Two and Half Hours with Chip Caray
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Atlanta Braves play-by-play announcer Chip Caray to talk about his career, his life experiences and how he goes about making the excitement of Atlanta Braves baseball come alive for millions of fans across the country. Over a 7 day period I had the privilege of interviewing Chip twice, once on a weekly podcast that I co-host along with Dan Schlossberg called “Braves Banter” and then a few days later one on one where everyone seems to meet these days, Starbucks. Prior to joining us on “Braves Banter,” Dan commented that Chip is one of his favorite people because he is so nice and great to be around. During our initial interview I could immediately understand why Dan feels that way. Chip was so open and willing to answer any questions we had or take the interview in the direction we wanted. He repeatedly said to us, “Whatever you want to do guys, I’m open to whatever you want to talk about. Ask me anything.” My respect for Chip grew and enjoyment for being around him was further cemented after spending nearly 2 ½ hours with him one on one later that week.
Talking with Chip about sports and life is like sitting around talking with one of your life long buddies. The conversation is relaxed, candid and honest. In fact when I asked Chip about some of the advice his grandfather Harry Caray and his father Skip Caray gave him he said, “You have to be yourself and be honest.” He went on to say, “If I tried to be Harry or my father people would have seen right through that and I wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes in this business. I have to trust the gift I’ve been given. Harry Christopher Caray III is my name, it’s not who I am.” Though he isn’t Harry or Skip, Chip does carry a deep desire to uphold the broadcasting tradition that his grandfather and father passed on to him. The Caray name has a strong baseball legacy and Chip wants to honor that legacy by taking the baton that his father handed to him and can carry it forward for the next 20 years.
As Chip talked about his life, I also sensed a real gap in his life caused by the divorce of his parents and grandparents. Harry and Chip’s grandmother divorced and Harry was off building a broadcasting career so he and Chip never spent any time together. There were no birthday cards, no sitting around the family table listening to Harry tell stories about the 1954 St. Louis Cardinals, no Christmas get togethers, none of the things you’d hope to be able to do with a normal grandfather let alone a Hall of Fame announcer who had a treasure trove of baseball stories to share. Imagine growing up as a big baseball fan and having Harry Caray as your grandfather yet never getting the opportunity to sit and listen to him talk about his life around the game. What an opportunity lost. The same family scenario played out with Skip. He and Chip’s mother divorced and Skip moved to Atlanta to build his own broadcasting career; leaving Chip behind in St. Louis. Chip would visit his father occasionally in the summer but he missed growing up with him. He did have the benefit of getting to hang out in the Braves locker room during those summer visits and got to be around guys like Dale Murphy, Glenn Hubbard, and Bruce Benedict which is every young man’s dream. So he became a Braves fan as he put it, “before it was cool to be a Braves fan.”
Years later, in 1998, as Chip was building his broadcasting career, he was offered the opportunity to work alongside Harry announcing games for the Chicago Cubs; finally an opportunity to talk baseball and life with grandfather. This was going to be the perfect opportunity to build a relationship with the man he never knew. Unfortunately, fate stepped in and 2 weeks before they were to take to the air waves together Harry passed away. When Chip talked about it I could feel the disappointment in his voice that missed opportunity left in his life. He had been presented the chance to finally get to fill in part of the relationship gap with Harry and just as it was about to happen it got ripped away from him. So place yourself in Chip’s shoes. You’ve just lost your grandfather at the point where you were about to finally have the opportunity to get to know him and now you have to be a professional and do your job which just happens to be replacing a Hall of Famer and local legend in the broadcasting booth; that’s a boat load to deal with. After you are able to work through the personal loss, you have to deal with the professional side of stepping into the booth as the guy who is replacing a legendary figure. As Chip put it, “You never want to be the guy who replaces a legend. You want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaced the legend.”
Chip had the unenviable task of having to go in and sit with Harry’s team, in Harry’s chair, behind Harry’s microphone. How do you do that I asked? He started off by giving me some background. Harry was a polarizing figure. Many people loved him but there were people who hated him for moving between the Cardinals, White Sox and Cubs. Harry started his career in 1945 with the St. Louis Cardinals. He spent 25 years there broadcasting games until he was unexpectedly fired after the 1969 season. From St. Louis he headed west for one season with the Oakland A’s. After growing tired of interference by Charley Finley he accepted a job with the Chicago White Sox. Harry spent 10 years on the South side growing a loyal following. In 1981he shifted his allegiance to the North side with the Cubs. There he transformed Wrigley Field into a beer garden. Harry was a Cub fan and Bud man to coin the old Budweiser ads. But with that transition Harry alienated everyone on the South side for leaving the White Sox to go to the hated Cubs. So Chip inherited that hatred.
When he received local criticism in Chicago he never knew who was taking a shot simply because they didn’t like Harry for leaving the White Sox to go to the Cubs. Plus if you look deeper, Harry started with the Cardinals, moved to the White Sox and ended with the Cubs. There is a lot of intermingled hatred among those 3 teams and Chip likely paid a price for the fan issues Harry left in his wake. I asked Chip what he thought it would be like stepping into Harry’s shoes. He figured that 15% of the people would love him for being Harry’s grandson, 15% would hate him for the exact same reason which left him with an opportunity with the remaining 70% of the fan base to make his own mark. It took Chip about 5 years to navigate those waters and for the Cubs to become his team in the eyes of Chicagoans. He stayed there alongside partner Steve Stone for 6 years building his own legacy until 2004 when he left for Atlanta and his dream job.
We moved on to discuss more personal things related to him. I asked, what is the best thing and worst thing a fan has ever said to you? He spoke about a Cubs fan who sought him out just to tell him that the only reason he was there was because of his grandfather and father. He doesn’t know why that person felt the need to express that to him but the fan came up to him just to make that statement. Conversely the nicest thing someone ever said to him was also from someone in Chicago. That person said, “I worked with your grandfather and your father and you’re the best one out of the 3 of you.”
As mentioned a moment ago, Chip left Chicago in 2004. He signed a deal with TBS to work alongside his father broadcasting games for the Atlanta Braves. They spent the next 3 seasons doing Braves games together in one fashion or another. They didn’t always share the same booth, as Skip moved between TV and radio, but it was a special time for Chip and something he is very grateful for the opportunity to do. Sharing time with his dad helped fill some of the relationship gaps of not growing up with him there. They grew closer and it was a very happy period for Chip.
I asked him how it was for his father back in the 80′s when the Braves perennially finished at the bottom of the division. He said his dad enjoyed doing those games almost as much as when the Braves became successful starting in the early 90′s. He said his dad had more freedom to talk about anything in order to keep the viewers engaged. “It’s easy to keep fans interested when the team is winning” he added. “It’s much harder when they are not playing well. As a broadcaster you have more latitude to share stories or discuss a wider range of topics when the stands are empty and the team is losing.”
A resounding theme throughout our conversation was how grateful Chip is for the position he has and for being able to go to the ballpark every day to talk about baseball. He said, “I approach every day like a 10 year old kid going to the game.” I asked if he felt a lot of pressure being the voice of the Braves but he doesn’t view his role that way. “I am a conduit for the fans to the team they watch. I work for the fans and try to convey the excitement of the ball park to them.” I then wondered about his relationship with the players. I figured it must be great to hang around the clubhouse and the batting cage every day as the players take batting practice but he said the announcers aren’t that close with the players. He said they have very little common ground both economically or socially and he added that he is old enough to be most of their fathers; which then made me feel old because we are both the same age. Suddenly I stopped idolizing some of my favorite players when I realized he was right. Chip went on to say, “We’re part of the team but not on the team. We’re (the announcers) respected but we’re not buddies.”
The last thing we discussed was the intimate relationship fans used to have with the players but has been lost over the last decade or so. It used to be guys like me could get a player to sign a ball, a hat or a piece of paper but not today. Players ignore requests from guys my age and when you call out to them they ignore you. I asked Chip, what happened? Has EBAY destroyed our relationship with the players? Chip quickly said yes. “Players are not in the business to make other people money.” He talked about how he often sees people lunge toward players at their hotel and shove items in their face to sign as the player tries to make his way to the coffee shop in the morning. He frequently doesn’t even hear the people say “please” or “thank you” when the request is made or the autograph given. So the players no longer feel like we appreciate their autograph and all the fan really wants to do is make money off of it. There’s no sincerity or gratitude from fans so why sign? So can we fit the genie back into the bottle? Chip didn’t see how. Even if the player does spend 20 minutes signing autographs there always seems to be one person he can’t get to due to time constraints or thirst and that person walks away talking about what a jerk he was for not signing his/her item. Then the person posts something negative on-line which shows up in the media. There is no mention in the story about the 20 minutes he spent signing for other people while he was trying to make his over to eat breakfast. Plus with the advent of cell phone cameras everyone is the media now. Any bad criticism, pictures or videos end up on You Tube or some other site, therefore shrinking the player’s ability to make money.
So in the blink of an eye it was 2 ½ hours later and I had taken up most of Chip’s morning. I felt bad for taking up so much of his free time but he never once looked at his watch or did anything other than answer every question I had or be gracious in every way. He gave further proof why Dan was exactly right about him. He was open, honest and forthcoming. I saw a guy who genuinely loves the game of baseball and loves that he gets to talk about it for a living. I met a guy who loves his family and has a few gaps in his life that baseball inadvertently caused. I got to know a guy who tries to share his passion for the game, its sights and sounds, with all of us. He hasn’t always done it perfectly but he has always done it honestly and truthfully just like his grandfather and father wanted him to do it. There isn’t anything more you could want out of the artist who paints the game for us night after night. Give me a passionate effort. Illustrate for me the sights, sounds and excitement of the crowd at the ballpark. Help me feel like I’m there. That is the goal Chip has for every game and he’s so thankful to get to do it. Since my time with Chip, my view of the Braves broadcast has taken on a whole new meaning. I listen more intently and have a much deeper appreciation for what he does and the meaning it has for him. What I appreciate most is the opportunity to spend 2 ½ hours seeing things through the eyes of Chip Caray.