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.

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.

Even though Caray was a native, born Harry Carabina and growing up near downtown and in Webster Groves, he was the one who had to leave for Oakland, then Chicago, to achieve wider fame. Caray was a knuckleball that was hard to predict; Buck may have been a change-up, but he was right down the middle of the plate.

Buck was a raconteur -- he was no rabble-rouser. In addressing Webster University students in 1984, he told them that he knew of drug use in sports but kept quiet. "Why didn't I say something on the air?" asked Buck, who then answered his own question: "It's common sense not to say everything I see."

As his tenure with the Cardinals lengthened, his politics became more conservative. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he emceed a rally for George W. Bush at the Family Arena in St. Charles. In the early stages of the stadium push, he expressed concerns about public financing. Last year, he co-chaired the Ballpark Partnership that sought pubic assistance for a new stadium.

In the last few years he cut back his broadcasting to home games and joked that after giving Cardinal fans the best years of his life, he was now giving them the worst. Parkinson's disease and other frailties impaired his motor functions and sometimes his voice, but the thought of Jack Buck's not being in the booth after 48 years with the club was too much for fans to imagine.

So when Buck died after six months in Barnes-Jewish Hospital, a public parting on a scale unheard of in this city's history was planned. On Thursday, Buck's casket was placed behind home plate; at 7 a.m., the first of thousands started to file past it.

Three of those making the pilgrimage were Jim and Chris Wagstaff of South County and their baby daughter Nikki, who sat in her stroller wearing a red tank top with a cardinal on the chest. Jim wore a replica Stan Musial jersey with a "6" on the back. The Wagstaffs, who drove to a MetroLink stop, then took the train down to the stadium, cited a mix of personal and sports reasons for the trip.

"I grew up listening to him. I loved listening to him," said Jim, who had to be at work that afternoon. Chris said Buck reminded her of her father, who died recently.

Walking single file through the right-field Wagon Gate in 89-degree heat, the mourners followed the warning track around the outfield wall, some stopping to take pictures of each other while they stood on this hallowed ground of the soon-to-be-replaced Busch Stadium. A policeman and a firefighter stood guard at the casket, as did a Clydesdale. As the faithful stepped off the field and back into the stands, ushers had placed a box of Kleenex on the railing for anyone who didn't have a dry eye.

Patty Clarke and her 21-year-old daughter Colleen, of South City, made it down to Busch for the open-air wake. Patty admitted that she cried when KMOX daytime host Jack Carney died in 1984 and that she wondered at the time, "Who at KMOX is going to make me laugh?" She confesses she didn't listen to much baseball and did so only because of Buck. She liked Buck's other radio work at KMOX, she said, because "he spoke from the heart" and showed "integrity."

Now that Buck's gone, Clarke said, she'll mostly listen to National Public Radio, unless "something big happens -- then I might turn on KMOX. They'd have it first."

However the loss of Buck affects the area, it's hugely significant for KMOX. For decades the top-rated station in the region, KMOX must now cope with the loss of the last hero in the station's pantheon.

In covering Buck's death, the station promoted itself to the hilt. Buck died at 11:08 p.m. June 18; and Joe Buck came on the air to announce the death at 11:20 p.m., the same numerals as the station's frequency. It was Joe Buck, son of Jack Buck, telling the news to John Carney, son of Jack Carney.

By the end of the brief interview, Carney was advising Buck that there would come a "time where you and your family need some private grieving. I certainly want you to be able have that time, and it's not wrong to feel that way." Yes, yes, but first let's finish this interview.

"How many times do you get to follow in your father's footsteps?" Buck asked Carney. "You've done it there, and I've done it."

The problem for KMOX is that Joe Buck is going national, calling weekend baseball and football games for Fox. If he's learned one thing from his father, it's to avoid the 162-game grind of announcing for the home squad. In a March 31 article in the St. Petersburg Times, Joe Buck is quoted as joking that Jack Buck was so busy, he didn't pick Joe up until he was five years old. "I don't want to be gone all the time," Joe Buck, father of two young daughters, told the Florida newspaper. "I was part of this on the other end, with my dad gone a lot and trying to earn money where he could."

So KMOX is stuck with a very occasional Joe Buck, and the son of Jack Carney on late at night. The radio station's links to its storied past and its connections to its aging baby-boomer audience continue to weaken.

The sheer length and circumstance of the coverage increased the odds of media mawkishness. KSDK (Channel 5) sportscaster Mike Bush may be a newsreader on Sunday nights, but his attempt at on-air poetry, however well-meaning, was a bad idea. And how can anyone sound smooth broadcasting a funeral? Charles Brennan and Nan Wyatt of KMOX whispered their commentary on Friday at the church as if they were doing a pro-bowlers' tour.

"Well, they say there is such a thing as a St. Louis curtain, which usually means that events start at about five or ten minutes late at the Muny and the Fox," whispered Brennan, "but I'm not expecting we're going to be much behind schedule here."

Even in the midst of the media canonization of Buck, at least one doubting Thomas called Short Cuts to lodge a mild, anonymous grievance:

"Yeah, he was an excellent announcer, but we're connecting the joy we felt about how the Cardinals played with Jack Buck. We have to realize he was just a man announcing it; he was the conduit for something that was already in existence. He wasn't hitting the home runs or winning the games. He's getting credit for stuff he just announced."

No, he didn't create something from nothing. Unlike Kile, he never pitched a no-hitter or was handed the ball when his team needed a win. He came to St. Louis, he made people here feel better, and now he's gone.

Jack Buck has left the stadium.

It's just hard for some people to believe it.

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