Cold Calling Harry Caray

We have lots of links surrounding the Mariners and Rainiers down below, as the spring training media machine keeps churning. I don’t have anything to add to those links today, so instead I’ll tell a story about Harry Caray, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Saturday.

I was a huge fan of Caray when he was Cubs TV announcer at the end of his career. His daily national telecasts on WGN were a soundtrack to my college years. I think most baseball fans from the 80s and 90s enjoyed the old-man-who-doesn’t-care candor he brought to the booth.

I had the privilege of meeting Harry in 1998. I think that the story of how this happened is kind of entertaining, so here goes.

I was working for the Class-A team in Rancho Cucamonga, California in 1998. We met Harry because of the actions of a sales guy we had named Mike Junga, who was a big Caray fan.

Junga had one of the crucial jobs for any minor league baseball team: sales. His job was to sit in a cubicle and make phone calls to strangers all day long, trying to sell season tickets, group tickets, and luxury suite rentals. That was his job: show up for work, make a hundred cold calls, try to sell a few tickets, go home. Not the most exciting gig in baseball, but Junga had a creative mind and he would do things to spice up the day.

The ticket office had stacks of phone books for areas all around Rancho Cucamonga. Knowing that Caray had a winter home in nearby Palm Springs, Junga grabbed the appropriate phone book, looked under the C’s, and there it was: Caray – no first initial, no address, but a phone number.

To entertain himself between cold calls, Junga decided to call the Caray number. He called once in the morning, and again in the afternoon. The phone rang and rang, but nobody picked up. There was no answering machine.

Junga did this every day for a while before telling a few of us about it. Once a group of about four of us team employees were at lunch (probably at Nancy’s Cafe; seems like we always went there), and Junga told us what he was doing. Someone brought up an important question: what was he going to do if Harry ever answered the phone?

We kicked it around and eventually decided that if anyone ever answered the phone at the Caray house, Junga would identify himself as a Rancho Cucamonga Quakes employee, and see if Harry would be willing to sign a few baseballs for our annual charity auction.

Then we all forgot about it – except for Junga.

He kept calling and calling the Caray number, and it would always ring with no answer. He knew Harry lived in Chicago and the Palm Springs house was a winter getaway. The winter was winding down.

The calls became routine for Mike. He didn’t even get excited about it anymore, but he kept trying. One day in January it happened.

Junga had dialed this number a hundred times during the off-season, so when someone actually picked up the phone, it was a total shock.

Harry: “Hello?”

There was no question it was Harry Caray. That voice was instantly recognizable.

Stunned Mike Junga: “Harry! It’sMikeJungawiththeRanchoCucamonga-QuakesandI’mcallingtoseeif”

Harry: “SLOW DOWN!”

Mike calmed down and had a pleasant conversation with Harry. Harry agreed to meet us and sign a few baseballs for our charity auction – but only if we met him at his place. It was about 45 minutes away.

The conversation ended with Harry Caray giving my friend directions to his house. At the end of the lefts and rights, Harry says “It’s the house with a cow on the mailbox.”

Two days later, Mike, myself, and our VP of Finance Jay Middleton (a huge baseball fan who was not missing this) drove out to Harry Caray’s winter home. Sure enough, the mailbox was painted to look like a cow.

We knocked on the door at the appointed time, and were let in by Harry’s wife Dutchie. She took us out back by the pool, where Harry was sitting in the shade, with about five newspapers stacked up next to him.*

Harry was very friendly. He asked a few questions about our team, which was a Padres affiliate at the time. He signed our baseballs. I asked him a question or two about how he got started in baseball. Then I went for the home run.

I was hoping Harry would record a “liner” for me – just him saying, “This is Harry Caray, and you are listening to Rancho Cucamonga Quakes baseball with Mike Curto.” How awesome would that be?

Harry politely declined. He said that other than the Cubs, he had an exclusive with Budweiser for any promotional voiceovers. “I’ve been with Budweiser for many years and I’m not doing anything that might mess that up.”

We each had our picture taken with Harry, said our thank-yous, and left. We spent the 45-minute drive home basking in how awesome it was to have just visited with Harry Caray.

Three weeks later, Harry passed away. He suffered a heart attack while having Valentines Day dinner with his wife. He was 83.

Harry is on the right.

Happy 100th, Harry.

Links:

  • The Mariners starting rotation is in disarray, as it is becoming more evident that neither Hisashi Iwakuma nor Taijuan Walker will be ready for opening day.
  • The door is open for Randy Wolf to walk into the Mariners starting rotation. All he needs to do is perform.
  • Apparently Ryan Divish was feeling extra-inspired while writing this excellent story on Danny Hultzen‘s spring training.
  • Good stuff from Shannon Drayer on James Paxton, who improved his delivery by watching video of Clayton Kershaw.
  • New TNT Mariners writer Bob Dutton took some fan questions from Twitter and gave longer, more elaborate answers on his blog on Friday. There is some solid insight from spring training camp here.
  • Dutton has a story on the battle between Nick Franklin and Brad Miller, with the title “Winner to Seattle, Loser to Tacoma.”
  • Jon Heyman of CBS Sports talked to Robinson Cano about improving the Mariners. Cano has some specific ideas – all of which involve raising the payroll from last year. It is unclear if the M’s are willing to do this.
  • Cano’s comments spurred Art Thiel to write a column on the issue.
  • Some exhibition game notes: yesterday, potential Rainiers infielder Gabriel Noriega – known for his smooth glove – had a rough inning defensively in a loss to Cleveland… Saturday, new dudes Cano and Logan Morrison had multiple hits in a win over the Angels… and on Friday, likely 2014 Rainiers James Jones and Nate Tenbrink homered in a 12-1 wipeout of San Diego.
  • Here’s another good story: Tim Booth previews Russell Wilson‘s appearance at Ranger spring training, which started today. He talks to Mariners minor leaguers who played with and against Wilson in college.
  • Catch up with Ichiro right here. He doesn’t really have a role with the Yankees this year, but he plans to play “many more seasons.”
  • John McGrath dropped by Cheney Stadium this weekend and talked to UW pitcher and draft prospect Jeff Brigham.
  • We’ll close with a fun one: Jeff Sullivan looked at all three bunt doubles that were hit in the majors last year. One of them came on a very smart play by Cano. The third one is simply hilarious.

Check back Wednesday for our final positional preview. We’ll take a look at the Raniers bullpen candidates.

* Pre-internet, that’s how baseball announcers did their research: by acquiring as many different sports pages as possible.

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2 Responses to Cold Calling Harry Caray

  1. Mac says:

    Great Story!

  2. Mark Bushnell says:

    Mike, Great that you got to meet him. I am also a big fan of his.

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