Sudden Death

Halo and hype over Jack Buck pierced by the passing of Darryl Kile

Barely a day after Jack Buck was lowered into the ground, just when all the reverent reminiscences about the Cardinal broadcaster were winding down, Darryl Kile's death made the demise of a 77-year-old man who spent his last six months in the hospital seem almost ordinary.

Buck had a litany of health problems and had led a long and high-profile life. The unlikeliness of Kile's early death made it all the more unsettling. When a 33-year-old millionaire athlete/celebrity dies in his sleep, it's a reminder that even youth, money and fame can't guarantee survival.

The week's unprecedented public mourning rituals for Buck seemed to be put into perspective by the death of Kile, a father of three preschool children. Buck's children were grown; his life had been led. In many ways, the grieving for Buck by the Cardinal faithful was actually their being nostalgic and coming to grips with their own past slipping away. Buck's 47 years of broadcasting baseball covered a lot of summer nights for the audience. That Buck was gone reminded many that all those games, all those days, were but a memory.

Jack Buck's memorial at Busch Stadium
Jennifer Silverberg
Jack Buck's memorial at Busch Stadium

Buck was a man who never threw a fastball, stole a base or swung for the fences in the major leagues, but he had stayed on his job long enough to outlast the primes of Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith and Mark McGwire. He was famous by most definitions of the word, but he was not in his prime. He was elderly, and he was ailing.

Kile had pitched a no-hitter, had never been on the disabled list and was clearly in his prime.

Buck was born in Massachusetts and raised in Ohio, but he spoke well of his adopted home. After achieving a degree of national notoriety, he stayed in St. Louis. People in this funky town love it when a well-known somebody who could go someplace else decides to stay. It validates their own choice of residence, somehow makes them feel better about staying in a city that bicoastals see as provincial or backward.

Buck's loyalty to St. Louis was a sharp counterpoint to home-raised talent such as Tennessee Williams, who fled the city and bad-mouthed it in absentia. The city seemed to return the favor at his 1983 funeral, held in the New Cathedral on Lindell Boulevard. At most, a hundred-or-so people attended the service for the Mississippi-born Soldan High School graduate who wrote A Streetcar Named Desire and the St. Louis-based Glass Menagerie. Only Williams' unexpected death and his brother Dakin's insistence brought him back to his birthplace for burial at Calvary Cemetery.

Buck also profited from his fame's being linked to the two local commodities that retain national name-brand recognition: Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewer, and the baseball Cardinals, winners of more World Series titles than any other team in baseball except the Yankees.

Buck's roots were Midwestern. He was a Purple Heart-decorated World War II veteran, and he was known as polite and gracious to all manner of men and women. He had six children with his first wife and two more with his second. He actively supported charities and emceed dinners, and he was the pitchman for decades of radio commercials.

So when Buck died last week, St. Louis gave him a sendoff that lasted days, a hail-and-farewell that consumed local media, both print and electronic. KMOX (1120 AM) held a virtual Buck radiothon, pulling out old interviews by Bob Costas and John Carney and opening up the lines nonstop for callers to vent their personal memories. KMOX personalities and callers tripped over each other trying to pump up the importance of the Cardinal broadcaster.

One caller recalled how, when he was in fifth grade, his father caught one of the autographed baseballs Buck threw out at a luncheon and brought it home to him: "That was something my father and I could always agree on; that was Jack Buck. I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm very sad; at the same time, I'm so happy I was born and raised in this city and had the opportunity to be exposed to someone as great as him."

Buck was to St. Louis what Elvis was to Memphis, minus the drug use, jumpsuits and gifts of canary-yellow Cadillacs to friends. Buck was a mainstream guy in a slowly rolling river city. He was funny but not outlandish. He was smart but not intimidating. He was good but not so good that he wasn't dumped twice by national networks.

Much has been said about how the Harry Caray-Jack Buck Cardinal broadcast team of the 1950s and '60s was the best ever. True enough. But remember, Caray was the one who was run out of town; it was Buck who stayed. In that booth, Buck was the straight man and Caray the comic, or manic, genius. If Buck was George Burns, Caray was Gracie Allen.

In many ways, the two were never as good apart as they were together. In the interview with Costas that was rebroadcast Thursday night, Buck admitted that if Caray had stayed, Buck likely would have left for another gig because he wanted to be the lead announcer. That wasn't necessary, because Anheuser-Busch fired Caray.

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