Somebody stole the Liberty Bell today

Harry Kalas waves to fans before a ceremony that honored him in 2002. Kalas, in his 39th season as broadcasting the Phillies, collapsed in the broadcast booth in Washington around 12:20 p.m. and died after being rushed to a nearby hospital. He was 73.
Harry Kalas waves to fans before a ceremony that honored him in 2002. Kalas, in his 39th season as broadcasting the Phillies, collapsed in the broadcast booth in Washington around 12:20 p.m. and died after being rushed to a nearby hospital. He was 73.
Posted: April 14, 2009

Somebody stole the Liberty Bell yesterday, unhooked it from its case, and carted it off when no one was looking. We won't see the Liberty Bell ever again, and a part of us all, of what makes our city special, is lost.

They sawed William Penn from the peak of City Hall yesterday, too, right about midday, right about the same time. The planter's hat and the flowing coat, the beneficent smile bestowed upon his little green town. We won't look up and see Billy again, and the skyline will never look right.

A bulldozer rumbled down the parkway during the lunch traffic and it took out the steps at the Art Museum. Putting in elevators or some such refinement. No more running up the steps, no more lounging on the steps. No more steps at the Art Museum, and we always intended to take one more jog to the top and turn and see the city.

They filled in the Schuylkill and razed the boathouses, closed the pretzel factories, and turned off the cheesesteak grills. They closed Forbidden Drive, paved Fairmount Park, and made people stop parking in the middle of Broad Street.

It all happened yesterday.

The day Harry Kalas died at the ballpark.

"We lost Harry," team president Dave Montgomery said. "We lost our voice."

We lost Harry on the road, which is very nearly home to the baseball lifers like Kalas. We lost Harry as he was preparing for another game, this one in Washington. He would have had his scorebook and his notes in the booth with him, and the statistical numbers and columns that supply the canvas of a game for which artists like Kalas can add the brushstrokes.

He didn't get to see this game, but, probably, he had seen it before. He had seen them all.

The Phillies will do their best to honor him, but there is no statue that can be erected more impressive or lasting than the indelible body of Kalas' work. He was a comfort in time of need - and Phils' fans know all about that - and a friend in the darkness of a drive through the night. He was the narrator of a city's soundtrack, the background conversation at countless events in millions of lives.

People asked Harry to put his voice on their answering machines. They handed him telephones and asked him to wish their wives a happy birthday. They spun the radio dials, caught just a word, perhaps just a name - WAAAH-rin Cro-MAAAHR-tee - and knew where they were. They were at the corner of Kalas and Baseball, and there was no finer intersection at which to spend time.

Harry's voice wasn't gravel, but it had an edge. It knew things and knew that you knew them, too. It wasn't a Philadelphian's voice, by any stretch. He kept the round Midwestern pronunciations he grew up hearing in Naperville, Ill. But Kalas liked to play with the words, to put them together and turn them into dramatic recitations that were his alone.

A simple baseball call like "Swing and a miss, struck him out" became a magical victory of good over evil, the emphasis punching through just as the ball had punched through the batter. That very phrasing was the final play-by-play from Kalas that most Phillies fans will remember, as Brad Lidge ended the 2008 season, and Kalas declared the team world champions.

We will hear it only in retrospect now, that wonderful instrument he possessed. Just as nature blesses pitchers with great arms and batters with great hand-to-eye coordination, something was given to Kalas at birth that he couldn't really take credit for, but he could certainly put to good use.

A couple of years ago, I was in line at the Wawa, getting some coffee, on the way to the airport and an Eagles road game. A dozen others shuffled around the store, look for their own coffee, getting through another gray morning. And then the voice boomed out, seemingly from the heavens.

"Aren't you sup-POSED to be in In-DEE-ah-NAP-olis by now?"

People almost dropped their coffee, and their eyes darted to the ceiling and all around. Of course, it was just Harry, three back in the line, holding his coffee, having some fun. And everyone had a story to tell when they finally got to the office.

"Hneh, hneh, hneh," Harry snickered.

He could laugh, but that snicker was more what he was about. It was the expression of an insider, someone who got the joke more than even the teller might realize.

Harry got it all. He got baseball, and he got life on the road. He got how lucky he was to have that voice that everyone knew and that manner that made everyone his friend. He got Philadelphia, got it so well that he became part of the civic landscape. He got us, and that's not easy.

The birds stopped singing in Rittenhouse Square yesterday. The tugboats on the Delaware couldn't sound their horns. When the carriage horses took their customers past Independence Hall, there was no clop-clopping on the cobblestones. The factory whistle wouldn't let anyone leave work. Kids burst from their school rooms and didn't utter a peep.

Philadelphia went quiet yesterday afternoon. Harry Kalas died at the ballpark, and the city lost its voice.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://philly.com/postpatterns.

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