Harry the K's inspiring legacy

Yong Kim / Staff
Yong Kim / Staff
Posted: April 19, 2009

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer columnist

There is a palpable rhythm to a baseball game, a leisurely, languorous, measured pace that builds to a peak, then subsides, then repeats, like the slow certainty of the tides.

Its narrative is best served up by a rich, burnished baritone, a voice that evokes Moroccan leather, say, or polished mahogany, a voice that understands this is a game for the long run, not one to be force-fed to the audience but rather allowed to develop on its own, a voice attuned to a sedate unfolding, a voice that understands when to get out of the way and when to step center stage.

A voice like Harry Kalas.

He was taken from us this week past, but he left behind an inspiring legacy, a 73-year example of sustained excellence and unassuming, unaffected modesty. The sport could use more Harry the K's. And the real world most definitely could use more of his gentlemanly kind.

The best practitioners of his craft understand that they serve as an emotional umbilical between their teams and the fans. In the minds of those listeners and viewers, Harry Kalas was the Phillies, just as Merrill Reese is the Eagles, just as the late Gene Hart was the Flyers, and just as Bill Campbell was the voice of baseball and basketball and any number of sporting endeavors in Philadelphia.

The best respect is the unspoken covenant between fan and messenger, a bond of trust and emotional investment. They recognize that the people open their homes to them . . . their homes and very often their hearts.

And, invariably, from time to time they admit in private to a sense of wonderment at their great good fortune.

"I feel like I'm stealing, doing what I love and getting paid for it," Gene Hart said.

His sport was new to Philadelphia, so he was not only narrator but educator, and his delivery, a frenzied nonstop machine-gun play-by-play, was the polar opposite of Harry the K's, and for good reason - the Blade Runners play at a frenetic pace.

Hockey on the radio? It shouldn't work, but Gene made it work, and when you heard "the Flyers are skating left to right on your dial" you swear you saw it.

He was a genuine Renaissance man, a world traveler, a lover of the arts, with a fondness for opera. (One of his proudest moments was as a spear carrier at the Metropolitan Opera.) He also called the races at the now defunct Brandywine Raceway. If life was a buffet, Gene sampled every item, and did so with undisguised gusto.

For nearly three decades the Iggles, the city's enduring passion, have been under the tender, loving care of Merrill Reese, who does play-by-play with just the right pause-violence-pause-violence syncopation that forms the perfect soundtrack for a sport that has made itself enormously popular by employing this simple formula: Speed times mass equals ka-boom!

Merrill uses all 88 piano keys, soaring from majestically ecstatic heights to dark, rumbling despair, and in so doing has spawned hordes of green-faced imitators: "It's g-o-o-o-o-o-o-d!"

One image that remains with me is his game-day ritual before the Vet was reduced to rubble. We'd both be there hours before kickoff, and Merrill would be staring at an empty field, playing the game in his mind, having committed to memory all the names and all the numbers the night before. The best ones are defined by their preparation - if you haven't done your homework, you'll be exposed soon enough. No place to hide on the airways.

Harry the K understood that. So did Bill Campbell, "Soupy" to friends, of whom he collected many in an impressively long and decorated career.

"Every once in a while," he told me once, "before a big game, I'd think: How lucky can you be, being here, doing this? I had this overwhelming sense of gratitude. This isn't a job, it's a privilege. To many fans, you become like a member of the family."

Harry the K understood. He said among his greatest treasures was a man who told him, his voice thick with emotion: "You know, when I hear your voice I remember summer nights in our backyard with my father."

What a gift, what a privilege, to inspire such memories.

We were both born and raised in Illinois. Harry got to Philly, by way of Houston, in 1971. I came here in '72. We were naïve pilgrims from the heartland, delivered unceremoniously smack into the bewildering, overwhelming home of "Yo, pal, move it or lose it!"

Harry the K shook my hand, smiled, and said: "Culture shock, huh?"

I nodded numbly, still adrift.

"Don't worry," he said, reassuringly. "You're gonna love it here. I already do. Wait and see. It'll be just like home."

And so it was. And so it was Harry the K who helped make it so.

For a lot of us.

We are forever indebted.


E-mail Bill Lyon at lyon1964@comcast.net.

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