HE WAS A storyteller at heart, and so, on a day when those who knew him told stories of their own, we must start with the man himself. It was 1998, and Harry Kalas was attempting to kick his cigarette habit. As a substitute, the legendary announcer had taken to fingering cigars in the booth. While attempting to explain the allure of his new habit to fellow broadcaster Chris Wheeler one afternoon, Kalas settled on what he felt was a rock-solid justification.

Like all of the words that traveled through his gilded vocal chords, ink and paper don't do them justice. And yet, even in print, they resonate.

"Wheels, smoking a cigar is like falling in love," Kalas said that day, echoing an old Winston Churchill quote. "You are first attracted to its shape. You stay with it for its flavor. But always remember: Never, never, never let the flame go out."

Yesterday, at 1:20 p.m. at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, the flame went out.

Harry Kalas, whose voice served as the backdrop for millions of lives, collapsed in a broadcast booth at Nationals Park and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. He was 73.

Kalas is survived not only by wife Eileen and sons Todd, Brad and Kane, but by legions of baseball fans who spent all or part of the previous 38 seasons listening to his smooth baritone and iconic home-run calls. Funeral arrangements are pending.

"We lost our voice today," said a visibly shaken team president David Montgomery, before the Phillies' 9-8 win over the Nationals.

It was a voice that was 6 decades in the making.

Born on March 26, 1936, in Chicago, Kalas grew up in the sleepy town of Naperville, Ill., listening to radio broadcasts of Cubs, White Sox and Cardinals games. But the Washington Senators were his true love, thanks to a chance encounter with Delaware County native Mickey Vernon before a game against the White Sox at Comiskey Park. A 10-year-old Kalas and his father were sitting behind the visitor's dugout when Vernon spotted him in the crowd, picked him up, and brought him into the Senators' dugout.

"Thus began my love of baseball and the Washington Senators," Kalas, a 2002 Hall of Fame inductee as winner of the Ford C. Frick Award, once said when relaying the story.

His love affair with broadcasting did not begin until his freshman year at Cornell College in Iowa, when a blind speech professor named Walt Stromer encouraged him to pursue the craft. Kalas obliged, and spent the rest of his college days pursuing a future in radio.

After transferring to the University of Iowa, he joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, where he honed his broadcasting abilities on stages slightly smaller than professional baseball stadiums.

"He would practice broadcasting when we were playing touch football in the yard," said Robert Hornaday, a fraternity brother who now lives in Charlotte, N.C. "He would practice during intramural games. When Iowa had a basketball game he would broadcast it into his wire recorder and he would come home and critique himself."

Hornaday said Kalas worked hard to deepen his voice and gain the signature tone that Philadelphians have long associated with baseball.

"We thought he was crazy," Hornaday said. "Who knew?"

After graduating from Iowa in 1959, Kalas joined the Army and was sent to Hawaii, where he later took a part-time job as an announcer for the minor league Hawaii Islanders.

His first big break came in 1965, when the newly renamed Houston Astros hired him to join their broadcasting team. One of the Houston executives who hired him was Bill Giles, now the Phillies' chairman.

"Harry was a special friend of mine and my family for 44 years," Giles said in a statement. "Baseball broadcasters become an integral part of baseball fans' families. They are in the homes of fans every day for the entire season. No one will ever be able to match the joy Harry and Richie Ashburn brought to our fans for all those years. He had a great voice, understood and loved the game, and loved people. That's why I brought him here in 1971. My family and I and all of our fans will always have a place in our hearts for Harry."

In 1971, Giles hired a 35-year-old Kalas away from Houston to replace longtime Philadelphia broadcaster Bill Campbell, a move that drew the ire of many local sports fans. The early days were not easy. An Inquirer story on July 11, 1971, reported that executives at Channel 17 "weren't exactly overjoyed at viewer reaction to Harry Kalas." In April 1975, Phillies players began a boycott of the pregame show hosted by Kalas and Ashburn, unhappy with the $25 gift certificate they were being offered as compensation.

Campbell said he never held a grudge against his successor. In fact, when Campbell was honored by the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia as its Man of the Year in November, two broadcasters served as his sponsors. One was longtime Eagles play-by-play man Merrill Reese. The other was Kalas.

"Harry was a very humble, modest guy who didn't big-deal anybody," said Campbell, 85. "I think it paid off in the long run. I think it really cemented his relationship to the people. Particularly in our business, you can spot phoniness from a mile away and there was nothing phony about Harry."

When Gov. Rendell first met the broadcaster, Rendell was campaigning to become Philadelphia's district attorney in 1977. According to Rendell, Kalas attended a fundraiser that Wheeler staged at his condo.

"You know how with some people you can tell it in their eyes?" Rendell asked. "He had that devilish sort of playfulness in his eyes. I knew he was a keeper as a sports announcer and I knew he was a keeper as a friend."

By that time, Kalas had already adopted his signature home-run call - "Outta here!" - from a remark that then-Phillies shortstop Larry Bowa made one day during batting practice. He had also begun working for NFL Films, assuming the role of narrator that had been held by another legendary Philadelphia voice, John Facenda.

"In the 46 years of NFL Films, we have worked with two of the greatest voice-over talents in television history," NFL Films president Steve Sabol said in a statement. "John Facenda was the 'Voice of God' and Harry Kalas was the 'Voice of the People.' His substance was his style. There was no shtick, just a steady blend of crisp articulation and resonance. In many ways, Harry is the narrator of our memories."

As the lead play-by-play man for baseball's losingest franchise, the memories might have been sparse. But Kalas had a knack for making them lasting. When major league baseball's television regulations prevented him from calling the 1980 World Series, Phillies fans responded with such a heavy outcry that by the time the team returned to the championship in 1983, the rules had been changed. But it took Kalas another 25 years before he was able to declare the Phillies the "world champions of baseball."

"On a personal level, I really, literally, grew up only listening and knowing the voice of Harry Kalas for the Phillies for a long, long period of time," Mayor Nutter said. "What do they say? Often imitated but never really duplicated. It's virtually impossible to get his exact tone, whether it's balls-and-strikes or a long one out of the park."

Campbell said he last spoke with Kalas early last month after he had a heart procedure - the organization termed it "minor" - that he hoped would improve circulation to his legs. Kalas, Campbell said, had been struggling to walk up stairs and hoped that the procedure would alleviate the problem.

Reese said he and Kalas had lunch before spring training and Kalas had mentioned the upcoming medical procedure.

"He felt confident about it," said Reese. "I spoke to him again by phone when he got home from the hospital. Harry said he was looking forward to this season as much as any season ever."

Whether that health problem was related to his passing was unknown as of last night. He arrived at spring training in mid-March and broadcast each of the Phillies' first six regular-season games. Last Wednesday, he participated in the World Series ring ceremony at Citizens Bank Park and threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Kalas was on the team flight from Denver to Washington on Sunday night. But early yesterday afternoon, Phillies director of broadcasting Rob Brooks discovered him unconscious at Nationals Park, his glasses and stat book already set up in the broadcast booth.

At 1:20 p.m., he was pronounced dead.

"The Kalas family is overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and affection from all of Harry's fans and friends cross America," a family statement said. "Especially the Phillies fans whom he loved as much as the game of baseball itself."

By the time the Phillies took the field against the Nationals and broke .500 for the first time this season, news of his passing had spread throughout the stadium and the city of Philadelphia.

"I think if you could pick a way to die and a place to die and how you do it," Campbell said, "I think Harry would have picked this way."

After 73 years - 38 of them in the city of Philadelphia - the flame has died.

The Harry Kalas era is over. *

In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting contributions be sent in Kalas' memory to Phillies Charities, Inc., Phillies, 1 Citizens Bank Way, Philadelphia, PA 19148. Contributions will be earmarked for different charities at a later date.

Daily News staff writers Ed Barkowitz, Les Bowen, Mark Kram, Paul Hagen and Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.