On a late April night in 1987, I signed my name to a 7-foot-by-5-foot wonder that was hanging in Ultimate Sports Bar & Grill, a noisy joint at the corner of Lincoln and Armitage Avenues. There were many other names on the card, hundreds actually, some written with a flourish, some with unsteady hands, but all of them meant for a guy who had recently suffered a mild stroke.
That man was named Harry Caray. This “World’s Largest Get Well Card,” which had previously been available for signing in a tavern to the south, would soon be delivered to a recuperating Caray.
He would bounce back, of course, back into the Cubs broadcast booth, back into seventh-inning song, back into romance with Dutchie, his wife since 1975, and back into the after work bar hopping that had given him the unofficial but nevertheless appropriate title of “The Mayor of Rush Street,” so accorded in 1980 by then Mayor Jane Byrne, at the behest of some of Caray’s saloon keeper pals.
For a few years Caray — the longtime Chicago sports broadcaster and announcer for the White Sox, then the Cubs — kept track of his drinking. He created a diary-record for tax purposes so he could deduct the cost of business entertaining. Grant DePorter found these and let Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg have a look-see a few years ago. He wrote about the dairies, making national news.
And why not? They are eye-popping, liver-quivering. In the early 1970s, in the dark green diaries, Caray details visiting dozens of taverns, night clubs and restaurants every night. There are the names of such bygone places as Riccardo’s, Boul Mich, Mister Kelly’s, Eli’s, Singapore, Pump Room, Domino Lounge, Pepitone’s … and on and on. In 1971, he documented visiting 1,362 places.
And he was never alone, accompanied by a series of stars. There were national figures such as Jack Benny, Ted Williams, Wilt Chamberlain and Jack Dempsey, and such locals as columnist Irv Kupcinet, Sid Luckman, Jack Brickhouse, Ernie Banks, Gale Sayers, Dave Condon, Bill Gleason and Jerome Holtzman.
DePorter estimates that Caray averaged some 1,300 bar visits a year, once accomplishing 288 consecutive nights out.
“And I figure he had 300,000 drinks in his lifetime,” says DePorter.
Caray stopped drinking in 1994 after a fall in Miami and died in 1998. But unlike the majority of people who, after death, fade into the ether, Caray has stayed right here. There’s the statue outside Wrigley Field and the pack of imitators (Will Ferrell most prominently). Last year, weirdly, there was a Harry hologram singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the Field of Dreams game in Iowa.
Much of his ongoing prominence, his “immortality,” is due to the efforts of DePorter, who is the CEO of Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group, overseeing the operation of seven restaurants. He is an ardent and sincere keeper of the Harry Caray flame.
Every year since Caray’s death, DePorter has organized a toast to the bygone broadcaster, held near Caray’s birthday. He says proudly, “The toast has reached an estimated 5 million fans in all 50 states and 150 countries.”
He’s at it again this year, a bit more extravagantly, by concocting “Vote for Harry: Re-Elect Harry Mayor of Rush Street.” He has yet to announce the particulars but since Saturday is the anniversary of Caray’s death, he shared a few details: “Jeff Garlin has signed on as ‘campaign manager.’ Ryne Sandberg will lead the toast. I’ve gotten endorsements from many places and all sorts of people, including a lot of politicians (from aldermen to Sen. Tammy Duckworth). We are making T-shirts and there will be a huge billboard near State and Rush streets. Bill Kurtis might make a TV commercial.”
That’s a lot of work in support of a candidate who has no opponents, unlike those in the current election season. DePorter is not trying to diminish the current political scene. “I take this election very seriously,” he says. “I love Chicago politics and Chicago history. But these days you can’t turn on the television without seeing an election ad so it seemed to be a natural to reelect Harry as the mayor of Rush Street.
“Before Harry passed away he did a PSA (public service announcement) television commercial with Langdon Neal, the chairman of the Board of Election Commissioners for the city. In the spot Harry said, ‘Holy cow! Don’t forget to vote!’
“I’m hoping this event is his way to, again, remind people to vote, while at the same time putting a smile on people’s faces.”
He goes on, “Among the reasons to elect Harry as the mayor of Rush Street is that Elvis was his biggest fan and Sinatra was his most famous drinking partner. One thing that no one has really ever quantified is how many people Harry sang for and so I counted the daily Wrigley attendance going back to 1976. He sang live in front of 40 million people, more people than The Beatles.”
I heard him sing many times and though I was not a drinking buddy of Caray’s, I did share a few evenings in his company, almost always with our mutual friend, sportscaster Tim Weigel. The two of them together were mainly joyful, a two-person admiration society that told great stories, offered wicked commentary and never appeared overserved but simply exuberantly joyful.
Many of these encounters took place at the Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel where Caray lived for many years, before and after his marriage to Dutchie.
Weigel is gone, has been since his heartbreakingly premature death in 2001 (he was 56), and so are most of the places he and I once visited, usually after his 10 p.m. sportscasts. I was able, and so might you, to take a journey into the past by looking at the names on Caray’s 1980 “campaign” button: Harry’s Cafe, Hotsie Totsie, Remington’s, Moby Nick’s, Faces, Jay’s, Adolphs, Sweetwater and Blondies.
Good and lovely memories (and a few nasty or foggy) are evoked. Today’s Rush Street is not the Rush Street that Caray knew. That Rush Street was more freewheeling and rough-and-tumble. It is now a boulevard of fine restaurants and upscale shops.
The March 29 “election” event, which will take place at the Harry Caray oasis at Navy Pier, is, of course, a way to remember one of the city’s great characters. There will be old friends, the still lively and lovely Dutchie, some celebrities and curiosity seekers. Some will have known Harry, a few might have shared a long ago long evening with him. Grant DePorter will be smiling. Harry would be pleased.