Skip Caray Cables First Baseball Star
Reviewing the book The Deerslayer, historian Allan Nevins etched “the story of an America now so far lost in time and change that it is hard to believe it once existed.” Skip Caray’s death this month, at 68, was hard to believe: too, the story of how he altered cable television — and how cable buoyed The Game.
Return to a 1976 baseball now lost in time and change. Free local-team TV was the big leagues’ foundation. Pay-cable seemed delusional. Cable systems existed only randomly. Ted Turner looked at satellite and envisioned it linking them. He pined to please — thus, grow.
In 1976, Turner brought the Braves, upped their TV schedule, renamed WTCG Atlanta SuperStation WTBS, and hired the iconic Harry Caray’s son. “The Braves’ll tie the sticks to the big-time,” Ted said, sagely. It was an offer even Don Vito Corleone could not refuse.
Cable soon bulged baseball’s stage. In turn, baseball swelled cable’s audience. The pivot was 1982. “TBS was, just one offering,” said Turner. “People weren’t aware how it could sell the Braves a world from Georgia.” That April Atlanta won a bigs record first 13 games: suddenly, people were.
The streak was “the ‘two-by-four’ that hit America between the eyes,” said Skip’s partner, Ernie Johnson.” A Storm Lake, Iowa, sign read “The Atlanta Braves: Iowa’s Team.” In Valdez, Alaska, a Braves Fan Club chapter pooled cash, bought a screen, and renamed its bar “The Braves Lounge.” In a decade, WTBS households leapt 7,000 percent.
“The greatest thing to happen [to baseball] since Bat Day,” the Philadelphia Inquirer called cable television. You can look it up: Skip Caray became its first star.
Pere And Fils
Before WTBS, Skip had grown up in and around St. Louis, been an all-city high school linebacker, graduated from the University of of Missouri, and aired Triple-A’s Atlanta Crackers and the NBA St. Louis Hawks. “I’m not good-looking or a threat to Twiggy,” Caray joked. “Fortunately, on radio you can’t tell.”
In 1968, the Hawks moved to Atlanta. “Best thing that ever happened,” Skip said. “I got my own identity,” Caray pere embodying the St. Louis Cardinals. “Finally, I stopped being Harry’s kid.” Soon fils occupied a world of hoops, hockey, and football, chucking raw kid for stardom. The star he wished upon was baseball. Irony reached it.
In 1954, Jack Buck had joined the Cardinals, at which point Boss Harry sent Milo Hamilton packing. Under threads connecting, from 1966-75 Milo, now Braves’ Voice, was too busy to settle scores. Hamilton was then axed again, Skip replacing him. “It was interesting how fans reacted,” said Johnson. “People expected Skip to be Harry.” They were soon disabused.
Harry roared. Skip intoned. Dad rose and fell like a ferris wheel. Son kept an even keel, showing and prizing modesty. He never forgot once saying: “Here’s the Voice of the Braves, Ernie Johnson.” During break, Ernie said, “If you don’t mind, we’re all the Voice of the Braves.” One similarity was controversy. “The worst call by a major league umpire in fifty years!” Skip raged. “[Ed] Vargo should be fired because he made all umpires look bad.” You could see pop beaming.
“I didn’t set out to be different,” said Caray fils, more reflexively than defensively. “My dad was an orphan, a self-made man, more elemental as a broadcaster. We’re just not the same human being.” A viewer never felt obliged to choose one or the other.
The Super SuperStation
In 1977, Caray added WSB Radio to WTBS. Celebrating, Atlanta lost 16 straight. Laughter got Skip through 1981. Next year rewarded him. Atlanta won the N.L. West. A year later it drew a then-record 2,119,935. A letter to The Sporting News thanked cable “for getting baseball back in the hearts of rural America.” Full circle: The 1987-90 Braves dredged last. “Loosen up,” Caray told partner Billy Sample. “We might be the only team in history not to win a game all season.”
In 1982, “I got cheered in a restaurant or grocery store,” he said. “Now if I put on shades, I can slink into Kroger’s unnoticed.” TSN, among others, noticed. “Skip is perhaps America’s most prominent baseball announcer,” then available in 63 million homes 130 times a year. Even losing, “the Braves have developed a loyalty among many regions distant from a major-league team.”
In 1991, son Chip joined Atlanta — the first bigs’ Voice radio or TV grandson. “How protective
is telling your kid to be quiet?” said pop. More history: Three generations of
Carays calling a game that year at Wrigley Field. Harry kicked himself. “If I’d had sense enough before I was born to nickname myself Flip, we’d ‘a had Flip, Chip, and Skip” — the Singing Carays, for our watching and listening pleasure.
Skip’s pleasure seemed to peak in 1992′s L.C.S. Game Seven’: ninth inning, three on, two out, 2-1, Pittsburgh. “My biggest thrills have been my kids’ successes in Little League or school events,” said Caray. “Professionally, it’s easy. Frank Cabrera,” singling to plate David Justice and Sid Bream: Braves, 3-2.
As Bream slid, people in the booth began pounding Skip on the back. He never knew it. “I didn’t feel it, my concentration calling the play was total. All I knew was Frank’s hit meant the pennant.” Ultimately, partner Pete Van Wieren a.k.a. “The Professor” aired more than 5,000 games with Skip. “That play showed how his ability to capture the moment was second to none.” An even better “moment” lay ahead
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
The Braves lost the 1992 Classic and 1993 L.C.S. Finally, they won the franchise’s first post-1957 Series. “Fly ball, deep left-center!” Skip said in 1995. “Grissom on the run! Yes! Yes! Yes! The Atlanta Braves have given you a championship.” Harry died in 1998. Skip had an angioplasty, got a peacemaker that triggered airports’ metal detecting device, and was busted to radio and Turner South regional TV in 2003.
“He’s identified with the Braves. We want a national feel,” a Turner exec explained, bizarrely. Skip shrugged. “I said, ‘Run that by me again.”’ Ratings dropped, leading TBS, having missed the light, to feel the heat. “It’s nice to be back,” Caray smiled, reinstated. “The fans made it happen.” In 2005, what happened was Chip, rejoining Dad in Atlanta after Seattle via Wrigley Field and Fox TV.
Thomas Hardy wrote Life’s Little Ironies. As baseball’s first SuperStation, ’70s WTBS wowed the small-town and rural ignored by local-team television. This year the network ditched the Braves for the first Sunday afternoon national TV series since mid-60s Dizzy Dean gilded the monumentally popular Game of the Week. Its Voice: the Chip off Skip’s block, wowing Di’z's less Malibu than Mayberry.
Skip’s funeral was a day before America’s Team’s announcer would have turned 69. On Sunday, August 10, airing TBS’ Red Sox-White Sox, Chip termed Dad “my hero and best friend.” At a next-day memorial service, Monsignor Tom Kenny gave a eulogy: “Caray is coming home … can he make it? He slides! He’s safe! Listen to the crowd!”
We did: Skip let us. The crowd that was America won’t soon forget his voice falling lightly on the ear.