The Voice, The Echoes, The Silence

April 14, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

In general, it is not my way to feel great sorrow when someone dies with whom I do not have a personal relationship. A case in point: movie actors. With Heath Ledger and Natasha Richardson, there was a sense of shock and sympathetic sadness for family and friends, but nothing deeper. With Paul Newman, there was a greater feeling of regret, but not one that seeped into my day-to-day activities. The reason? Perhaps it's because they are actors. It's the performances they give and the characters they play we connect with, not the individuals behind the mask. Sure, some actors put a lot of themselves into their work, but many are completely divorced from the men and women they portray. It's faulty thinking to believe you "know" an actor based on a well-loved performance. Peter Sellers is a great example. By all accounts, Sellers was a miserable person - a nasty piece of work who abused women and rarely had a nice thing to say. Yet some of his characters are admired, loved, and remembered.

So it's hard for me to remember many instances in which the death of a public figure has hit me as hard as a death in the family… until yesterday. Those of you who grew up with Harry Carry in Chicago, or Mel Allen or Bob Murphy in New York, or Vin Scully in Los Angeles, or Tom Brenneman in Cincinnati, or Ernie Harwell in Detroit, or Jack Buck in Saint Louis, or any long-time baseball announcer in any city will understand where I'm coming from. Others will be mystified. Read on… perhaps you'll get a sense of how my perspective has been shaped.

Anyone who lives in or around Philadelphia knows the name of Harry Kalas. In fact, many people across the United States and around the world recognize the voice, if not the name. For 38 years, Harry - or HK or Harry the K - was the lead radio and television broadcaster for the Philadelphia Phillies. At various times during his 45-year career, he was also a radio football play-by-play man (for Notre Dame and the NFL), the voice of NFL films (for the last 25 years, following in the indelible footsteps of John Facenda), and a spokesperson for Campbell's soup. He died yesterday as he lived, collapsing in a baseball broadcast booth preparing for a game. Listening to his colleagues struggle through that game without him, tearful on the radiocast and more composed but no less emotional on the telecast, was perhaps the most difficult thing I have experienced associated with a sporting event. The Phillies won the game, 9-8, but did anyone really care about the score or the result? In the long run, if the Phillies make the post-season by only a game or two, it will matter. But for the moment, it's like dining on ashes.

During his time in Philadelphia, HK broadcast more than 6000 games, spanning the period between 1971 and 2009. I didn't start listening to him until 1984 but I have been a fan for my entire adult life. He was with me when I went to college. He accompanied me on my porch or to the "cooler by a mile" dunes of Avalon during countless summer evenings. He was my companion on those many long, late evening commutes from movie screenings in Philadelphia to my home in central New Jersey from the mid-'90s until two years ago (when I moved closer).

The thing about baseball announcers - the good ones, at least - is that you get to know them. The sport is such that there's enough time in between pitches and batters for anecdotes and storytelling, and no one was better at that than HK. He could make you stay glued to the radio even when the game was a blowout. What his listeners got, night after night, summer after summer, was not a performance but a sense of the man. So it's unsurprising that his death leaves a bigger hole than does the passage of even the most recognizable movie star. For all of his folksy charm and small-town values, who among us can claim to have known Jimmy Stewart? But millions of people knew Harry Kalas, and he wouldn't have had it any other way.

Back in the '90s, when I was a Phillies season ticket holder, my seat in the old Vet was located directly beneath the broadcast booth, so the only time I saw Harry was during the seventh inning stretch, when he would lean out and toss bags of peanuts to the crowd below. But I brought a small radio to every game and listened to those innings when Harry was doing play-by-play. No disrespect to Andy Musser and Chris Wheeler, but their voice work, professional as it was, was generic. They described the games; Harry brought them to life. Harry may have lost something when his best friend and broadcast partner of 26 years, Rich Ashburn, died of a heart attack in 1997, but he remained The Voice for another dozen years.

Last year, the Phillies won the World Series. During the final inning of the last game, I turned down the volume on the TV set and turned up the volume on the radio. There was no way I was going to miss his call of the final out. I wonder how many people in or around Philadelphia did the same thing. Joe Buck and Tim McCarver are competent announcers, fine for calling play-by-play and describing action, but they're not HK. That was a moment I wanted to share with the man who had in so many ways defined the Phillies for me (and millions others) for so long. Players came and went, seasons passed, ballparks rose and fell, but the one constant was Harry Kalas.

For those of us who put our words into a public forum, whether radio, television, print, or Internet, it's worth remembering that those words form a bond with individuals we have never met or may never meet in person. My wife, for example, "knew" me long before I ever corresponded with her. True, I reach only thousands while Harry touched millions, but I understand the connection from both sides. I never shook hands with Harry, but he was like a family member; I knew him even if he did not know me. I don't know most of those reading this column but hopefully you feel you know me. I write with an audience in mind and a certain humbling recognition that people out there are devoting precious minutes absorbing what I have written.

Over the course of my life, I have - like all people - lost many of those near and dear to me. Death, when it comes unexpectedly, can be a cruel and bewildering thing. You see a person laughing and joking then, an hour later, they're gone. You read an e-mail or hear a voice message from someone after their capacity to communicate has been extinguished. I do not mourn Harry as forcefully as I did my grandparents (for example), but his death has struck a stronger blow than I would have expected. That's what happens when a man becomes a background cornerstone in your life. You expect he will always be there; one day he is gone. The Voice is no more. Now, there are only echoes, then silence.