Son and fellow broadcaster, Chip, recalls last conversation with dad
By TIM TUCKER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/03/08
Braves announcers Skip and Chip Caray were one of the few father and son teams that broadcast major sports teams. The two worked Braves' radio broadcasts together, and did their first Father's Day game on June 10, 2005. Johnny Crawford / AJC
Skip Caray made the call when the Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995: "Yes! Yes! Yes! The Atlanta Braves have given you a championship! Listen to this crowd!"
He made the call when Sid Bream scored on Francisco Cabrera's pinch-hit to win the National League Championship Series for the Braves in 1992: "Here comes Bream! Here's the throw to the plate! He iiiiiiiisssssssss ... safe! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! ... Braves win!"
And he made the call in the late innings of a lousy game in the lost season of 1979: "You have our permission to turn off the TV and go to bed now ... as long as you promise to patronize our sponsors."
Harry Christopher "Skip" Caray Jr. moved from St. Louis to Atlanta in the 1960s partly to escape the professional shadow of his father, the iconic and inimitable baseball broadcaster Harry Caray. Over the next four decades, with a style very much his own, Skip Caray became as much the voice of baseball in the Southeast as his father had been in the Midwest.
Caray died in his sleep Sunday at his Atlanta home, the Braves announced. He was 68.
"I got to talk to him yesterday and I told him I loved him and he started laughing because I was stuck in New York," said Chip Caray, who flew from New York to Atlanta after he got the news on Sunday, rather than joining the Braves in San Francisco. "It was our own private little joke. I at least got to tell him I loved him which was the last thing I said to him, so I'm grateful for that."
Chip Caray said the thought of his father with other relatives who had passed away gave him some comfort.
"I hope and pray he's not hurting anymore," Chip Caray said. "I hope and pray he's sitting on a barstool somewhere with his dad arguing about baseball, and his mom and his brother who he misses dearly. I hope he's at peace. Because I know he wasn't the last couple years. And he battled and fought and didn't do a whole lot of complaining. He knew he wrote some checks that were getting cashed and he didn't complain about it once."
Skip Caray first came south to broadcast Atlanta Crackers minor-league baseball games in 1964, returned for good to broadcast Atlanta Hawks basketball games in 1968 and made his mark broadcasting Braves games on radio and television from 1976 until his death. This season was his 33rd in the Braves' booth. He was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame, along with long-time broadcast partner Pete Van Wieren, in 2004.
With his nasally voice, wry and witty delivery, and tongue often in cheek, Caray became an enduring sound of summer in the South. He described more than 4,000 Braves games â€” from the last-place finishes of the 1970s and '80s through the 14 consecutive division titles of the 1990s and beyond.
He often said he would think of truck drivers as he called a game, doing his best to keep them entertained â€” and awake â€” as they made their way across the South.
Caray missed several weeks of work late in the 2007 season because of mounting health problems, and he reduced his broadcast schedule to home games at the start of the 2008 season. He was battling diabetes, congestive heart failure, an irregular heartbeat and reduced kidney and liver functions, he said in April 2008.
"I almost died in October ," Caray told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter at the Braves' 2008 home opener. But he was on the air that night, vowing to call as many games as he could for as long as he could do the job well.
"When I'm working, I'm fine," he told the AJC. "You know intellectually that you're exhausted, but so what? Concentrate on the game. I know this: I'm not going to embarrass myself. If I can't do this, I'll be the first to know it. I've had a hell of a run, so I've got nothing to complain about. If I die tonight, I've had a great life."
Over the decades, Caray was both the opinionated curmudgeon and the fun-loving prankster on the air. In the 1970s and '80s, he got a kick out of ridiculing the TBS movies that followed Braves telecasts. In the '90s, he was famously impatient with callers on his pre-game radio show before eventually declaring himself a changed and mellowed man. In recent years, he continued his shtick of pretending to know the hometowns of fans who caught foul balls in the stands.
In 1991, three generations of Carays called the same game. Hall of Fame baseball announcer Harry Caray (center) did the Cubs' broadcast while son Skip (right) and grandson Chip pulled the Braves duties. AJC File
Caray swore off alcohol as he became concerned about his health in 2000. But seven years later, amidst yet another meltdown by the Braves bullpen, he said: "The bases are loaded again, and I wish I was, too."
Although clearly a Braves fan â€” prone to refer to the team as "we" -- Caray could be tough on the club. Once, decades ago, his boss Ted Turner told him he was being too tough. Caray pointed out the team's last-place record. "Good point," replied Turner, then the Braves' owner. "Say whatever you want." And he did.
"Skip was always off the wall," his long-time friend and broadcast partner Ernie Johnson Sr. once said, recalling their years together in the booth. "You never knew what he was going to say."
There was another side of Caray not necessarily known to TV viewers, Johnson noted when Caray was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame: "a bigger heart than anyone can imagine."
Stan Kasten, former president of the Braves and Hawks, once observed that Caray reveled in "testing the boundaries" but always stopped well short of malice.
Born Aug. 12, 1939, in St. Louis, where his father was the voice of the baseball Cardinals, Skip Caray knew from childhood that he wanted to go into broadcasting. His father often took him to spring training and on summer road trips, and as a kid he was on a first-name basis with Cardinals players, including the great Stan Musial. By junior high school, he was on the air, doing high-school sports reports on the powerful radio station, KMOX, that carried Cardinals games.
His first job after earning a journalism degree from the University of Missouri was calling the games of the Tulsa Oilers minor-league baseball team. The station didn't send him to road games, so Caray would recreate the action on the air from pitch-by-pitch details provided by a Western Union ticker tape.
To simulate the sound of bat meeting ball, he'd tap a piece of balsa wood with a pencil. He came to Atlanta in 1964, two years before the Braves, to call Crackers games from old Ponce de Leon Park. He returned in 1968 to call the games of the city's new NBA franchise, the Hawks, who like Caray moved here from St. Louis.
"I've just kind of grabbed on to the people of Atlanta, and they've made me feel at home," Caray said in 2000.
He recalled in a later interview that one reason he moved here was to find an audience, pre-cable-TV, largely unfamiliar with Harry Caray, the late legendary voice of the Cardinals, Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs. As much as Skip Caray idolized his father, he wanted no part of ceaseless comparisons to him.
"I wanted to be judged for my own ability, my own style," he once said.
While Harry Caray, who died in 1998, was known for a bombastic style that included cries of "Holy cow!" after home runs, his oldest son became known for a lower-key style punctuated by dry wit and caustic humor. Or as Skip Caray once described it: "I'm the wise-ass cynic."
He was wrapping up his first season as a Braves broadcaster in 1976 when Turner had seemingly zany idea of bouncing the games off a satellite and airing them on cable systems nationwide.
"I said, 'You want to do what?' " Caray recalled decades later. " 'Are you nuts?' "
Beginning with the 1977 season, Caray and fellow TBS announcers Ernie Johnson Sr. and Pete Van Wieren helped make the Braves "America's Team," drawing large coast-to-coast audiences in the days before ESPN and FSN and the like.
The team was bad, but the broadcasts were good.
For almost two decades Caray was joined by Joe Simpson (from left), Don Sutton and Pete Van Wieren in the booth for Atlanta Braves games. Joey Ivansco / AJC
"It's like we were on the first wagon train west," Caray recalled in a 2007 interview. "We didn't know where we were going, but we were having a lot of fun getting there."
It was a trip that lasted for 30 years, from the last-place finishes of the 1970s and '80s through the pennant races of the 1990s and beyond. On Sept. 30, 2007, the Braves played for the last time as national programming on TBS, their long run ended by the very trend they started: a proliferation of baseball on cable TV. Caray got the last word, struggling to say goodbye to fans who had watched for three decades in 50 states:
"The people all over the country who send you Christmas cards every year; the people who when Dad passed, 5,000 of them sent notes or condolence cards; when I lost my brother the people all over the country who sent condolence cards as well -- how do you thank those people, and how do you say goodbye to those people? I don't know, but I'm going to try.
"... To all you people who have watched the Braves for these 30 years ... thank you. We appreciate you more than you will ever know. ... When we first came on the air on TBS, which was then WTCG, the big TV shows were 'M.A.S.H,' 'Dallas,' 'Laverne & Shirley,' 'Happy Days' and 'Charlie's Angels.' We outlasted them all. The only one that beat us was '60 Minutes.'
"We don't want to get all maudlin here, but thank you folks and God bless you. And we're going to miss you every bit as much as you miss us."
Caray and Van Wieren's popularity with Braves fans was conclusively proven in 2003, after Turner Broadcasting executives benched the duo from the national TBS telecasts and relegated them to radio and regional television.
The theory was that Caray and Van Wieren were too identified with the Braves and that the telecasts needed a more neutral, national feel.
But the fan backlash was so severe that, halfway through the season, TBS reversed itself and returned Caray and Van Wieren to the national telecasts. In recent years, his biggest professional thrills seemed to come from working with family.
Oldest son Chip rejoined the Braves broadcast lineup in 2005, often working with the man he called "my dad and my hero." Youngest son Josh became the radio announcer for the Braves' minor-league team in Rome in 2007.
One Sunday, Caray and his wife of 32 years, Paula, drove from their Atlanta home to Rome so that Skip could join Josh in the booth to call a minor-league game. "I've got to be able to say I've worked with all of them," Skip Caray said that day, referring to his father and both sons. "I just hope I don't cry, to be honest with you."
He said he tried to pass along to his broadcaster sons the same lesson his father emphasized to him: "My dad always told me to be honest on the air -- and to be yourself. Don't try to be anybody else."
Skip Caray: one of a kind.
-- Staff writer Carroll Rogers contirbuted to this article.