Column: Don’t forget Harry Caray’s legacy with the Chicago White Sox — for calling it like it is

As Harry Caray’s Chicago Cubs career was celebrated Thursday with the 26th “Toast to Harry Caray” sponsored by his namesake restaurant, his legacy on the South Side continues to be overlooked by his former team.

It makes sense that the restaurant is more focused on his Cubs years, when Caray became a national figure thanks to day baseball and the WGN-TV superstation. That’s the Harry Caray whom Will Ferrell imitated on “Saturday Night Live,” a caricature of a befuddled old man with a microphone that drew laughs even from those who had no idea who Caray was.

But that wasn’t the same Harry Caray whose decision to leave the White Sox booth in 1981 became a red-letter day in the long and storied history of the Cubs-Sox rivalry — and continues to resonate 43 years later amid the controversy over current Sox broadcaster John Schriffen calling out the “haters” for criticism of the 6-25 team.

Caray probably would’ve been fingered as one of those alleged “haters” back when the Sox were awful and no one was coming to Comiskey Park. My friend John Owens pointed to a YouTube video of Caray’s final Sox TV broadcast in 1981 — posted by media colleague Jeff Agrest of the Sun-Times — in which Caray tells viewers after a commercial break that he counted only 15 people sitting in the center-field bleachers on a sunny afternoon.

That kind of raw honesty is no longer acceptable to modern marketing executives, who prefer their handpicked broadcasters to sugarcoat attendance problems while focusing on the positives. Watch any major-league broadcast in a nearly empty ballpark and you won’t hear a word about it.

It was a different era.

Caray was a rarity among broadcasters, revered by fans of three organizations: the Cubs, Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, who host the Sox for a three-game series starting Friday at Busch Stadium. He was a unique personality and the so-called “Mayor of Rush Street” — a legendary baseball salesman and best friend of the team’s beer sponsor, from Falstaff to Budweiser.

In his Sox days he could be the team’s best marketing tool, as he was in 1977 during the season of the “South Side Hit Men.” Or he could be the owner’s worst nightmare, placating the fan base by offering blunt criticisms of the team, its manager and struggling players. His legacy is celebrated at Wrigley Field every home game, while the Sox virtually ignore the fact he spent 11 seasons on the South Side.

Caray’s exuberance on home run calls was not demonstrably different from Schriffen’s calls. But Schriffen’s now-infamous call on Andrew Benintendi’s walk-off home run Saturday night — calling out “the haters” before asking fans to “staaand up” — has divided Sox Nation, or what’s left of it.

Can you imagine Caray yelling: “It might be, it could be, it is … holy cow, take that, you haters.”

Maybe this is what Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf prefers. He was the one, after all, who basically pushed Jason Benetti out of the Sox TV booth, and some of those angry fans have aimed their barbs directly at Reinsdorf’s ownership of the team. He also pushed Caray out of the Sox booth, though the animosity was mutual.

Recall that Reinsdorf once said: “My biggest mistake was not firing Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall before the first day of the 1981 season. There was an atmosphere of negativism that made it hard to win and difficult to attract good ballplayers.”

That rebuilding ‘81 team was managed by a young Tony La Russa, whom Caray and Piersall frequently criticized for losses. The two broadcasters no doubt contributed to the wrath La Russa received from Sox fans in his early days.

“Fans like Harry and I, so we never changed,” Piersall told me in 2014. “We were entertainers for a last-place ballclub. And let me tell you, that wasn’t easy. You’d hear Harry with bases loaded cry, ‘He paaaaaapped it up.’ ”

After Reinsdorf’s group of investors bought the Sox from Bill Veeck, he called Caray and Piersall into his office to complain about their treatment of the manager.

“Reinsdorf said to us in a meeting, ‘You guys are always second-guessing La Russa,’” Piersall recalled. “Harry said, ‘We don’t second-guess. We first-guess.’”

La Russa went on to become a Hall of Fame manager, while Caray thrived after his move to WGN and the Cubs. But La Russa and Caray never buried the hatchet.

“Hell, no,” La Russa told me during his induction weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y. “The first slice he took (at me) was ‘Bill (Veeck) was too cheap to hire a real manager.’ There’s probably a lot of truth to that. But Harry liked to pick on lambs, and I was a lamb.”

Former Tribune Co. executive Jim Dowdle hired Caray in ‘81 over the objections of the board of directors.

“Being born and raised on the South Side, I learned that you can move from south to north,” Dowdle once told me. “You just can’t move north to south. Harry’s enthusiasm was overwhelming, and one thing Cub fans have is enthusiasm. How could you not like someone with so much enthusiasm?”

But the stuffy Tribune Co. board didn’t want a powerful broadcaster criticizing the owners if the team was bad, which it definitely was in ‘81. Dowdle told Caray of their objections after asking the attorneys to leave the room.

“I said, ‘Harry, you can’t be running up and down Rush Street,’” Dowdle told Tribune baseball columnist Jerome Holtzman. “’And you can’t be as controversial as you have been. This is the Tribune Co. You have to have a lower profile.’

“And Harry said, ‘I haven’t got as far as I am today by not listening to the guy in charge. If you don’t mind, I might disagree with you and give you my opinion. But you have the last say.’”

While Caray seldom held back as the Sox broadcaster, he toned down his criticisms when he changed teams. But he became the face of the team and beloved by Cubs fans. In 1997, in what would be Caray’s final season, the Cubs started 0-14 and were out of contention before the ivy bloomed. Caray became one of the only reasons to watch.

“It’s Wrigley Field and Harry Caray and the whole atmosphere around the ballpark,” Cubs manager Jim Riggleman said that May. “When the tourists come to town, Wrigley Field is one of the stops on the tour. Harry does so much for this ballclub, promoting it on TV around the country.”

Caray, who died in February 1998, turned into a kinder, gentler announcer on the North Side, and that’s the one who was celebrated Thursday by the restaurant, his fans and old friends.

But maybe a glass will be raised on the South Side, too, in memory of a broadcaster who called it like it was.