Reflections on Harry Kalas

HOWARD MEGDAL: I can’t think of any greater compliment to pay an announcer than this: Harry Kalas annouced home runs of the Phillies, and I am a Mets fan. Yet it was impossible not to enjoy a baseball game as Harry Kalas saw it. Though his greatest moments came in response to the success of my favorite team’s arch rivals, it was always a pleasure listening to Harry Kalas call a game.

The tributes have been rolling in since we lost Kalas, much too soon, at age 73. While nearly everyone who dies receives some form of public tribute, it is easy to spot the difference between a man who was simply prominent and a man who was loved. Kalas, clearly, fit in the latter category.

While his home run calls-particularly Michael Jack Schmidt’s 500th- are legend, what I remember most about Kalas was his ability to tolerate silence. Much of baseball is anticipation, and Kalas knew and respected the game enough to let people wait. His silences seemed to indicate- I don’t need to falsely inflate your excitement. It’s baseball: the excitement, when it comes, will be its own reward.

It should have been easy for a Mets fan to dislike Kalas, whose unabashed love for the Phillies was clear in every moment of each game he called in Philadelphia. But somehow, when the Phillies played the Mets, my radio didn’t find its way to the familiar voices of Bob Murphy and Gary Cohen, each great announcers in their own rights. Instead, for those games my Mets played locally for this South Jersey boy, I’d let Harry Kalas bring the very best of America’s pastimes to life for me.

I wish I’d get to hear him do so again. For once, Kalas’s silence won’t be apt, and the next bout of excitement felt in Philadelphia baseball will be slightly less rich without Harry Kalas to describe it.

DAVE TOMAR: The kindly Iowan drawl of Harry Kalas piecing together the details of a matchup between hitter and pitcher is a summer sound akin to the hiss of the sprinkler, the sizzle of the barbecue and the chirp of the crickets.  The rich baritone delivery, dry and soothing, used to sing me to sleep on Sunday afternoons as a child.  Harry Kalas had a way of narrating the hushed, whistling white noise of a stadium crowd through the radio that made your heart ache to see Ebbets Field 70 years ago, to watch Ted Williams swing the bat, to actually smell the cheap cigars and grass.

Personally, I don’t know baseball without him.  He was the voice behind every moment in baseball that ever inspired my love and imagination.  To be 30 years old is to have known the Phillies through occasional thick and mostly thin.  My mother was breast-feeding me in front of the television when Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson in 1980 to win the Phils their first World Series in a century of futility.  Being the hard-core Philly fan that she is, I can only imagine she spiked me on the floor in celebratory glee.  And thus began the frequently jolting and sometimes brutally traumatic test of endurance as we waited another 28 years.

The only constant across this vast desert of baseball ineptitude was the steady microphone of Harry Kalas. In late August, on those not-infrequent seasons that the Phillies would flirt with 100 losses, Kalas could show us the truly poetic nature of the game.  With his studied pacing, his fine eye for the game’s psychological minutiae and his patient endurance, Kalas could make a single game, even a single at-bat, remove you from matters of record, standings or contention.

Much has already and justifiably been made of a voice that we will no longer hear.  As I watched his final homerun call, a Matt Stairs pinch-hit bomb that won the Phil’s an April 12th game against Colorado, I did so unaware that it would be his last.  When he collapsed in the booth at Nationals Park in preparation for the next day’s game, Philadelphia and baseball lost something even more important than that voice.  The lyrical phrasing and comforting Midwestern charm that carried his broadcasts kept us connected with a history of the game that becomes increasingly obscure with the passing of its greatest orators.  The working class artistry that preceded an era of broadcasting dominated by retired athletes is a piece of the game that will not be renewed when the last of Harry’s very rarified breed have left us.

On Saturday morning, Philadelphia opened the doors to its stadium so that the city could pay its respects.  Fans, broadcasters, players and city dignitaries filed by an ivory casket just behind home plate before a lineup of prominent speakers tearfully eulogized the man.  Mike Schmidt keyed in brilliantly on the loss, speaking with a dignified elegance that belies our town’s reputation.  He told the fans, “I believe that Harry Kalas was recently greeted at heaven’s gate with ‘well done, my good and faithful servant.’” Afterward, the Phillies past and present—the latter in full uniform—stood in two rows and passed his casket between them.  As Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” played over the stadium speakers, Charlie Manuel, Milt Thompson, Ryan Howard and others hoisted his casket into a hearse, which drove him toward the foul pole on the 1st base line and off the field.

It was a stirring and public display of our team in mourning.  From the high of a World Series Championship to the loss of our patron saint, players, executives and journalists absolutely could not fight back the emotion of this experience.  It is a compelling, familial and almost affirming sensation to be born into a baseball team like a religion and to share in something so intimate as grief.  The scale of the tribute and the obligation of duty to his honor are not just a demonstration of our city’s well-chronicled and frequently abused passions, but indeed, our sense that something more important and shared is invested in the team bearing our name.

Harry Kalas didn’t just capture this sense.  He actually felt it.  He was filled with a redeeming love for the Philadelphia fans, with a raspy flair for those moments that made our players great and with a warm sentimentality for the simplicities of this game that we all share.

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