The sunsets over Dodger Stadium and Chavez Ravine are breathtakingly colorful. They're beautiful, but not always easy to describe.
"It's a cotton candy sky with a canopy of blue. It looks good enough to eat."
Well, I guess it's easier for some of us.
On a typical night at Dodger Stadium, Vin Scully sits in the booth that's named after him, perched on the chair he calls home for approximately 81 games a season. He has two media guides, home and away. Both are stuffed with index cards on which Scully has written notes on the stories he's researched, stories of greater depth, insight, and humor than the ones that come pre-printed in the team-authored books. His scorebook sits front and center in a custom-leather binder. He has another book off to the side containing key stats and more index cards, all of which are also prepared by Scully himself.
There's a yellow highlighter, a red pen for pitching changes, and a blue pen just in case his notes need correction. He keeps a handful of Jolly Rancher candies in his pocket, just in case his throat gets dry during the broadcast. It's a trick he learned years ago so he could avoid drinking water while working -- every broadcaster fears missing a pitch because he had to run to the restroom. It says something about a baseball commentator that his choice of pens, lozenges, and other accessories has been deemed worthy of documentation.
Many of the tools of Scully's trade are easily visible whenever the camera cuts to the booth, but they fail to distract from Scully himself. Always impeccably dressed, he can be simultaneously dapper and dated, with lapels of powder blue, ties the color of 1970's kitchen appliances, and such debonair though archaic touches as complementary pocket squares. His hair isn't as ablaze with color or as full as it was when he first began broadcasting, the red hue that was part of his Irish heritage giving way to gray and white. His smile is unchanged and his eyes just as blue, but his face is fuller and his eyelids sag more, as you'd expect from a man who was born well before World War II but still sometimes finds himself calling the 15th inning of some interminable game well after midnight.
"All I know is I'm eternally grateful for having been allowed to work so many games."
Yet, it's not about how Scully looks; it never has been. It's about how he sounds.
Year after year, in dulcet baritone he has implored his friends -- a word he comes back to again and again -- to "Pull up a chair!" It's something he's done roughly 10,000 times in the past 65 years -- not that he cares about the exact number. "To be honest I've never been interested in how many games I've done and seen," he told me in a late-April interview. "It doesn't mean anything to anybody. All I know is I'm eternally grateful for having been allowed to work so many games."
Scully is in his 65th season announcing for the Dodgers, then of Brooklyn, now of Los Angeles. He began in 1950, when he was just 22 years old. He earned the job through a combination of luck and a propitious decision to brave the winds of a fall football game when circumstances forced him to broadcast from the roof of the Fenway Park. In young Scully's case, the commitment to reporting in the worst conditions endeared him to baseball broadcasting pioneer Red Barber, a genius at his craft who happened to be in the market for an apprentice.
Scully has "been allowed" (as he put it) to work so many games not out of deference to his longevity, a living monument to his own better days, but because he matured from a defensive and unsure kid who reflexively deferred to the old pros around him into the ultimate old pro himself, one whose relationship with the listener is uncommonly close, and whose emphasis on good storytelling and scene-setting has conveyed -- or "painted," as he refers to it -- the wonder of major-league baseball first to the already-primed fans of Brooklyn, then to those of Los Angeles, who, for reasons unique to team's move west, needed to be told in just the right way.
Scully has worked for most of the three-letter networks throughout his career, but always with the understanding that the Dodgers came first. He announced National Football League games and covered the PGA Tour, including the Masters. He also did the World Series and All-Star Games for CBS Radio from 1979-1982, then NBC television as a lead broadcaster announcing Saturday's Game of the Week with Joe Garagiola, the World Series, and All-Star Games. He even ventured outside of sports, hosting a game show, It Takes Two (1969-1970), and a weekday afternoon variety show, The Vin Scully Show (1973).
Despite those occasional attempts to branch out, Scully has remained with the Dodgers for his entire career. There have been other offers; in 1969 the Yankees reportedly offered to double his salary, and there were successful stints calling football and golf as well. Nevertheless, Scully has always elected to remain in Los Angeles, a choice rooted in loyalty to an organization that made him feel like family when the O'Malley family owned the team.
If there's an award for broadcasting, it's likely that Scully has won one or two of them, and he's been in the Hall of Fame for over 30 years. As fellow Hall of Fame broadcaster Jon Miller has discovered, Scully's unmistakably smooth cadences are emulated by broadcasters around the world, from Japan to Mexico to Venezuela, and his name is frequently found in the top three in national rankings of baseball announcers. But Scully doesn't owe his long tenure to the kind feelings of owners (as he noted, he has been around the Dodgers for five changes of ownership), regional bias, or sentimentality. Vin -- who was Vincent as a kid, then Vince, Vinny to those who know him well, and Vin on the air since "Vince Scully" sounds lispy -- took an ordinary job and elevated it in a way that no one else had before. Treating listeners as friends, not fawningly, but with sincerity, was part of that.
* * *
"Let the Crowd Roar"
"My idea is that I'm sitting next to the listener in the ballpark, and we're just watching the game," Scully says. "Sometimes, our conversation leaves the game. It might be a little bit about the weather we're enduring or enjoying. It might be personal relationships, which would involve a player. The game is just one long conversation and I'm anticipating that, and I will say things like ‘Did you know that?' or ‘You're probably wondering why.' I'm really just conversing rather than just doing play-by-play. I never thought of myself as having a style. I don't use key words. And the best thing I do? I shut up."
"I never thought of myself as having a style. I don't use key words. And the best thing I do? I shut up."
Scully often returns to the idea of "shutting up," but he does himself a disservice. His instinct for when to let a moment breathe leaves the listener waiting with anticipation for him to return with an articulate turn of phrase or insight, arguably more Scully's trademark than the silence itself. He simultaneously lets those watching or listening bask in the heroic or tragic, then punctuates that moment.
Scully's work is researched, but never rehearsed. There are all those index cards, but none of them are filled with grandiose soliloquies; his fear is that such preparation would cheapen the moment and cause him to say something disingenuous. "I never do that," Scully said in a recent interview on New York's WFAN radio. Referring to his call of Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run in 1974. "I really concentrate on the moment... I'm afraid that if I tried to prepare, I'd be so eager to get my marvelous words out onto the air [that] I might do it prematurely and be wrong."
Recalling the same moment in April, he said, "I took the headset off and went to the back of the booth to have some water and let the crowd roar. First, well, I was loving it. And secondly, there wasn't anything that I could say that would be better than the roar of the crowd."
Scully is proud of the moments in which he is able to restrain emotion and get out of the way. "That really is my trademark. Day to day, week in, week out. If something happens and the crowd roars, I shut up." Watch Kirk Gibson's famous home run in the 1988 World Series. Scully's call is as simple as they come: "High fly ball to right field... and she is gone!" Scully allowed those words to hang in the air for 70 seconds. Gibson rounds the bases, limping, smiling, without a peep from Scully. The crowd takes over, its roar the only soundtrack.
It was only after Gibson is back in the dugout, the crowd still booming as the Dodgers disperse, Scully throws in an unforgettable line: "In a year so improbable, the impossible has happened."
Ironically, for someone who credits the roar of the crowd both for drawing him to broadcasting and his approach to broadcasting, much of Scully's appeal stems from his conversational style. He doesn't rely on canned and kitschy calls; rather, he's in favor of metaphors, humorous anecdotes, historical analogies and even biblical quotations. He excels at extemporizing in vivid language that you might not have thought of yourself, but having heard him say it, you'd have trouble thinking of it differently. His spontaneous reaction to Fernando Valenzuela's 1990 no-hitter, for example -- "If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky!" -- instantly became inseparable from the moment, while Sandy Koufax's 1965 perfect game is almost never mentioned without Scully's call of the final inning becoming part of the conversation.
Someday someone will comb the Dodgers' broadcast archives to extract the many great stories and one-liners that came in run-of-the-mill games rather than at great moments in baseball history. If we're lucky, there will be an anthology of such material -- a daily devotional of Scullyisms. If a pitcher is working quickly, he might say that they are, "pitching like they are double parked;" if a player has trouble hanging onto the ball he might say something like, "he dropped the ball like a piece of wet soap;" and if a fast runner is on first, he might say "give him an inch and he'll take 90 feet."
Some of these have been borrowed by other broadcasters and become part of the standard announcers' arsenal, but there are more less imitable thoughts like, "it's a mere moment in a man's life between the All-Star Game and the old timer's game," that stick with the listener. Just last season, speaking of Mariano Rivera, he said, "The most phenomenal modern-day WHIP belongs to Mariano Rivera... You have to go back to... the dead ball. So WHIP is more like FLOG when it comes to Rivera." When Dodgers reliever Tom Niedenfuer gave up ninth-inning home runs to the Cardinals in consecutive games of the 1985 National League Championship Series, Scully marveled, "You would think the fates would be a little kinder to one man in so short a time."
There are countless moments in which you could say Scully was at his best. Near the top of that list is May 7, 1959, when the Dodgers honored Roy Campanella, whose Hall of Fame catching career was cut short when he was paralyzed in a January, 1958 car accident. When Campanella was wheeled onto the field, the public address announcer asked the 93,108 fans in attendance to act as if "lighting candles for a cake for Roy." Thousands of lighters and matches were lit. Scully stood in tribute:
"The lights are now starting to come out, like thousands and thousands of fireflies, starting deep in center field, glittering to left, and slowly the entire ballpark. A sea of lights at the Coliseum. Let there be a prayer for every light, and wherever you are, maybe you in silent tribute to Roy Campanella can also say a prayer for his well-being. Campanella, for thousands of times, made the trip to the mound to help somebody out: a tired pitcher, a disgusted youngster, a boy perhaps who had his heart broken in the game of baseball. And tonight, on his last trip to the mound, the city of Los Angeles says hello."
* * *
Some are still wondering what they will be when they grow up well into adulthood. Vincent Scully knew the answer when he was eight. A grammar-school assignment given out by his teachers, the Sisters of Charity, asked him to imagine his future occupation. The first and only thing that came to Scully's mind was his Saturday-afternoon routine, a habit that charted the course for the rest of his life. He would take a glass of milk and some saltine crackers, crawl on top of the crossbar that braced the family's radio, and listen to college football broadcasts that were coming into his home from the southern states.
Both to understand Scully's childhood imaginings and his future success, it is important to remember the relative newness and the role of radio at the time. This was 1935; radios were not small, portable appliances, but varied from large tabletop items to living-room furniture-sized, and for a small child, not to mention many adults, were the thoroughly engaging device that we expect home theaters to be today. Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast, which was able to convince at least some portion of its six million listeners that Martians had landed in New Jersey, was still three years away -- there was an unguarded receptiveness to the box's voices that is impossible to imagine today. Whether through the unaccustomed immediacy of breaking news or sports (no more waiting for the evening paper for the latest events and scores) or the entertainment programs that utilized the stage of the listener's mind for their imagery, the effect was transporting.
The young Scully was especially receptive to radio's power to capture the imagination. In a game's biggest moments, with the crowd erupting, Vincent would close his eyes and let the sound wash over him, a tremor of enthusiasm that, he said, gave him goosebumps. Thinking of that feeling, he gave his answer to the Sisters: he was going to be a sports announcer.
From an early age, he said he had "self-expression bubbling all of the time," and had to find an outlet, an audience.
Retrospectively, Scully recognized that it wasn't just the thrill of sports that had motivated his choice: From an early age, he said he had "self-expression bubbling all of the time," and had to find an outlet, an audience. Yet, that he knew as a child he would have a career in sportscasting is noteworthy not for its precociousness, but because not long before then such a dream would not have been possible; born in 1927, Scully is roughly the same age as national radio.
"It's a wonderful feeling being a bridge to the past and unite generations," Scully told mystery author Michael Connelly in 2009, but given his longevity and his timing, he's not so much the bridge to the past as much as he's the bridge and the past personified -- though he eventually added television to his repertoire, the broadcaster that Scully became is inseparable from the radio of his childhood, when the device excelled at "painting" worlds that a young boy might easily enter and through which he might plausibly imagine reaching out to others.
Scully might have become a football announcer had it not been for a Chinese laundry in his neighborhood. In the same year as his self-defining school writing assignment, he passed the laundry as he walked home from school and, glancing at the window, saw someone had posted the box score for Game 2 of the 1936 World Series between the Yankees and the Giants. Young Vincent, who had had limited exposure to baseball despite living in a city full of it, was stopped in his tracks. "I had only a vague idea of what was going on," he told biographer Curt Smith, "but I instinctively felt terrible for the losing team and from that moment on became a fan."
Scully learned more about baseball from looking at box scores and visiting the Polo Grounds, where he watched his team, the New York Giants (the box score in the laundry window had shown an 18-4 Giants loss) as well as by playing the game. His years with the Sisters of Charity had made him dedicated and meticulous, traits that helped him succeed at Fordham Prep, where he was pushed to become a young renaissance man. Always a performer, Scully acted in plays, was on the debate team, wrote columns for the school paper, and took elocution lessons. Voted "most popular" and "wittiest" by his peers, when playing for Prep's baseball team he did play-by-play and occasional color -- loud enough for his teammates to hear -- for himself.
At Fordham University, he worked at the school's radio station, WFUV, a legitimate FM channel broadcasting sports and entertainment. In addition to his duties in the booth, Scully could often be seen lugging a 30-pound piece of recording equipment with him around campus, always looking to snag a scoop or sound-bite from his classmates. When not doing actual radio-work, he would fake it on the playing field. An outfielder, he wasn't sharp with the glove and batted low in the lineup, he was fast enough his teammates nicknamed him "The Phantom." Mainly, though, the ballgames served as a chance for him to practice his play-calling. He stood in the outfield, calling the game aloud as it happened. Eventually, something had to give. "I couldn't play and broadcast at the same time," said Scully of his college career, "so I gave up varsity my senior year."
His education complete, Scully searched for a job, targetting smaller-wattage radio stations where he thought might have a better chance of getting a job. A girl who worked at Fordham's station suggested he send one to WTOP in Washington, DC.
Scully shook her off: "It's too big -- 50,000 watts."
"Send it," she said. "You don't have anything to lose but a stamp."
* * *
"Certain Aspects of Bovine Obstetrics"
Those 1949 letters brought each addressee the possibility of employing a tyro broadcaster with a perfectionist's work ethic, one that would endure the next 65 years. In A Talk in the Park: Nine Decades of Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth, longtime Oakland A's broadcaster Ken Korach recalled Scully, now a venerated figure as well as a senior citizen, still acting like the college student who hauled his recording equipment about Fordham:
In 2009, A's pitching coach Curt Young returned to LA for the first time since relieving for Oakland in the 1988 Series. Just before the game, Vin ran to our booth asking if Young had pitched then at Dodger Stadium... I ribbed Vin gently, "You're really hustling." He got serious. "This is what we do. We tie it all together. I'd feel terrible if Young went to the mound and I didn't know the last time he'd been on the mound here. Now, I can say that Young pitched in the sixth inning of Game 2 of the World Series and he is back twenty-one years later mentoring the A's pitchers." Believable? Here is Scully, then eighty-one, kicking everybody's butt at preparation when he could easily mail it in."
Three cents spent on a stamp changed Scully's life; he was hired by WTOP to be their summer substitute, pinch-hitting as the station's regular announcers vacationed. He got another break that same summer, when he met CBS radio news director Ted Church, who introduced him to CBS's sports director, Red Barber, also the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Initially, all Scully got from Barber was a handshake and a request to leave his name and address. That fall, however, CBS found itself short an announcer for College Football Roundup, a broadcast that simultaneously aired four games, bouncing from one to another. Desperate, Barber asked Church for the name of the kid he met over the summer. Church didn't remember, but somehow Barber managed to reach Scully's mother.
Barber sent Scully to Boston's Fenway Park for the Boston University-Maryland football game, which the 21-year-old called while sprinting back and forth on the roof of the ballpark on a freezing fall afternoon; assuming he'd be in a booth, the novice had neglected to bring a jacket. Scully's commitment served him well: Impressed by his dedication, Barber sent Scully to cover the Harvard-Yale game the following week. Subsequently, when Ernie Harwell's departure opened a spot in the Dodgers' booth for 1950, Barber (with Branch Rickey's concurrence) hired Scully to fill it.
Ernie Johnson, Sr. (ATL), 1962-1999, 38 years; Eric Nadel (TEX), 1979-present, 36 years; Jacques Ducet (WAS-French), 1969-2004, 36 years; Chuck Thompson (BAL), 1955-1956, 1962-1982, 1991-2001 34 years; Dave Niehaus (SEA), 1977-2010, 34 years; Jerry Howarth (TOR), 1981-present, 34 years; Lanny Fratare (PIT), 1976-2008, 33 years; Joe Castiglione (BOS), 1983-present, 32 years; Ned Martin (BOS), 1961-1992, 32 years; Orlando Sanchez-Diago (HOU-ESP), 1962-1992, 31 years; Herb Score (CLE), 1968-1997, 30 years; Duane Kuiper (SF), 1985-1992, 1994-present, 29 years; Ray Fosse (OAK), 1986-present, 29 years; Milo Hamilton (HOU), 1985-2012, 28 years; Bill Brown (HOU), 1987-present, 28 years; Felo Ramirez (MIA-ESP), 1993-present, 22 years; Dave Van Horn (WAS), 1969-2000, 21 years; Tommy Hutton (MIA), 1997-present, 18 years; Jeff Kingery (COL), 1993-2009, 17 years; Greg Schulte (AZ), 1998-present, 17 years; Miguel Quintana (AZ-ESP), 1998-present, 17 years; Dewayne Staats (TB), 1998-present, 17 years; Bob Starr (LAA), 1980-1989, 1993-1997, 15 years
Though not the first baseball broadcaster, Barber was nevertheless the field's foundational figure. He got his on-air start by happenstance in 1929 when, while working his way through the University of Florida as a janitor, he was called to the booth of WRUF, the school's station, to cover for a professor who failed to arrive to read "Certain Aspects of Bovine Obstetrics." The subject matter could not have been more uninteresting, but somehow Barber was enthralled, quitting school to work at the station. Five years later, when the Reds became one of the first teams to have more than a sporadic presence on radio, Barber was hired to be the voice of the team. When the team's dynamic president Larry MacPhail, who supported broadcasting games at a time when teams feared radio would destroy attendance, moved on to the Dodgers in 1939, intending to break a longstanding radio embargo among the three New York teams, he took Barber with him.
To anyone but the headstrong MacPhail, Barber might have seemed ill-fitted for Brooklyn. A native of Mississippi, Barber's style was folksy and relaxed. "The Ol' Redhead" embraced southern colloquialisms; a slippery baseball was "slicker than boiled okra," for example. Yet, though the phrases he used might have been foreign to the audience, he was insightful, impartial, endearing, and always prepared.
When the Bronx-born Scully joined Barber and Connie Desmond, he became the third man in the Dodgers booth. There wasn't much airtime for Scully at first, so it was understood that he would earn his keep by handling the prep work, getting lineups, finding stories around the clubhouse, and even carrying briefcases. "Scully was a very apt young man," Barber said upon Scully's receipt of the Ford Frick Award. "He made the most of his opportunity." More than once in later years, he demurred credit for Scully's success, writing, "Whatever made him the fine broadcaster he is, he had it when he started."
That was Barber's later judgment. At the time, he could be more severe. Barber's speech was measured, as was his on-air temperament, but a laid-back southerner he was not. A reserved man away from the microphone, on the job his perfectionism manifested itself in impatience with others' mistakes. He had been fortunate in that he had found a student who not only had an inherent ability to entertain but who absorbed his advice even when it wasn't offered diplomatically. "The greatest thing about Red's relationship with me," Scully said in an ESPN interview, "was that he cared... he wanted me to succeed. Now, he was a taskmaster -- he was hard -- he was like a father. One time I came in to give him a lineup and he [said], ‘Well, so-and-so hit third yesterday, he's hitting fifth today, why?' The first time I said, ‘I don't know,' but that was the last time I said ‘I don't know,' and that was great training."
"Don't imitate others," Barber warned Scully, "you'll water your wine." He advised him to limit his interaction with players, saying, "Shun them socially, or you'll lose objectivity." He insisted a broadcaster never have a drink -- not one -- before going on the air. Perhaps most importantly, Barber reminded him, "It isn't how much, but what you say."
Not all of Barber's wisdom was shared privately; he didn't hesitate to correct Scully on the air. In his second season, Scully said during a broadcast that Willie Mays was, "maybe the best player I've ever seen," to which Barber replied, "You're just starting out. No one cares about what you think." Looking back, Scully recalled, "In the beginning, you're trying desperately not to make a mistake -- not to mess up -- I did not have any chance at all to grow because I was on the defensive all of the time."
Barber and Scully eventually developed a deep appreciation for one another that outlasted their working partnership. "I never had a son," Barber wrote in 1970. "And yet in a very real way, at a very particular time, I did have a son." Nevertheless, when Scully pulled himself from the shadow of a legend he did so in his own way. Barber was laconic compared to Scully. Both could convey excitement when it was necessary, but the older man's conversation was more elemental. Compare Barber's between-pitch chatter about veteran outfielder Bobby Thomson in this 1950 Giants-Dodgers game --
Here is Bobby Thomson, right-hand-hitting, very tall center fielder. Bankhead delivers a curve, swung on, it's beaten down into the dirt foul. Strike one. This kid, Bobby Thomson, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, so he's come a long way, hasn't he? However, as an infant, his family moved to Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York, and he came up with the Giants, rather than with the Dodgers. He never was a Dodgers fan. Wonderful ballplayer. He hit .309 for the Giants last year, 6'2", 190 pounds. Bankhead pitches, fastball thrown, fouled back. No balls, two strikes. Leo Durocher will tell you he believes that this fellow up at the plate, his center fielder, Bobby Thomson, T-H-O-M-S-O-N, can, in a hundred yards, outrun anybody in baseball. He says he doesn't know if Thomson can outrun Jethroe of the Braves at 60 yards, but he knows he can at 100. Believes he can. This fellah can fly. A long stride. Pitch: Strike three, fastball over. So Bankhead set him down.
-- With a Scully anecdote from Cole Hamels' season debut at Dodger Stadium on April 23:
Interesting background note on Cole Hamels, he married a cover-girl. She was called the "Survivor Amazon", her name Heidi Strobel at the time. They were married on New Year's Eve, way back in 2006. He met her when she was making an appearance when he was pitching back in A-ball in the minor leagues.
But the thing I love about it--I'll tell you in a moment--Cole ready and into the wind up and Butera way out in front of a pitch and the count 0-1. This is a quote, Hamels said, "I went to get her autograph and I asked her out." She said, "‘Yes', if I come to Missouri." Now, they were in Clearwater, Florida. Here's the strike one pitch on the way...inside. So he asked the girl on a date and she said, "yeah. We're in Clearwater, I want you to come to Springfield, Missouri."
When I was much younger, we had an expression for a girl like that. Here's the 1-1 pitch on the way, hit in the air down the right field line, slicing towards the stands...reaching over and making the catch is Marlon Byrd! Fine play by the right fielder. So Butera fouls out to Marlon Byrd, one down.
Let's get back to the date. So Cole says, "I'd like to take you out," she said fine, "but you've got to come to Springfield, Missouri." When I was that age, I'd refer to that girl as "G.U."-- "Geographically Unacceptable." That's the phrase we used. But Cole, fortunately went to Missouri. He remembers--he's pretty romantic in this sense-- they went to a concert and they went to a movie. The title of the movie was "Cellular" and he says, "I still have the movie ticket stub." What a guy.
Barber's is a series of descriptions regarding a player in his fifth major-league season. Scully's is a story. There the mentor and mentee part ways.
* * *
"Who does this guy think he is?"
It would be hyperbolic to say that Vin Scully owes his high ranking among fans to something that fits in your pocket. It would be fair, however, to credit the invention of the transistor radio for refining and elevating the anecdotal showman we enjoy today. With Barber having departed to join the Yankees in 1954 and Desmond held back due to his drinking, Scully got his turn in the catbird seat, as his mentor would say. He was joined in the booth by Jerry Doggett, who had a supporting role. From the start it was clear that there would be a learning curve associated with relocating. The solution was partly Scully and partly the demise of the vacuum tube.
WORD ASSOCIATION WITH VIN SCULLY
The first thing that came to Scully's mind when author Cee Angi named the Dodgers' all-time WAR leaders by position:
GIL HODGES, 1B, 1950-1956
"Probably my all-time favorite. He was as straight-arrow as they come."
JACKIE ROBINSON, 2B, 1950-1956
"Perhaps the most exciting, driven player I’ve ever seen."
RON CEY, 3B, 1971-1982
"The home run hitter. I just think of stocky, very strong, and subject to humor from his teammates. They called him ‘penguin.'"
MAURY WILLS, SS, 1959-1972
"Humble. Made up for what he lacked by personal drive. The one thing he had was great speed, but he had to learn a lot of other things."
DUSTY BAKER, LF, 1976-1983
"Popular. Intelligent. You could picture him a manager."
DUKE SNIDER, CF, 1950-1962
"True star. Subject to teasing from by teammates. Great talent."
CARL FURRILO, RF, 1950-1960
"Blue collar. Thoroughly reliable. Day-to-day hard worker."
MIKE PIAZZA, C, 1992-1997
"Strong. Quiet. Sometimes distant."
DON DRYSDALE, SP, 1956-1969
SANDY KOUFAX, SP,1955-1966
"Reluctant to the spotlight."
DON SUTTON, SP, 1966-1988
"Successful. Highly intelligent"
OREL HERSHISER, SP, 1983-2000
"The Bulldog. A leader."
FERNANDO VALENZEULA, SP, 1980-1990
"Freddy. Great sense of humor. Easy to laugh."
CLAYTON KERSHAW, SP, Current
"Enjoying the moment. Extremely charitable."
YASIEL PUIG, RF, Current
"Exciting. I call him the wild stallion."
"When we came to California and we were in the Coliseum," he recalled, "there [might have been] 60,000 or 70,000 people there -- or if it was a World Series over 90,000 people -- and that's when I started realizing that people knew of the superstars. They knew Stan Musial, they knew Willie Mays, but by and large, they did not know the rank and file players, and that's when I began to dig more and try to find out more about the players themselves to tell the people in Los Angeles."
Scully scoured media guides, newspapers (home and away), and magazines looking for any story that might be of interest relating to the Dodgers and their opponents. He'd try to get copies of papers from the players' home towns looking for nuggets he could use on the air. Some of his best tidbits, though, came not through research, but close observation. After a game at the Coliseum, outfielder Duke Snider's wife Beverly greeted him and asked him if he ever choked up on the bat. Snider responded, "Yes, about three-eighths of an inch. Why?"
"Vin Scully told me," she replied.
Scully's program of investigation for the sake of conversation was new. Sure, broadcasters would give basic biographies and statistics while attempting to be colorful (with the effect of sometimes drawing attention to themselves rather than to the players or the game), but Scully took the approach to new levels. This turned out to be perfectly suited to the needs of the Dodgers once they left Brooklyn for Los Angeles.
In their first years in Los Angeles, the Dodgers' temporary residence was the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a massive track and football edifice dating back to 1923. This was a problem for the pitching staff, which faced a 251-foot wall in left field, the offense, which confronted a 440-foot power alley in right field, and for the club itself in bonding with the community -- while drawing crowds of 70,000 or 90,000 fans for a single game, as was possible at a facility large enough to have hosted both the 1932 and 1984 Olympics, might have been a positive for owner Walter O'Malley's wallet, the game itself was remote. Scully, finding himself, "broadcasting from this great saucer instead of a ballpark," was instrumental in shrinking the vastness of that space and forging a bond between his carpetbagging ballclub and its new city, as well as a bond between the fans and himself.
He was greatly aided in this by a technological innovation. Transistors made possible a smaller, lighter, truly portable radio. Suddenly something that had been restricted to the home or car shrank and could be taken anywhere. Fans came to the park armed with the popular new gadgets, using them to compensate for their distance from the action. There were enough of them playing that one could walk virtually anywhere within the Coliseum's confines and never miss a second of Scully's call. At the time, his broadcasts were also the only way to follow the game from outside of the ballpark -- O'Malley initially refused to put the Dodgers on television.
The radios in the park not only brought the fans closer to the players and personnel on the field, but closer to Scully; the immediacy of the reaction to his words, echoing back to him in the booth, gave him the sense of being a live performer instead of merely an announcer. "I was then not broadcasting a game as much as talking to people... telling stories, making them laugh or groan over a terrible pun."
Instant feedback sometimes brought a chance came for audience participation:
One day in 1960... [Scully] began talking about the umpiring team, one of whom was Frank Secory. Vin leafed through the record books and cited a few bits and things about Secory. He mentioned his age and then did a double take when he noticed the date of Secory's birth. Over the microphone he said, "Well, what do you know about that? Today is Frank Secory's birthday." ...Acutely aware, as always, that most of the people at the game were listening to him on transistors, he said, "Let's have some fun. As soon as the inning is over I'll count to three, and on three everybody yell, 'Happy birthday, Frank!' "
The inning ended. Scully said, "Ready? One, two, three!" And the crowd roared, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FRANK!" Secory looked up, astounded, and the crowd sat back, bubbling with self-satisfaction.
There are a few stories like that one, such as the time in 1965 Dodgers skipper Walter Alston let Scully manage from the booth for a moment, listening for coded instructions embedded in the broadcast. Yet, as amusing as such antics might have been, Scully was uncomfortable; he knew his true role was conversation rather than participation. As he said in a 1964 interview with Sports Illustrated's Robert Creamer, "You can't do things like that very often. In fact, maybe... we have done it enough." He feared becoming obtrusive and having, "an awful lot of people saying, ‘Who does this guy think he is?'"
"If you always say everything is great for your team it won't mean anything when something great happens."
Ken Korach once asked Scully, "What's broadcasting's essence?" Scully replied without hesitation: "That you are believable. If you always say everything is great for your team it won't mean anything when something great happens." That philosophy, along with the 1962 move to the more intimate Dodger Stadium, meant the fans would no longer be props or collaborators, but merely, as they had been, "friends."
Because of his embrace of that word and his lack of pretentiousness, Scully is aware that some listeners feel as though they know him more intimately than they really do. Yet, there's nary a mention of his personal life mixed into the 27 outs of a typical game. It's a contradiction inherent in an approach which aims to relay information, impart knowledge, and entertain, while also often tugging at the heartstrings of sentimentally. He was at his most revealing in his first game after the long labor war of 1994-1995, saying, "After being away, I've come to the realization that I need you more than you need me."
Perhaps this was because, as he once said, "The mere thought of [retirement] is frightening. A man really determines himself by what he does." It could also be that "friends" is more than just a way to frame a broadcast style but has real meaning for him. It often sounds that way. Addressing this writer, who greeted him as, "Mr. Scully," he corrected, "Forget the Mister. I'm Vin." That could be mere informality, but then there was his choice of words when, before beginning a mid-game discussion of the anniversary of the June 6, 1944 Allied invasion of Europe (D-Day) in 2010, he said, "I don't want this to be an intrusion, but I think we've been friends long enough, you'll understand..."
* * *
"Looking for seashells all over the world"
After 65 years of work, Scully's knowledge of baseball is borderline encyclopedic.
To keep up a conversational style for roughly 350 hours per season takes a lot of preparation. After 65 years of work, Scully's knowledge of baseball is borderline encyclopedic. For the things that he doesn't commit to memory, he has folders and filing cabinets. "The team is on the road now and I'm researching the Miami Marlins, and I'm trying to just find things that I can use when they eventually come to Dodger Stadium during our next home stand," he said in April. "If I see an item in a paper or a magazine that pertains to a team or a player that I might see in the future, I cut it out and put it in a little filing cabinet. That way when the team comes, I pull out all that I've accrued and sit down and analyze and make notes. It's never-ending."
Before the Internet, the hardest part of Scully's research, which he compared to, "looking for seashells all over the world," was finding the source materials. Unsurprisingly for an older man who had enjoyed great success using the same methods for decades, Scully was hesitant to embrace search engines and the like. (Last season he gave a possible indication of that hesitance when he said, "Can I ask you an honest question, between you and me? What in the world is [a] hashtag?") His preparation hadn't failed him to that point, and there seemed no sense in fixing something that wasn't broken.
In 1996, the Dodgers hired Ben Platt, a Dodgers enthusiast and writer who had been involved with the team's fan magazine The Big Blue Review, to create the team's official website. Platt befriended Scully, who he had idolized since childhood. The speed and accuracy with which Platt could pull information, good information, convinced Scully to take the Internet under advisement. By the late 90s, with Platt's assistance, Scully could have a great deal of research completed before the season even started, freeing him to be even more creative with the stories he told, since the day-to-day workload was a little lighter.
Yet, that hasn't eased Scully's mind about the quality of his storytelling. "Some days are better than others," he said. "Once in a while you might do something good. But there are plenty of days when you're going home after a game, and you're your own worst critic, and you say ‘Oh! Why didn't I think of that!" or "I wish I had done this.' Then once in awhile, very rarely, do you say ‘Oh, I'm glad I got that in.'"
* * *
At 86, you could say that Vin Scully has conquered baseball. He's called World Series and All-Star games. He's been with the Dodgers in two home cities and three different home parks (four if you count the games they played in Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium in 1956-1957), and even accompanied the team to Australia for this year's opener. He's outlasted 11 managers, nine different owners, and has seen thousands of players come and go. He's called triple plays, no hitters and perfect games, and has been behind the microphone for some of the most iconic moments in baseball history.
"It's a great privilege to be allowed to go to the ballpark, and do the game, and express a little bit of yourself without getting in the way."
And yet, he remains. In April, when asked if he still felt the same way he did following the players' strike 19 years ago, if he still needs the audience, he said, "It's still a wonderful experience. It's a great honor. And it's a great privilege to be allowed to go to the ballpark, and do the game, and express a little bit of yourself without getting in the way."
Yet, age is inexorable, and that has meant years of wondering as to when Scully will choose to say goodbye, followed by subsequent celebration when he chooses to stick around for one more season. Scully gives reassurances that he will keep calling games for as long as he can, but there's a nagging sadness knowing that all friendships eventually come to an end. "The people have responded so well -- so touchingly -- that it will be very difficult for me to just suddenly walk away," he said. "It's the human relationships I will miss when the time comes. Like everyone in life, I've had my tragic moments, and the crowd has always got me through those moments. That's why I've said ‘I needed you far more than you needed me.' I rarely use the word ‘fans.' I realize the origin is ‘fanatics,' but I always use the word ‘friends.'"
Vin -- first name used intentionally here -- said he feared he sounded egotistical saying, "A lot of people will write and say, ‘I hear the first day of spring and I hear you and all is right with the world. Everything is normal, [though] all hell might be breaking loose all around the world, there's Scully still broadcasting the game.'" His interviewer attempted to reassure him, saying that everyone wants to be praised for their contribution to the world, that there is no pride in accepting accolades that are simply true.
He conceded the possibility, but you could almost hear him shrug. "I think I've been around long enough now I'm a comfortable old pair of loafers, or whatever makes you feel like, ‘Yes, this is fine,'" he said at one point. But for one of the rare times in his long career, Scully had chosen the wrong word, capturing only one part of the relationship. There remained unaccounted for the clamor of the crowd, spontaneous, heartfelt, and the man who replied to it, equally spontaneous and sincere in trying to bring meaning to the cacophony, both audience and man fulfilling a need within the other.
That's hardly just fine; it's friendship.