300hWent to visit Skip the other day. Seemed like the right thing to do.

The Cardinals were in town, Harry’s original team long before he became a Cub fan, a Bud Man and, as Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune once wrote of Harry Caray, “The most famous beer drinker in America.” Sully wrote that fondly, and most accurately.

It’d been a couple of months since I first saw Skip’s grave. Paula Caray took Patty Rasmussen and me to the cemetery one winter’s day after we’d all shared a nice lunch. Now, it was time. With the Cards here to play the Braves, I could almost hear his high-pitched, nasally whine: “Wilkerperson! Where have you been?! What, you don’t visit me anymore? And you still vote Democratic?”

The Green Hornet, my 1998 Chevy S-10 pickup, is in the shop, so I needed a ride to Arlington Memorial Park. Mark Slockett gladly volunteered. Mark’s a dear friend, as kind a guy as you’ll ever find. He gave his soul to the AJC for nearly 34 years before they recently, despicably gave him the boot. Mark will be OK, though, and he’ll always be responsible for one of my favorite Braves anecdotes.

Back in the early ’90s, the phone rang one day in the sports department. Mark answered, and a voice asked for Joe Strauss — now the Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, once  the Braves beat guy. When Mark explained that Joe wasn’t in the office and asked who was calling, a man replied:

“This is Hank Aaron.”

Mark was, uh, a bit flabbergasted: “Yo! Mister Aaron! DUDE!!!”

Mark recovered nicely, however, took the Hammer’s number and Grim Joe got the message. I saw Joe Wednesday night in the Turner Field press box, several hours after Mark and I stopped by to see Skip.

Arlington Memorial Park sits north of I-285, just off Mt. Vernon Road. It took us awhile to find it (my bad, Marko), but once we finally pulled in and parked, I knew where to find Skip.

We’d dressed appropriately for the occasion: Mark in his ever-present baseball cap, me in my favorite T-shirt. The beige one, with Skip’s smiling (no, not smirking) face outlined in black on the front, just above his signature broadcast greeting:

Hello Again Everybody.

And on the back, also in black, Skip’s nightly sign-off:

So long, everybody.

t1_0803_carayI was wearing that shirt last August, that Sunday afternoon I got the terrible news: Skip had died of a heart attack— not in his sleep, as was first reported, but in his backyard, while, of all things, refilling … a bird feeder. Yes.

My wife, Janet Ward, and I, along with several friends, were on vacation in upstate New York. Janet, a life-long baseball fan who’d moonlighted in the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium press box working for SportsTicker, was great friends with Skip long before I came on the scene. Last August, she gently broke the awful news about Skip to me. And I broke down.

First, my beloved younger brother, Tom, gone two weeks earlier. And now Skip, whom I’d come to know and love like an older brother — politics and political correctness be damned.

Earlier that Sunday, I was taking my daily 30-minute walk around the grounds at the inn where we stayed. It was a beautiful old farmhouse, the centerpiece of … a dairy farm. Yes. Even in my grief, I could hear Skip’s voice again: “Wilkerperson! What the &$#%! were you doing wearing my T-shirt while walking around cows and sidestepping cow shit?”

On Wednesday, the landmines at Arlington were goose droppings.

Actually, Arlington is impeccably kept, bucolic and serene save for the occasional geese who just gotta go. Skip’s grave is right inside the front entrance, a little ways down a narrow paved road on the left. It’s a beautiful gravesite.

The headstone reads: CARAY. As does the bench beside it. Depending on the time of day, a lush, blooming rose bush offers shade to the marker
in the small, grassy plot. The engraving reads:

Harry Christopher Caray, Jr.

“Skip”

August 12, 1939 — August 3, 2008

“Braves Win! Braves Win!”

“ So Long Everybody”

Paula visits regularly, tends the site lovingly. She’s recently added the perfect touch: A bird feeder, a two-tiered one offering the birds a choice of entrée. For all his on-the-air gruffness — pity the fool who’d call in on the old pre-game show and ask, “Skiiiiiiip, would you explain the infield fly rule to me?” — Skip was a bird man. Imagine that. And now he’s the bird man of Arlington.

At 1 p.m., the bell tower chimed. “The game would be starting about now,” Mark said. But instead of a weekday 1:05 matinee — of those crowds, Skip always told viewers/listeners, “Looks like a lot of fathers have taken their daughters to the ballpark today” — Wednesday was an evening affair.

After placing three pebbles atop the headstone, Mark and I prepared to leave. Yet not before I pointed and asked, “Waddaya think Skip would say about that?” Across the road stands, what, a 21st-century mini-Parthenon? It looks like a Greek temple. It’s the crypt of a late Atlanta multimillionaire, complete with four statues, urns, columns and an enormous stained-glass window of an angel. Oh, to hear what
Skip would’ve said about spending eternity in the shadow of such … .

“That’s emperor stuff,” Mark said. “Like Hadrian’s tomb.”

At the Ted that night, the remaining Caray men carried on. Harry’s been gone for more than a decade now, Skip for nearly nine months.

skipchipap2Neither ever got to see the photos that Harry Christopher Caray III — a/k/a Chip — was proudly showing off in the pre-game press dining room: Of his newest son, baby Tristan. Then Chip went to the TV broadcast booth named for his dad to call the game with Joe Simpson.

In the press box, Josh Caray, Skip and Paula’s boy, was sitting in the third row, keeping score, following minor-league ballgames on his computer. The broadcast voice of the Rome Braves, Atlanta’s Class A affiliate, for the last two seasons, Josh is now trying to climb the broadcast ladder.

“Hey, Josh,” I said from a few seats away. “What did Skip do to start the game?”

“Skip?” he replied, a quizzical look on his face.

Yes, Skip was in the house Wednesday night. Skip Shumaker. The Cardinals’ leadoff hitter and second baseman.

“Oh. I thought you meant my Dad,” Josh said. Then: “4-3.” Grounded out to second.

When I told Josh about visiting Skip’s grave, he said, “You know who’s buried with his ashes? The dogs.”

Skip loved dogs even more than he loved birds. Paula’s still a sucker for ‘em, too. There’s a few purebreds, but it’s mostly mutts, rescue dogs they saved. Paula still has five, including the famous poodle-mix Newman. Skip’s in good company, too, with the ashes of Sandy, Baron, Spike. And a black Lab mix named Maynard. “Like Maynard Jackson,” Josh said, smiling.

Wednesday was a good ballgame, one Skip would’ve liked to have called.

Javier Vazquez pitched great for the Braves, except for a six-hit, four-run fifth inning in which he was dinked to death. When Yunel Escobar grounded into a double play to end the Atlanta sixth, I softly called it as Skip always called this particular brand of DP, pausing properly between the numbers:
“6 … 4 … 3.”

St. Louis held on to win 5-3, and take the series two games to one.

Walking out of the ballpark and into the night, I’d have given anything to hear it: “So long, everybody.”

###
Jack Wilkinson

Jack Wilkinson

Jack Wilkinson has written about sports professionally for 37 years, but his career began in his hometown of Lynbrook, N.Y., on Long Island. His elementary school paper, the Marion Street Chatterbox, is the coolest-named paper he's ever worked for. Thank you, Mrs. Roseanne Waldstein, the school librarian and Chatterbox advisor. Jack worked at Newsday while a senior at Hofstra University, and later for the Miami News, Chicago Daily News, New York Daily News and, after moving to Atlanta in 1983, the local rag. A three-time Georgia Sportswriter of the Year, he gleefully took a buyout in June, 2007. Jack's written six books. The latest, "Of Mikes and Men -- A Lifetime of Braves Baseball," is the recently-released autobiography of co-author Pete Van Wieren. Published by Triumph Books of Chicago, "Of Mikes and Men" is now available at Borders, Barnes & Noble, Manuel's Tavern and other fine book outlets everywhere.