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Harry Caray retrospective offers honest look at beloved figure

Harry Caray became a legend broadcasting Cubs games from 1982 to 1997 after working for the White Sox from 1971 through 1981. | Sun-Times

Harry Caray was not his real name. Harry Carabina was.

And that slight spelling change, done for its catchy, rhyming, non-ethnic sound, was in its way, symbolic of the theatrical, entertaining, but ultimately unsettled life of the greatest, most beloved baseball broadcaster in Chicago history.

You can make your own decisions about Caray and his body of work by watching “Holy Cow! The Story of Harry Caray,’’ when it debuts at 8 p.m. Tuesday on MLB Network. But if you are a Chicago baseball fan over the age of 30, you probably already have your opinion of Caray hard-wired in your brain.

Yet this documentary is a good refresher for all.

The hourlong film captures the essence of the hard-living, hard-drinking man who called White Sox and then Cubs games on radio and TV from 1971 to ’97. It also captures the essence of a time that can never happen again, as all look-backs invariably do.

But Caray’s persona was so wrapped up in the period of the last half of the 20th century, when nobody had cellphones and drinking and carousing until 4 a.m. were considered as cool as pal Frank Sinatra’s voice, that the time and the man are inseparable.

Consider: How long would a network broadcaster last nowadays if he actually drank beer on air? If he said disgustedly of a home player, “Aww, how can you swing at a pitch like that?’’ If he mangled players’ names? If he said, “The bases will be loaded, and that’s what’s gonna happen to me when this game is over — I’m gonna get loaded, too?’’

There will never again be an uninhibited showman like Caray who could bring into the game such things as a giant fishing net to catch foul balls, who could — with Sox owner Bill Veeck’s encouragement -— lead an entire ballpark in singing “Take me Out to the Ball Game’’ every seventh-inning stretch, who could visibly rejoice or suffer in agony when his team succeeded or failed.

Rough edges get sanded off in these days of social-media patrolling and political correctness. And Caray had more rough edges than barn siding.

What he used to adapt to the pain of losing both parents as a child and being raised poor and resentful was baseball.

“He needed baseball,’’ Cubs radio broadcaster Pat Hughes says.

“He couldn’t pour coffee. He couldn’t do anything,’’ his widow, Dutchie Caray, says. “But he could sure broadcast the game.’’

It’s not going too far to say that Cubs fans genuinely loved Caray. He did Cubs games from 1981 until his death almost 19 years ago, coming back from a stroke in 1987 and bringing so much joy to the masses that President Ronald Reagan called him on air to congratulate him.

What drove Caray was the thrill of being heard, of expressing himself, of giving a layman’s voice to all the fans who wanted a good time but also prayed for a championship team, which, of course, they never got.

The thousands and thousands of hands Harry shook, the smiles he gave to so many, those things were symbolic of his need to be accepted, to be revered, to belong to a family he never knew.

“You take it too seriously,’’ he says at one point to boothmate Steve Stone. “It’s only a game.’’

But that was a lie. To Caray, it was life itself, the juice he needed (along with a little alcohol) to carry on. Caray was an invented figure who replaced the striving kid from the slums of St. Louis.

Who suffered in this relationship? His real, and fractured, family.

“He really had trouble being Dad,’’ grandson Chip Caray says. “He had no trouble being Harry.’’

Joe Buck called it the “Harry Caray character.’’

Chip, whose full name is Harry Christopher Caray III, did Cubs play-by-play for seven years, starting in 1998, when Harry died suddenly. They were supposed to broadcast together, but it never happened.

And Chip, along with dad and former baseball broadcaster Skip Caray, were left with sad memories of divorce and neglect and heartbreak.

In the film, Chip tells of the time he was playing Little League baseball and Harry came by and the famous man had no idea he was watching his grandson. “It’s still really, really hard to remember that moment,’’ says Chip, almost breaking down. “Someone you were named after didn’t know who you were.’’

Harry Caray’s story is like that of the smiling clown who dazzles crowds while crying on the inside.

Success, stature, even a statue — sometimes it all comes at a cost.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com