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Holy Cow! Harry's Back Behind the Mike : Cub Fans Welcome Caray's Return Three Months After Stroke

May 20, 1987|RON BERLER | Special to The Times

CHICAGO — Harry Caray was growing increasingly nervous. He was halfway through his first Chicago Cub broadcast since suffering a stroke Feb. 17, and below his booth, Wrigley Field was poised for song and mania. He had already been honored in a pregame ceremony during which Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson proclaimed the afternoon Harry Caray Day. Harry even received a best-wishes, on-the-air phone call from former Cub announcer Ronald Reagan.

But now it was the top of the sixth inning, and though the Cubs were comfortably ahead of the Cincinnati Reds, 6-1 (they would eventually win, 9-1), Caray was beginning to feel anxious. It was nearly time for his signature song--"Take Me Out to the Ballgame," which he sings during every seventh-inning stretch--and he had yet to really re-connect with his true constituency, the fans.

"You know what I'm thinking about?" he asked Lou Boudreau, his radio partner. "I don't know if I can remember the words." Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. Nobody who was there could say for sure. But what occurred was overwhelming.

First, there was the chanting. It began with two outs in the top of the seventh, with the quickness and intensity of a summer squall. Red shortstop Barry Larkin fouled a second strike into the box seats near home plate, and 28,890 fans started to rhythmically shout and stamp their feet.

On the next pitch, Larkin flew out to Andre Dawson in right field, and around the ballpark, the fans stood and thundered: "Har-ry!, Har-ry!, Har-ry!" The screams and shrieks that commenced when he finally started singing nearly drowned him out.

"I had goosebumps coming up on me," Boudreau said.

Caray is still not entirely recovered from the stroke that temporarily paralyzed his right hand and right foot. He was hoping for a quieter return to the game he has called for 43 years--the last five in the employ of the Cubs.

Once before, Caray returned dramatically from sick bay. It was opening day, 1969, his 25th and final year announcing for the St. Louis Cardinals. He was struck by a car the previous November and suffered two broken legs, a broken shoulder and a fractured nose. On the day of the opener, he hobbled from the Cardinal dugout, supported by two canes. When he reached the foul line, he tossed one cane away. The stadium erupted. As he neared the mound, he tossed aside the other and raised his arms triumphantly over his head. Pandemonium ensued.

"But that was show-biz," Caray explained before Tuesday's game. "I had been fully healed for two weeks but this . . . the first couple weeks I had my doubts about coming back. I was really down in the dumps. You know, I just could never understand what a stroke is. I still don't know. I can see myself dropping dead from a heart attack, but stroke . . . I just never recognized the word.

"This is all still strange now. Today, I just wanted to slip into the park and call the game."

Caray sounded at times a little tired, a bit weak. The Cubs arranged a Monday press conference for him so he wouldn't have to face reporters before calling the game.

He had some fun with that. He said to a television medical reporter, "Want to hear what I did in voice therapy class? Pa, pa, pa, pa, pa. Ta, ta, ta, ta, ta. La, la, la, la, la. Ka, ka, ka, ka, ka."

But Tuesday, he was quieter. He arrived at the ballpark about 10 a.m. and visited the Cub clubhouse. "He didn't say that much other than, 'Hi, how are you?' to anyone," center fielder Bob Dernier said. "But you could see it in his face, how happy he was just to be back in the ballpark."

A little after 10:30, he emerged onto the field to interview Manager Gene Michael for the pregame show.

"I don't remember how we do this," Caray said to his soundman. "Is it 2 1/2 minutes?" He took the microphone and, like a drag racer, cleared his pipes. Arrch. Arrrrrch, went his throat. He finished and beamed at Michael. Harry Caray was ready to begin the season.

He offered his first birthday greeting the second batter of the game. His first tavern plug came during the next batter. His first get-well wish came during batter No. 4.

"You can't beat fun at the old ballpark," Caray said.

"Is he 100%?" his TV partner Steve Stone asked a few minutes later. "I'm sure he has the first-day jitters. I hope he realizes he doesn't have to earn anybody's credibility. I know he'll say he wants to go on the road and do every pitch of every inning. That's Harry. But this is not a cold he's coming back from. This is a serious situation. I hope he can listen to his body. He's never listened to his body before."

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