Catching up with Vin Scully; The great master shares tips and encourages reading
Baseball's best ever, the 67 year Voice of the Dodgers, who retired after the 2016 season, says he couldn't call games today.
Vin Scully is unquestionably America’s best ever baseball play-by-play announcer. He’s been fully retired since 2016 and will be 91 in November. Should he choose to do so, he could write a weighty tome of his years in the baseball booth and of a long and blessed life, achieving greatness on-air and off. Every conversation or interaction I’ve had with Vin through the years has been uplifting.
He didn’t disappoint last week when he was gracious enough to give me a few minutes on the phone. To begin with and unsurprisingly so, the man has not lost a spring to his step vocally. Baseball broadcast historian Curt Smith praises Scully for his unequaled capacity for word imagery. His mind is still as sharp as it was when he signed off for a final time.
I reached out to Scully to ask him to share a tip or two for budding broadcasters headed back to school. Being the gentleman that he’s always been with me, he was happy to oblige.
Before hanging up with him and without any warning from me, I asked him for his recollections of one of the most bizarre plays of the 1959 baseball season; 59 years ago. He remembered the details of the occasion as though it was played yesterday. It was at the old Los Angeles Coliseum where the field configurations were distortedly asymmetrical. (I broached him about the play because I plan to do a piece about Scully’s striking call of it at a later date.)
Without hesitation, Vin summarized the play concisely and seamlessly the way he spun yarns on air for 67 glorious seasons. He had no need to dig for a confirmation of facts from an external source. Heck, his bottomless well of memories is Google with a rapid heartbeat.
On June 30th, the Dodgers hosted the Giants. Willie Mays hit a Don Drysdale pitch down the short Coliseum leftfield line that appeared to hit the foul pole. It was first called a homerun, then a foul ball. A long and heated argument followed, turning the infield into a three-ring circus, one populated by managers, coaches and players, each arguing separately with three of the four umpires. Finally, there was a little Judgment of Solomon and Mays was granted a double.
On the fly and off the cuff, Scully not only recounted the occurrence with flawless detail, he capped it with a fascinating footnote, “The third base umpire was a Texan named Dusty Boggess. He stumbled a bit watching the flight of the ball. Some wondered whether he had a drink or three before the game.” (Boggess was meaty. He weighed in at one point of his National League career at a bulging 275 pounds.)
Conversations with Scully make many wish that they can scrub his knowledge for every last nugget.
We had an opportunity to review how to best address a number of key aspects of broadcasting.
Your word retention and retrieval were unhesitating right down to your final broadcast in 2016. Any reason why?
If words are at the tip of my tongue, reading is one reason why.
I attribute my comfort with language to my strong appetite for books from the time I was young and throughout my life.
Whether it’s young broadcasters or just ordinary people, I always encourage others to read, no matter the subject of interest. It’s a truly great thing to get into. Read what you love. I was always wide open. I would read virtually anything, from airplane books that you might toss after you’re done to earlier classics. I enjoyed biographies of all sort. The Vince Lombardi bio is a sports one that comes to mind first.
There was a time I read lots of World War II books because I grew up through it. I was young. Still, it was a period of time that interested me and I devoured lots of books on the war.
How did you approach the range of words you used on air?
I was always conscious not to use highfalutin language. I did a lot of reading but I didn’t want to ever sound like a showoff or overwhelm the listener or viewer. It was always a fear of mine of reading too much.
I brought a mental eraser with me into the booth. If I used a word that could be overpowering, I would follow it by teasing myself on-air. I didn’t want to be out of line. On-air, I was talking to friends and to a broad range of people. I never wanted to say something that made them feel uncomfortable.
If and when I did, I would say something something like, “There you go again, Scully.” I wanted to keep the broadcasts simple.
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Which book now that comes to mind are you reading?
There’s one that sticks to me today. It’s by Bill Bryson. One Summer America, 1927. I immediately swallowed it up. We have a copy here at home and it’s always off the shelf. Every now and then I’ll pick at it like a piece of cake.
Maybe I was attracted to it because it was the year I was born. (It’s a history book published by Doubleday about the news filled summer of 1927, the famed Lindbergh transatlantic flight, the Great Mississippi Flood and yes, the 1927 Yankees)
You talk about wanting to make people smile and when you do it makes you feel good.
There’s nothing like improving and brightening a friend’s day. It’s something I try to do. They’ll remember it and so will you.
What was your major at Fordham and how did it help you as a broadcaster?
I majored in communications with an emphasis in English. I was very fortunate in the sense that I left after a year at Fordham and spent time away in the Navy. When I got back, the school was establishing an FM radio station so I had the opportunity to do a wide range of things. So I was very fortunate. I learned a ton and enjoyed lasting experiences.
At WFUV, did you do only sports?
No. Not at all. So much had to be done, covering a broad range of programming.
When you pursued a broadcast career after Fordham, did you know you wanted sports?
When I got out, I sent 125 letters out to radio stations all along the East Coast, from Maine to Florida. There was one station I was told was a 50,000 watt giant, WTOP in Washington. It was looking for a summer replacement. Frankly, I suggested to the lady helping me send out my resumes to skip WTOP, figuring, ‘Why would it hire me.’ She said, ‘Look you’re sending out so many, why not? You have nothing to lose but a 3 cents stamp.’ I’m dating myself. And wouldn’t you know it! Of all applications, it was the one that connected. I assumed all sorts of duties as the regulars were on vacation. At some point, the station sent me out to do some color on local football broadcasts.
WTOP is where radio greats like Arthur Godfrey and Edward R. Murrow worked. The station had quite a legacy.
You’ve interviewed a wide range of subjects through the years, from run-of-the-mill players to President Ronald Reagan. Any suggestions on how students best handle interviews?
The secret is to let the subject speak.
Ask a question. When the interviewee finishes his or her sentence, don’t jump in right away and ask another question. Count in your head to 5. The subject might continue and have something interesting to say.
In addition to baseball, you’ve done football, golf, tennis and even some basketball early in your career. Which did you find most challenging?
Baseball is the most difficult to do because it’s slow moving. The other sports move quickly. Golf is a relay team broadcast.
With baseball the listener or viewer knows as much as you. It is a slow lumbering sport. You have to be prepared with something extra to add beyond some of the basics. If you’re not prepared or don’t know the game, you’re easily exposed.
When you retired, did you feel you could have continued?
I felt it was enough. At the time, I might have thought, maybe I could have stuck around for a year or two. Now, I’m done. I can’t tell a story off the top off my head as I did for many years. I would have to go through vital parts of the story to myself before I tell it. You can’t do that on the air where events on the field require immediate detail of an anecdote.
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Bless you for this, Mr. Halberstam. That’s all I need to say, but I lack Vin’s brain, so I’ll say more anyway. What he said about no longer having anecdotes at the tip of his tongue …. He did say during his final season something along the lines that it was getting harder for him to get up to do the games. Maybe that has something to do with being 89. I notice that above this comment is a photo of Monte Moore talking about his unhappiness with Harry Caray. I have wondered if Vin thought to himself, Harry stayed… Read more »
Vin makes excellent points about interviewing. The problem today (and it’s not just in sports) is that the interviewer bloviates and essentially takes forever to frame the question, leaving virtually no time for the answer before the next break. Another poor tactic is asking multiple questions in the same long filibuster making it more difficult for the interviewee to decipher and may answer one or sometimes none of the questions. Finally, what really gets to me are interviewers who are too occupied with thinking of their next question, don’t pay attention to the answer just given to them and then… Read more »