Holy Cow! Harry Caray Got It Right

Like so many overaged adolescents pounding the political beat, Chatterbox often wishes he had been born a baseball writer. So for one glorious September day, Chatterbox will leave the impeachment witch hunt behind and instead join in the Days of Awe over Mark McGwire’s home-run heroics. The red-blooded American boy lurking underneath the cynical facade of Chatterbox can’t resist noting that McGwire has averaged a Ruthian 60 home runs over the last three seasons.

McGwire’s otherworldly feats prompt the question: Who called the shot? Which sports writer wins credit for being the Nostradamus of our age by being the first to correctly predict that a slugger would someday hit 70 home runs? After playing around with the NEXIS data base for an hour, Chatterbox has uncovered an unlikely winner. Harry Caray, the late Chicago Cubs broadcaster best known for his off-key and beery renditions of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, should have been around to cheer McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Back in 1992, according to a clip from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Caray prophesied, “With the definite shortage of pitching right now, somebody will hit 70 home runs next year.” Okay, Harry was five years off (Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey led baseball with 46 homers each in 1993). But the leather-lunged broadcaster got the concept right: Roger Maris’ record would be shattered in a year when the talent pool of pitchers was depleted by the addition of two new major-league teams.

Amid the torrent of bum predictions about Clinton’s allegedly impending resignation, Chatterbox also wondered who was the first press-box prophet to liken McGwire to Babe Ruth and Maris. Again thanks to NEXIS, he has unearthed a May 20, 1987, Associated Press dispatch by Steve Wilstein, marveling over the homer-happy start of McGwire’s rookie season. Wilstein’s lead, keeping with wire- service tradition, says it all: “Mark McGwire, a red-haired giant with arms like Popeye, is hitting home runs at a faster clip than Babe Ruth and Roger Maris did when they set their records.” Less than a week later, Richard Justice of the Washington Post joined in the Super Mac superlatives by writing, “Who is this Joe Hardy who…has heard himself compared to both Babe Ruth and Roger Maris?” McGwire, voted Rookie of the Year in 1987, ended the year with a league-leading 49 home runs.

The reason to dwell on these sports-page predictions is that they serve as a reminder that human events befuddle even the wisest prognosticators. Sure, after his epochal rookie season, McGwire was an easy nominee to someday set the home-run record. But as near as Chatterbox can decipher from NEXIS, no one came close to guessing before this season that Sosa, too, would leave Maris and Ruth in his dust. (Sosa’s prior career high was 40 homers in 1996). We all fall victim to the fallacy of extrapolating the future based on a straight-line projection of current trends.

That’s why Chatterbox intends to remember the remarkable Sammy Sosa the next time he feels tempted to mouth off about such unknowable matters as the identity of the presidential nominees in 2000.

Walter Shapiro