Harry Kalas 1936-2009

A close-up of Harry Kalas wearing headphones in the broadcast booth of a stadium, looking out at the field
Original Photo: George Widman / The Associated Press © 2002.

Harry Kalas died on Monday.

If you live — or if you once lived, anytime in the past 38 years — in what they call the Greater Philadelphia Area, you’ve probably heard and almost certainly heard of Mr. Kalas. “Harry the K” was the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies for nearly four decades, so established, so resonant, and so loved that his collapse in the visitors’ press box before Washington’s home opener shocked and saddened millions.

Football fans will recognize Harry’s voice from narration on Inside the NFL. He also
did voice-over work for commercials, including the TV spot for last year’s football movie Leatherheads. But he belonged to baseball.

Mr. Kalas grew up watching the game in Chicago and after a stint announcing for the Houston Astros arrived here in April 1971. I was only six months old at the time, and
so never knew baseball without him. While not an athletic kid, lacking both the natural aptitude and the desire to continue playing much of anything beyond my tee-ball years, I enjoyed watching baseball with my grandfather during summers in Wildwood. From Camden (right across the river) to Cape May (90 minutes further down), South Jersey always got more from Philadelphia than just its vacationers: We got its TV stations, its newspapers, its Tastykakes, its sports franchises, and more or less its atty-tood about them.

I was but a lad in the days of Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Gary Maddox, and that great 1980 World Series championship — which I was too young to fully appreciate, frankly. My 10 years of age were a mere eyeblink to those fans who’d suffered for generations before the Phils’ first overall title in the franchise’s 97-year history.

To be honest, I didn’t really follow baseball until I returned to the area after college, living just outside the city and commuting daily. It’s probably strange when your avocation becomes your vocation no matter the field; I sure found it true for the world of comics, as I worked for a longtime retailer while writing freelance and experiencing
a lot of the behind-the-scenes politics and lore generally referred to as, well, “inside baseball”. The medium itself ultimately wasn’t diminished for me, but I did need to escape from it sometimes, when for most of my life it had been my escape from everything else.

Right on cue I rediscovered the stats and poetry of America’s pastime, in particular
the frenetic Phillies of 1993. That ragtag crew of bruisers (nicknamed “Macho Row”) was Harry the K’s favorite lineup, his broadcast partner Chris Wheeler said this week, probably because he shared with them the kind of blue-collar perseverance that Philadelphians loved too. And while Harry’s velvet voice could even make John Kruk’s name sound cool, nobody who has heard it will ever forget the six-syllable symphony that was his introduction of Mickey Morandini.

Harry was a maestro at the microphone, aware that a stretch of silence bringing the sounds of the ballpark to the fore is as delicious for the listener as a shaggy-dog story from Larry Anderson or the late Richie Ashburn, two former Phillies who joined Kalas in the broadcast booth to great effect. The naturally resonant baritone that he coated with scotch and cigarettes is probably most associated with one simple phrase: “Outta here!” I especially liked his sign-off after a game wrapped up — usually “Good night, everyone,” but if the game ran a moment past midnight it changed to “Good morning.” An indescribable chasm exists between those words as read on a screen and Harry’s crisp yet impish inflection, and I definitely can’t do justice to this: “The 0-2 pitch... Swing and a miss! Struck him out! The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World Champions of Baseball!”

Of course it’s ridiculous for a North American de facto monopoly to award “world championships”. I promise you, however, that when your teams are playing it’s both fiercely provincial and the most important thing in the universe. We all need diversions in life, sometimes the more ridiculous the better. The apparent insanity of being able to compartmentalize — to spend a night at the movies, thrill to a game, or burrow into a good book despite the constant and terrible injustices of the world — is what keeps us sane.

I know that an asthmatic kid crazy for comics should per the stereotype be ignorant
of sports, but take a summer breeze, pipe in Harry Kalas reporting a Curt Schilling strikeout or Jimmy Rollins’ latest stolen base, and you have for me a taste of heaven. God rest your soul, Mr. K.

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