LLOYD GRAY: A station, a 'nation,' and an era's end

“Hello again, everybody, this is Harry Caray with Jack Buck from beautiful Busch Stadium…”

If you recognize that summer night's greeting, you are definitely a baseball fan of a certain age but you could be from virtually anywhere in the Midwest or Midsouth.

The reason is that the radio station that carried the Caray-Buck duo for 15 years, and Buck after him for another 32, reached into all corners of what became known as Cardinal Nation – from Iowa through Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, over to Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, up to Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, and of course, blanketing all of Missouri.

KMOX radio made the St. Louis Cardinals' fan base the most widely dispersed in all of Major League Baseball, dating from the time when it was the most western and southern team in either league. Latter-day fans think of Harry Caray as belonging to Chicago and the Cubs because of his stint on WGN-TV. He spent far longer as the radio voice of the Cardinals – 25 years to be exact. The last 15 of those – 1954 to 1969 – were on KMOX, whose high-powered signal could be heard, when the weather was right, in homes and cars even beyond the core Cardinal states.

“The Cardinals are the real America's team – forget the Atlanta Braves,” broadcast historian Curt Smith, author of “Voices of the Game,” said last week. “They became America's team in large part because of radio. Only KMOX could have done that for the Cardinals.”

That relationship has lasted 52 years, longer than any other in professional sports. I regularly discover someone who, like me, grew up in Mississippi and for whom KMOX was the lifeline to the Cardinals. It both fed our team loyalty and shaped it in the days when you were lucky to see your team once a month or so on television. There were 100-plus network affiliate stations carrying the Cardinals games, including WELO in Tupelo, back in those days – now it's WTUP – but if you lived outside their range you would have been cut off from your nightly Cardinal fix without KMOX.

KMOX and the Cardinals were inseparable. In my mind, they were virtually one and the same.

But nothing lasts forever, and the Cardinals and KMOX are divorcing after this season because of irreconcilable differences. As with many marriages that dissolve, it's all about money.

KMOX didn't offer enough, in the Cardinals' view. The franchise for Cardinal broadcasts had lost much of its value with the internet and satellite radio carrying the games, in KMOX's view.

“Voices of the Game” author Smith told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the Cardinals' decision to move to much-less-powerful KTRS in St. Louis, in which they will have a 50 percent ownership interest, was “selfish, it is self-defeating, and in the long run…incredibly stupid” because it deprives loyal fans in far-flung locales, who depend on KMOX and who don't have computers or satellite radio, of their Cardinal broadcasts. But consider that demographic: it's aging and not affluent. If those listeners can't afford satellite radio, they probably can't afford tickets or merchandise. So of what value are they in the team's marketing scheme?

If that sounds cold, well that's business, right? It's just that sports fans tell themselves that sports isn't “business,” it's – well – sports. It's all about tradition, about two-way loyalty, team and fans, about civic pride, about something for the community to rally around, a unifier, a difference-minimizer – an arena of beauty, skill, strength and courage that dispenses memories and transcends the ordinariness of life. What else gives it meaning?

We'll keep telling ourselves that, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

The KMOX-Cardinals split-up was all the buzz in the media last weekend in St. Louis as we watched the Cardinals' series with those southern interlopers, the Braves. Emerging from behind Busch Stadium, which opened in 1966, is a new stadium that in many ways will be much nicer than the current one. But some fans aren't happy about it. After all, there are a lot of memories wrapped up in the current stadium – a lot of tradition.

At least they will call the new one Busch Stadium, the third ballpark in succession to carry that name. But the big “KMOX” signs beneath the broadcast booth and in the outfield will be missing. You can only take tradition so far.

Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com

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