Monday, April 13, 2009

Harry Kalas 1936-2009

When I was a kid the first voice of football was and always will be Jon Facenda, a Philadelphia TV newsman who was hired by NFL Films to narrate the year-end roundups of teams and best performances. Facenda's normal vocal frequency was similar in timbre and pitch to the Old Testament's Almighty - immortal, distant and imperial.

But when NFL Films did their weekly reviews and Game of the Week, they used Harry Kalas' voice, and it was not until I moved to Philadelphia 17 years ago that I realized that Harry was actually the Philadelphia Phillies' broadcaster. After using CBS' Ray Scott for many years, Ed Sabol turned to yet another Philadelphia voice to describe the weekly action; Harry Kalas' voice always struck me as more genial, warm and conversational than Facenda's voice or Scott's. He was first a football guy to me.

Kalas died today while preparing for yet another on-air assignment for the Phillies, and though we all assume he died doing the thing he loved, it's no consolation to those of us who have relied on him, summer by summer. Some of my co-workers were weeping today at the news, and people talked about it at the end of the workday as if a head of state had passed unexpectedly. A few sentimentally speculated that Kalas was met in the Afterlife by his old sidekick, Richie "Whitey" Ashburn, with some nicely aged scotch.

Like Harry Carey, Skip Carey, Myron Cope, or Johnny Most, Harry belonged to a generation of broadcasters who were themselves larger than life characters. Their work in the booth was enhanced by the broad public appeal they had, for better or for worse. They were always partisan in their loyalties to their teams. And they were a far cry better than the analytical, statistically savvy talking heads of today's play-by-play whose impersonality or haughtiness (not just Joe Morgan's) are a product of a time when the players themselves seem so distant from the emotions they elicit in the fans. Broadcasters like Harry simply reflected a different time, a time lost to sports entirely.

Here he is, getting a chance to call the last out in the last complete season he would do for his beloved Phils, as they won the World Series last Fall. His cohort in the booth, Chris Wheeler, is really the funniest part of the video, but still, it was very rewarding to hear Harry get the call. The last time he had done the honors was 1980. We're all glad he had a chance to repeat before he was gone.

It was an unusual voice, one that sounded almost like someone speaking while breathing in. Yet, particularly as he aged,he took on a mellowing, reassuring sound that reflected, no doubt, the enduring patience of many losing seasons, many lost and miserable games. He was a colorful character in every sense, but Harry's sonorous play-by-play was a gentle current flowing in the background of summer Sunday afternoons, and he accompanied the air conditioner in our bedroom as we fell asleep at night; he faithfully wove together the July and August evenings, creating a routine of saying goodnight to yet another summer night, farewell to yet another summer week. Goodnight, Harry.


Slimbo said...

Wheeler looks like he fending off an attack by invisible assailants. Great post.

Martin Roche said...

It's like he's being attacked by killer bees.