In retrospect, April 5, 1982 was one of the most important days in the history of the Chicago Cubs franchise. Which is a hell of a claim to make about an Opening Day for a team that went on to lose 89 games and finish in fifth place.
But that seemingly innocuous afternoon became a turning point in team history for two reasons. Up in the WGN-TV booth, Harry Caray began calling play-by-play for the first time on a Cubs telecast to save us all from Milo Hamilton, a broadcaster whose style could best be described as “the sound beige makes.”
Meanwhile, batting seventh that afternoon and announcing his presence with authority by going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts was a 22 year old third baseman named Ryne Sandberg. Which was the kind of result that could happen when they wouldn’t let him make his debut against Bruce Sutter. Over the next 16 years, Caray and Sandberg would be joined at the hip as the two most important figures of Chicago Cubs baseball. But theirs was more than just a “broadcaster narrating the otherworldly feats of an all-time great” relationship.
Because as they grew into their respective roles defining that era for the Cubs, Caray also found himself playing an important part in helping Sandberg ascend to his place as one of the greatest second baseman of all time. Simply put: Caray became the public face of the franchise which allowed Sandberg time away from the spotlight to do the work necessary to become a Hall of Famer.
As anyone of my generation who remembers the phrase “Hi, I’m Ryne Sandberg for Chrysler/Plymouth” can verify, Sandberg often appeared to be as uncomfortable off the field as he was effortless on it. He frequently shied away from the media and when he did give interviews, he always sounded like he was one sentence away from mumbling “K-BILLY’s Super Sounds of the 70s continues...” But as he later revealed in his Hall of Fame induction speech, this was actually something of a deliberate decision he had made:
“I know I wasn’t the best interview for many of those years but I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I had other things on my mind. Baseball wasn’t easy for me. I struggled many times when maybe it didn’t look like I was struggling. And I had to work hard every day. I had to prepare mentally every day. I had to prepare physically every day. And I didn’t leave many scraps for the writers.”
Now obviously, it wasn’t as if taking a few extra grounders every day was keeping Sandberg from turning into Mark Grace. For one thing, the two were separated by 109 home runs and 30,000 Marlboro miles. Sandberg was naturally reticent to begin with and combined with the pressure he felt to live up to the incredible standards he’d set for himself, he eventually decided that creating a public persona for media consumption wasn’t worth his time or effort. Sandberg elaborated in his autobiography that “Over the years, I saw guys do things that weren’t natural for them, and they lost track of what they were supposed to do on the field.” That was the fear that drove him to focus on preparation over self-aggrandizement.
Paradoxically, the better Sandberg got, the more he felt he had to do to maintain that level of greatness. For most fans, The Sandberg Game marked the day he arrived as a superstar. But for Sandberg, that day also brought a kind of self-imposed pressure he’d never experienced before:
“No question about it, from that game on, life was different. After that game, Whitey Herzog said I was the best player he had ever seen. He was caught in the moment and exaggerated, but that’s how it came out. Well, I read that the next day and I was thinking I had to play really well the rest of the year so I didn’t let him down or make a guy like that eat his words when he had built me up. I took that compliment personally and really took off after that.”
In other words, Sandberg heard Herzog say “He’s the best player I’ve ever seen” and thought, “Well, I guess I’ve got to be the best player he’s ever seen every day now.” All of this meant that as Sandberg became a superstar, he decided that the only way to maintain that level of play was to devote more of himself to preparation and give even less time to the press. And in a big media market like Chicago, that could have been a problem.
Ever since he began his career with the Cardinals, Caray had been one of the biggest showmen in the industry and often did whatever he could to be the center of attention--the exact opposite of Sandberg. Up until he joined the Cubs, Caray made his reputation as the hyper-critical “voice of the fans.” Even in his very first days broadcasting in St. Louis as a staff announcer, Caray remembered how he decided to stand out from the competition: “I started ripping everybody in sight...Everything that was accepted as popular I tried to make unpopular. Everything that was unpopular, well, I was on their bandwagon. It was a calculated thing to make people know you’re there. And it worked.”
It’s a little hard to imagine Harry Caray as “Colin Cowherd, but drunk” but in truth, that’s how he was viewed through his Cardinals and White Sox days. Caray never hesitated to go off on his team in the middle of a broadcast and openly carried on feuds with players like Ken Boyer and Bill Melton.
But that changed when he crossed over and took the lead announcing job for the Cubs. According to biographer Don Zminda, while Caray was secretly negotiating the deal with the Tribune Company, Dallas Green asked to meet with him before giving his approval. Green later remembered, “All I said was I don’t mind at all the normal play-by-play, say if the player doesn’t have his sunglasses on and should have. That’s fine. But I didn’t want to get into personalities and the personal side of things...I think he recognized what he had to do.”
Because Caray was going through a falling out with Jerry Reinsdorf on the south side and wanted to do what he could to stick it to the then-new White Sox owner, he agreed to tone it down and help sell Cubs baseball when he took the job at Wrigley Field. And he only became more determined to do so when the Sox clinched their division in 1983 and Reinsdorf dunked on him during the locker room celebration, proclaiming “Wherever you’re at, Harry...I hope people realize what scum you are.”
Holy cow. Usually when Reinsdorf uses that term to address someone, it’s because they did something really despicable like joining the players union.
Now Caray had all the motivation in the world to become the loudest and most boisterous salesman the Cubs had ever seen--the famous “Cub fan, Bud man.” All he needed was a player worthy of all of the considerable hype, bluster, and enthusiasm he could generate. Then one late-June day in 1984, the Cubs entered the bottom of the tenth trailing Sutter and the Cardinals by two runs.
And as Sandberg trotted around the bases following his second game tying homer off the Cardinals’ unhittable closer in as many innings, Caray could hardly contain himself, bellowing in all caps: “HE DID IT AGAIN! HE DID IT AGAIN! THE GAME IS TIED! THE GAME IS TIED!...HOLY COW, WHAT WOULD THE ODDS BE IF I TOLD YOU THAT TWICE SANDBERG WOULD HIT HOME RUNS OFF BRUCE SUTTER?”
From that point forward, their roles were set. Sandberg would perform ever-more-spectacular feats at the plate, at second base, and on defense but would never talk about them. While up in the press box, Harry would take on the role of Sandberg’s hype man, elevating him to national prominence for more than a decade.
For the next 14 years, fans across the nation were treated to a daily telecast of Sandberg’s excellence underscored with a soundtrack led by a charismatic broadcasting legend who doubled as his number one fan...
“The 1-1 pitch...double play ball!...Nice play, out at second...CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN! A GREAT PLAY BY SANDBERG!...WHAT A PLAY TO END A GREAT BALLGAME ON! We’re gonna have to show you that play again! The ball was hit like a bullet up the middle. You knew if Sandberg could come up with it, we’d have a chance at the double play!”
--Harry exploded with hosannas over a Sandberg speciality: the lunging stab going far to his right to turn what would have been a ninth inning game-tying single from Mike Schmidt into a game-ending double play. (August 1, 1987)
“Ryno will finish the day on base three times, one out of three, a two-run homer, three runs batted in, and the distinction of having done something that NO OTHER CUB PLAYER...just think of the many great stars who played in Chicago...the only man to do it...Hack Wilson back in 1928 hit homers in five straight games. And that now is what Sandberg has done!”
--After Sandberg homered in his fifth straight game, Harry got so carried away that he briefly lost track of both Hack Wilson’s existence and the rules of spoken English. (August 11, 1989)
“Just think of this. Here’s a man who’s hit more home runs than any second baseman in history. You know, when I saw that figure the first time, I said to myself, ‘Gee whiz, don’t these people know Rogers Hornsby was a second baseman?’ Yes, Rogers Hornsby was a great hitter, a great second baseman, but Ryno outdid him...
“Ryne Sandberg, if you analyze the second base position, everything a man could possibly do, he would rate one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two. That’s why I say from the bottom of my heart, not only the greatest gentleman I’ve ever met, but the greatest second baseman I know that ever lived.”
--Harry’s speech at Ryne Sandberg Day proved that by the end of their careers, he had promoted himself from hype man to “Ryno’s Extremely Rickey Henderson voice.” (September 20, 1997)
Ryne Sandberg Day would also be the last weekend that both Sandberg and Caray would work at Wrigley Field. They started their Cubs careers on the same day and it was only fitting that they would finish together. In between, they found an arrangement that worked out better than than the Cubs could ever have imagined.
Because one of the most popular broadcasters in the sport’s history spent a decade and a half proclaiming that this was the best player he had seen since Stan Musial, that meant everyone in baseball knew about Sandberg’s greatness without him having to say a word. That in turn left Sandberg the time to do the work he knew was necessary in order to make a decade’s worth of All Star teams, set triple digit errorless streaks, and create his own personal sections of the MLB record book like “first player in history to have both a 40 homer and a 50 steal season in his career.”
Sandberg recognized the important role Caray played and summed up their relationship as well as anyone: “It was as if we were all on a mission to change the image of the Cubs and Harry’s enthusiasm was a big part of that.” Left unspoken, of course, was that in order for that image change to happen, the Cubs needed to give Caray a player worthy of inspiring that kind of enthusiasm.
It’s often said about quiet players like Sandberg that he let his bat do the talking. But it also helped that his bat let Harry get in a word or two.
Chicago Cubs Legends Great Games Collector’s Edition: Andre Dawson, August 1, 1987. Harry Caray and Steve Stone. A&E Home Video, 2007.
Sandberg, Ryne with Barry Rozner. Second to Home: Ryne Sandberg Opens Up. Bonus Books,1995. pp. 19, 61
Zminda, Don. The Legendary Harry Caray: Baseball’s Greatest Salesman. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. pp. 11-12, 173, 181