Henning: Carey's voice and life flowed with grace

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Former Tiger broadcaster Paul Carey in his Rochester home, March 11, 2015.

No, we do not overvalue or overstate our relationship with baseball broadcasters.

We didn’t with George Kell.

Nor with Ernie Harwell.

And we didn’t attach any particular unearned status to Paul Carey, who died Tuesday at age 88 after a final duel with cancer.

Baseball is life, and spirit, and important to our hearts, which means the people assigned to describe and relay the game to us are something akin to midwives. They help deliver joy even amidst the relative pain that also is part of any baseball season.

Paul Carey got it.  He lived the mission and privilege that came with being not only a terrific Tigers broadcaster, but far more importantly, in performing his vocation as a marvelous radio newsman and professional.

This is where baseball stops, where his lofty 19 years as Harwell’s play-by-play companion, gives way to Carey’s grander life and gift.

He was a reporter, a journalist, a self-effacing presence in an industry known for its share of front-and-center egos.

Mid-Michigan's gift

He was from Mount Pleasant, the son of a geography professor at Central Michigan University, and his work through the years was spiced by a kind of academic regimen. He was there early, there late, and on any given day handled duties that extended far beyond any job description.

He broke in with an upstart station in Mount Pleasant during his college days at CMU, which preceded his transfer to Michigan State, from which he graduated in 1950 after majoring in speech, radio, and dramatics.

He was in the Army from 1950 to 1952, during the Korean War, as a staff sergeant heading a weapons division. You didn’t often hear about that part of his life, all because Carey considered it to be service — basic service any man had a right to expect and fulfill.

Former Tigers radio voice Paul Carey dies

After he was discharged in the autumn of 1952, he worked hardscrabble, jack-of-all-skills shifts in radio and TV at Saginaw. And then it was on to Detroit and to the national giant, WJR, where he would become assistant sports director to Bob Reynolds. He eventually was named Pistons play-by-play announcer, and then, in 1973, he was tabbed to replace Ray Lane (who had departed only because of a sponsorship conflict) as Harwell’s partner, working religiously the middle innings as Harwell handled the three innings on either side.

He was perfect for the job: Straight, energetic, and reassuring with his voice-from-the-mountains tone and presence. He was an indefatigable worker, handling the postgame “Paul Carey Scoreboard Show” updates, pregame responsibilities, and even engineering the broadcasts for 16 of his 19 years. His skills and radio know-how were simply indispensable to WJR and, more so, to a Tigers radio audience that held such a stake in those broadcasts.

Personal heartbreak

For all the pure joy he held for his job, he dealt with sadness. Nothing matched the burden of 1984, ironically a year of ecstasy in Detroit as the Tigers won a world championship.

Carey, though, was losing his wife, Patti, to brain cancer. It was an anguished, lengthy, cruel vigil for him and for Patti, although Carey, ever the selfless professional, never let on, publicly, or even privately, that he was living with incomprehensible pain.

There was happiness yet ahead: Nancy, whom he married a few years later and who survives him, a companion who shared with him a post-career passion for travel they both indulged in, which began almost as quickly as Carey said goodbye to the broadcast booth.

That, of course, happened when the Tigers blundered horribly by deciding that 1991 would be Harwell’s last season. Carey had decided that when Ernie went, he was going, as well. And when the Tigers, chastened after creating a monumental mess, decided to bring back Harwell, Carey decided he and Nancy were enjoying life too much. He laughed at ideas he might return.

He had given his job everything he had, and his audience perhaps more than it deserved, right down to a hallmark effort, after the Friday midnight news, when Carey assiduously reported every high school football and basketball score in the state.

It was an enormous job, which explained why he, and his station, did it. They were the only ones who had the reach (WJR’s clear-channel 50,000 watts) and the resolve (Carey’s commitment) to let a state know how its precious preps had fared.

He was such a terrific person. And yet, for all the ardor and attention, Paul Carey never seemed to understand the degree to which he was revered.

It was, after all, his job. His profession. His responsibility.

And, oh yes, definitely his gift to all of us.

Twitter: Lynn_Henning