Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Astro Orbit

Harry Kalas died yesterday. Harry was a broadcaster in Philadelphia for so long that even he probably forgot the five years he spent in Houston, starting when I was 12 years old. If Harry was 73, as I heard this morning, then he was about 29 when he started broadcasting games for the Houston Astros. As I recall the Astros had hired him away from the old Pacific Coast League team, the Hawaiian Islanders. He was brought in to do an inning a game and the idea was apparently to move the immortal Loel  (hot ziggity dog and sassafras tea, now you chunkin’ in there) Passe out of the picture, at least for play by play purposes and into pre and post game stories. But Harry was so good that he got hired away by the Phillies and Loel hung on for years.


Most of the time I spent with Harry was lying in my bed listening to him broadcast ballgames all over the country on spring and summer evenings. Sometimes the last thing I heard before I fell asleep was the voice of Harry Kalas. It was a pleasant baritone. Unlike most radio guys today, Harry was a joy to listen too. Every time Houston hit a homerun (which was rare) Harry would proclaim that “that ball is in Astro Orbit.”which ,when  you are twelve years old, ranks along side Shakepeare and Cole Porter’s work  as a clever use of the English language.


Harry was handicapped in Houston  in that the team he was describing was so bad. He got a chance to talk about a pretty good team in 1969, although that one fell apart at the end of the year. In Philly he got to cover good teams and bad, two of them were World Series winners which is something he would have never would have gotten to do  if he had stayed in Houston. Harry got to talk about some pretty good players in Houston, but for every Dierker and Morgan, there were at least three Gotays, Blefarys and Ivan Murrells. The mix usually won about 72 games a year, which meant that they lost 90.


The fading of the voices of one’s childhood is difficult. When I was in my twenties Bing Crosby died and everyone in my parent’s generation mourned. It’s proof that you are no longer  young when those you idolized as children are suddenly gone. I was thinking  about Cadet Don, the last I heard of him he was alive.


I can’t remember Cadet Don’s real name. His stage name was Don Travis. He had walked into the studios of KTRK TV one day and asked if he could do a show on T.V. He had never done anything like that before, he just thought that he would be good at it. They turned him down that day, but called him a few months later and asked him if he wanted to do a morning kids show called the “Cadet Don Show” where he (sort of) played a young astronaut. The show was initiated at the same time that the United States began sending men into space and when NASA moved the Manned Spacecraft Center  to Houston. Every day Don would come on at 6:30. He lead us in exercises (“jumping jacks, 1,2,3,4”) and showed cartoons including the Space Angel and Clutch Cargo (with his pals Spinner and Paddlefoot) after a couple of years he started showing a short subject starring a chimp named Chatter which was a big hit. He always read the Houston Independent School District lunch menu (which was never followed at my school). He pushed milk by drinking it himself on the air. On November 21, 1963 he welcomed John Kennedy to Houston over the air (all of us assumed that JFK was watching). 30 hours later, Kennedy was dead.


Don also had a spacecraft land on his set one day and after a few days of mystery a creature (not much more sophisticated than a sock puppet) named Seymour appeared. Seymour was Don’s foil and sidekick for years. He and Seymour put out several records together, their biggest hit being the “Hucklebuck” a dance they claim to have invented, although Seymour had no visible legs.


I should not have wandered off into talking about Cadet Don, but Harry’s death brought all those memories flooding back. The shows of my youth Looney Town, Kitrik the cat, Skipper Conway and Popeye Theatre and various “Uncle Bobs and Dons” who had kid shows with cartoons and birthday parties every day are with me today. Just like  the local show guys for adults, Chris Chandler, Joanne King, Howard Finch, Ray Miller and the great Morris Frank who came on every Saturday right before Lawrence Welk. He was the only person I ever knew of,  who referred to himself as “we”. Something, as Twain once said that is generally limited to the Queen of England, the editor of the New York Times and Siamese Twins.


By today’s standards, each of these shows would be unwatchable. Times change. I guess that’s why Harry was so successful, he was able to adapt over 44 seasons of baseball. So long Harry, say hi to Diz and Pee Wee for me.


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