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Harry Caray brought tradition to Chicago’s North Side

Vince Staten • Jun 2, 2013 at 12:26 AM

My wife and I took a Memorial Day vacation to Chicago.

As we always do, we went to a Cubs game. She’s a huge fan and has been since her senior year in high school in suburban Chicago when she and her friends would ditch school and take the train in to Wrigley Field. She says it was a month before her mother caught her and put a stop to it.

The Cubs were way ahead on Wednesday and we decided to leave early to beat the crowd to the train. “How about during the seventh-inning stretch?” I suggested. “Absolutely not,” she replied. “We have to stay for that. It’s a tradition.”

Actually it’s not that much of a tradition. Not like the ivy on the outfield walls, which dates to the ’30s.

They’ve only been singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley for 30 years or so. It only seems longer.

The Chicago superstation WGN brought Cubs baseball, and with it Harry Caray warbling “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” to every home with cable in America. Instead of breaking away for commercials, WGN would stay at the park after the visitor’s half of the seventh, the camera would zoom in on the announcer’s booth, and a big-headed man of dubious sobriety would stick his face, his thick glasses and his microphone out the window of the announcers booth: “All right ... is everybody ready?”

Then in a hoarse, probably alcohol-fortified voice that could sink a ship, Caray would lead the assembled throng, many of them in an equally questionable state of sobriety, in an off-key, out-of-sync, version of baseball’s national anthem, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Harry Caray and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” weren’t always synonymous. He never led fans in the song during his 25 years as announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals. It didn’t start until he came to work for the other Chicago team, the White Sox, in 1970.

He was about to be fired from the Sox job when a fortunate thing happened; the Sox were sold by strait-laced John Allyn, who didn’t like Caray, to “maverick” Bill Veeck, who did, and retained Caray. From his years in St. Louis as Browns owner, Veeck knew that Caray often sang the ditty in the broadcast booth. Early in 1971 he secretly fed the radio signal over the PA system for all of Comiskey Park to hear. It was a hit with the fans, who sang along, and soon it was a regular seventh-inning feature. Veeck told Caray, “The fans like singing with you because they know they can sing better than you.”

Caray moved from the South Side to the North Side for the 1982 season, joining the Cubs, where the Bleacher Bums adopted him as their own. He already was, regularly meeting his fans in Rush Street pubs. With the arrival of cable TV came the appearance in America’s living rooms of Caray’s singing. And an institution was born.

Harry is gone to that great broadcast booth in the sky. “Take Me Out” is now sung by a different celebrity every Cubs game. On Wednesday, it was Chicago Black Hawks Hall of Famer Denis Savard, whose voice is much superior to Harry Caray’s. But whose isn’t?

Contact Vince Staten at vincestaten@timesnews.net or via mail in care of this newspaper. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at vincestaten.blogspot.com.

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