Benjamin Hochman: What matters isn't Chip Caray's relations to Harry, but his relationship with St. Louis
Published in Baseball
ST. LOUIS — His is the televised voice of summer, the chosen voice to serve as a soundtrack for St. Louis. Chip Caray’s narrations will carry across Cardinal Nation, wafting and weaving through the city like a knuckleball, from living room to back patio; from the neighbor’s home to the neighborhood bar; from North County to south city; from the site of Sportsman’s Park to Sportsman’s Park in Ladue; from The Hill to The Bevo Mill; from O’Fallon, Missouri, to O’Fallon, Illinois.
As the new television broadcaster for the Cardinals, Caray will come into our homes and become part of our lives. Over the summer, you’ll spend more time hearing him talk than perhaps anyone else in your life. His larynx links the Cardinals fans to the Cardinals.
Now, I’ve never heard him call a game. Many of us in St. Louis haven’t. So we don’t fully know what we’re getting. He does have the pedigree, surely. But what entices me about the hire, announced officially Monday by both the Cardinals and Bally Sports Midwest, is his upbringing. Strip away his last name. Chip, perhaps just like you, is a kid from St. Louis County who was raised on Cardinals baseball, nourished by the team, its history, its intricacies. He studied broadcasting in college, but he got his education for this job just by growing up here, soaking up all that makes the Cardinals the Cardinals.
What made predecessor Dan McLaughlin so great — and Danny Mac really is elite — was his ability to connect with the fans on the couches. Beyond the great pipes and a flair for the dramatic, McLaughlin would weave in references to Cardinals history, make apt comparisons of current players to Cards legends or even forgotten fellows. He could fully capture a current situation by putting it in perspective with a previous one. He wasn’t just a broadcaster but a historian. He got St. Louis. He will be missed on summer nights.
But Caray is cut from the same red cloth.
“It’s the 1970s, Cardinals are on the West Coast,” said Caray, 57. “I’ve got the AM transistor radio with a single earpiece. It’s under my pillow. And the Cardinals are playing the Giants in San Francisco. I would fall asleep listening. ... My mom kept buying me batteries for my birthday and for Christmas because I ran out of them all the time. But that was the magic of the sport back then. It was such theater of the mind.”
And it remains theater — a nightly show, our favorite show, must-see TV, as if they made 162 episodes of “Friends” each year. And the theater’s master of ceremonies is Caray, the Parkway West High grad from 1983 who still remembers the frigid cold and the friggin’ Brewers fans at Busch Stadium during the 1982 World Series.
“The common theme in St. Louis is love the game, appreciation of the history, appreciation of the franchise,” said Caray, who previously was the television voice of the Atlanta Braves. “I’m beyond humbled by the graciousness of the DeWitt family for bringing me back. ... It’s a family, it’s a family affair — and I’m grateful for that. And I understand the responsibility that comes with that.”
And yes, sure, it’s undeniably cool that the new television voice of the Cardinals is the grandson of one of the famed voices of Cardinals radio. It makes for a great story. But it’s not like Chip Caray is taking over for Harry Caray. This isn’t a baton passing. The majority of people who will listen to Chip’s broadcasts never heard Harry’s Cardinals broadcasts. Now, yes, some have recollections of Harry doing the Cubs games on WGN. But it’s not like you’ll be listening to Chip because he’s the “next generation” of a Cardinals broadcaster who was part of your life.
So what matters is that Chip connects with you as Chip. And the best way to build a relationship with an audience is to know your audience. And he knows his audience because, for his formative childhood years, he was part of this audience. He worked at Rich & Charlie’s as a dishwasher. He lived in Fox Creek Estates right behind Queeny Park. His favorite player was Ted Simmons. His mom, Lila Osterkamp, now lives in St. Clair. When he was growing up, she used to cut hair — even snipped Red Schoendienst’s red locks.
And just like many other St. Louisans who leave — but still follow the Cards from afar — he’s now come back home. And so we’ll welcome him into our homes. Into our summers.
Some days, you’ll hang on to every one of his words. Other days, he’ll be on in the background as you grill with your family and friends. Maybe you’ll only catch words here and there, while you chat with a buddy with a Budweiser on a bar stool. But Chip Caray is now, suddenly and ceremoniously, the televised voice of St. Louis’ summer — when the game is on, he’s on.
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