Paul Hagen: Even as a kid, Kalas had an air about him

Harry Kalas in the broadcast booth at the Vet in 1975, 4 years after arriving.
Harry Kalas in the broadcast booth at the Vet in 1975, 4 years after arriving.
Posted: April 14, 2009

WASHINGTON - Did Harry Kalas have time for lunch? Of course he did. Never mind that it was January and bitterly cold. Never mind that he was busy with NFL Films and had heart surgery scheduled in a couple weeks.

Kalas, the Phillies' Hall of Fame broadcaster, always seemed to have time for everybody. For each fan who stopped him at spring training and asked for a photo, each one who pestered him on his way to his car after a game and asked for an autograph. For almost anybody who wanted almost anything.

So, 3 months ago, he agreed to take time to come to the Towne House restaurant near his home in Media for an interview. Maybe a book would come out of it. Even if it didn't, there are plenty of worse ways to spend an hour or so on a wintry afternoon than listening to Harry the K's distinctive voice spinning baseball stories.

Many of the tales that occurred after he came to Philadelphia in 1971 have been well-documented. His 39 seasons with the Phillies came to define him, at least in the Delaware Valley.

Less well known is his life before being lured away from the Houston Astros. The childhood in Naperville, Ill., that had its share of trauma. The climb to the big leagues.

By the time Harry was born, his father, the Rev. Harry Kalas, was a busy man, spending a lot of time on the road for the World Council of Churches and working on the merging of churches for the Evangelical United Brethren of Methodists.

"Just because of his travel, we didn't really get a chance to talk that much or spend that much time together," Harry recalled while graciously chatting with patrons who recognized his distinctive voice and wanted to say hello.

His mother, Margaret, was a college graduate, unusual for women in those days. She was an avid reader and loved the opera. But she was also somewhat distant. Harry needed to find ways to amuse himself. One of his first great loves was a dog, a fox terrier named Squiffy. Harry, who was about 8 or 9 years old at the time, called him Skee for short.

"He was so attached to me and I was so attached to Squiffy that every time I came home from school, we'd just play for a while," Harry said. "He knew where my school was. Well, Mom took ill and she was unable to take care of Squiffy. So we had to give him away, which was a heartbreak for me. I was just a young boy. We gave him away to a family.

"But, as I said, Squiffy knew where my school was. And every day when I came out of school, he'd be there waiting for me. He'd come home with me and then we'd have to take him to his new owners. This happened for a period of almost 3 weeks.

"Well, unfortunately, to get to the school from his new home, Squiffy had to cross a highway. And after a few weeks of this, he was hit by a car and killed. That broke my heart."

More heartbreak followed. Margaret required shock treatment. Soon, Harry had to move to Detroit to stay with an aunt. He'd be gone for a year.

He would sit for hours by himself, playing the Ethan Allen All-Star baseball game and announcing it to himself. "It had disks and a spinner. It was like, 1 is a home run, 2 is a ground-ball doubleplay, 3 is an error, 4 is a popup, all the way up to 14. And each number meant a different thing," he explained.

"Well, the disks were of All-Star players from both the National and American leagues. I used to make up my own teams. White Sox. Cubs. Washington Senators. And I'd announce them to myself. Even as a kid, I'd announce games to myself with that baseball-board game."

By the time he graduated from Naperville High School, he had developed a more active social life. He went to Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, because it was a church-affiliated school and he got half off his tuition. It was there that he first became interested in broadcasting, which led to a transfer to the University of Iowa.

On the day he graduated, he returned to the Phil Delta Theta frat house, where he had been president, to say goodbye to his friends. He was ready to go out in the world and begin his broadcasting career. Instead, he found a letter that would change his life again. He had been drafted.

"I went over to check my mailbox and there was my welcome from Uncle Sam," he said.

That worked out, too. He was sent over to Hawaii in a battle group, the 27th Infantry Wolfhounds, as a mortarman and recoilless rifleman. He had only been there 3 weeks when he heard that headquarters was looking for a broadcast specialist. He applied, and got the job.

Serendipity again. He wasn't supposed to get out until August 1961. The Hawaii Islanders were just starting up, but couldn't wait. A friendly officer pointed out an exemption for "seasonal employment." His request was granted and he was on his way.

Minor league announcers didn't travel in those days. Kalas would re-create the games from a bare-bones Western Union play-by-play.

Harry was young and single at the time. So, if he had a date or was just in a hurry to get to Bill Whaley's South Pacific or another bar in Honolulu, well, those games would just fly by. "If I had a date or something to do, those games would be over in an hour-and-a-half. Every batter would be first-ball swinging," he said with a laugh.

A Japanese man named Mackay Yanagisawa was part owner of the Islanders. At his own expense, he would take Kalas to the winter meetings on the mainland even though he knew it increased the chances that Kalas would find a big-league job.

"So in 1964, the winter meetings were in Houston," he said. "I got to meet some of the people with the Houston Astros, then the Colt .45s. They were about to open the Astrodome in 1965 and become the Astros and were going to add to their broadcast crew. So I applied and got the job."

Next stop: Philadelphia. But it was getting late, lunch was long gone and Harry had things to do. We said we'd talk again.

The book didn't happen. But another great memory of a celebrated man who seemed to have time for everybody did. And that's worth a lot, too. *

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