottom of the ninth made it #13, I was hooked, and I have been a Braves fan ever since. And while it may have been the 13-game streak that hooked me, it was the announcers more than anything that reeled me in.
It was a three-man team in '81. Joining Skip was Pete Van Wieren, a consummate pro with a head full of stats who went by the moniker of The Professor--the ultimate sports egghead in that his balding, over-sized dome actually does look like an egg. Caray's and Van Wieren's broadcasting styles fit together like Lennon's and McCartney's voices.
Joining the pair was Earnie Johnson, with his dry country wit and baseball old-timer's knowledge of the game and business, a member of the Braves organization since before he had provided middle relief for the '57 and '58 Series champ teams that set the standard for the organization. Middle relief was even less glamorous then than it is now, if you can imagine that, and Johnson clearly approached his job with the humility of the ex-middle reliever, relishing each day in the business because it could be his last.
Over time, Skip, Pete and Earnie were joined by Don Sutton. You wouldn't compare Don to Earnie, humility-wise, but you've got to give the guy his due. It's not every day you run across somebody who won 324 big league games with an 85 mph fastball and is more than willing to explain all the tricks that had been necessary to that accomplishment.
There was plenty of talent, but Skip was The Man. Skip headed the crew, providing the intros and the benedictions, calling the plays. Skip was never, ever boring.
That's saying something in a game that stretches on for hours with long stretches of inactivity in each game and 162 games in a season, inning after inning, week after week. The art of baseball announcing is the art of filling time, and Skip filled time like Elle McPherson fills a bathing suit.
Well, maybe not quite like that--but really well, anyway.
Skip didn't have a tag, or a trademark. As you came to know him, you realized there was a reason for that. A trademark would've made it about him. For Skip, it was never about him.
It was about the game. Though Skip Caray brought a new voice to sports announcing, a modern voice, jaded and cynical about many things, he was never cynical about the national pastime. Like all the best ones, he loved watching the game he announced. He understood it deeply and had insights into the game that rivalled those of the crafty Sutton or the book-nosed Van Wieren.
Every sports announcer is, on some level, a paid shill, but Skip Carey was no corporate toady. One sensed that he only kept his job by virtue of the fact that he truly admired and respected his ultimate boss, Ted Turner, and had nothing bad to say about him.
But Skip didn't think twice about ridiculing the bad movies that would play on TBS after the games, and if the copy for an on-air commercial was bad, Skip would read it in a dry, dead-pan voice that oozed sarcasm as it emphasized the script's shortcomings. A lesser announcer could not have gotten away with that, but his talent insulated him from management's wrath.
He wore his love for the Braves on his sleeve, but he was scrupulously fair to opposing teams, and always knew their rosters and their back-stories almost as well as he knew those of the Braves. He was as honest about fairly assigning praise and blame in a game as he was about his own love of the Braves.
Speaking of honesty, Johnny Miller could have learned something from Skip: you don't have to be mean to be honest. Skip said what he thought, but always with respect, never overlooking the possibility that his opinion just might not be correct.
Skip Caray was meant to turn 69 today. He should be calling a game against Dad's--and Chip's--Cubs tonight, and he should be downing a porterhouse and a beer at a favored steakhouse after the game, holding genial court and enduring wry pokes about the numerological significance of his age.
Instead, there will be a solemn tribute at Turner Field this morning, and the Braves' announcing booth will be one seat short tonight. The greatest of the Carays has called his last game.