Curt Smith Series - 10. 2021

Starting with Vin Scully, historian Curt Smith profiles one voice of each of this year’s 10 post-season teams

 

 

Today begins a unique series: a look at radio/TV Voices of all of baseball’s 10 post-season teams. It is written by Curt Smith, former Speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and author of 18 books, including the 2021 Memories from the Microphone: A Century of Baseball Broadcasting. (click the cover to the left or here to order your copy.)

The series features one announcer from each club who represents that franchise—current, retired, or deceased. Today, we profile the man often thought the Roy Hobbs of baseball broadcasting—“the best that ever was”—Vin Scully, whose Dodgers meet St. Louis in the Wednesday, October 6 National League wild-card game.

Vin Scully – profile

From 1950 to 2016, Vin Scully played every note of baseball’s octave, including his lyric invite to “Pull up a chair.” Through 1957, his Brooklyn Dodgers aired almost every game on TV, Vin moving fluidly between it and radio. Out West, the ex-Bums banned almost all video, Scully becoming The Transistor Kid. Later he added network play-by-play. On Game of the Week, America fully grasped what each coast already knew.

The man synonymous with baseball on the air was born November 29, 1927, in Manhattan to a silk salesman and an “Irish, red-haired” mother. In 1932, Vincent Aloysius Scully died of pneumonia, his son barely knowing him. To cope, Vin’s mother, Bridget Freehill, began renting out two spare rooms, usually for merchant sailors. One renter, a British seaman, worked for Cunard Lines. In 1935, he and Bridget wed.

Scully’s favorite boyhood place was beneath an Emerson radio “that sat so high off the ground that I was able to crawl up under it,” putting a pillow on its crosspiece. Each Saturday he sat with milk and saltines and heard Ted Husing and Bill Stern do football. “I shouldn’t have cared about a game like Florida-Tennessee,” said Vin, yet got goose bumps from the roar of the crowd.

At eight, the Giants fan wrote a composition for class about wanting to be a sports announcer. Three years later, Red Barber arrived in Brooklyn. Entering Fordham Preparatory, Vin heard him between Latin, the yearbook and newspaper, and jobs to pay tuition. By 1946, he had entered Fordham University, joined the Navy, then returned to college: Vin “everywhere” carting a huge tape recorder, said a classmate, “recording himself.”

In 1949, the senior sent letters to 125 stations, 50,000-watt WTOP Washington the sole station to reply. The CBS outlet made Vin a summer fill-in. Interviewing at the network, he met its sports director—Barber! Busy, Red told him to leave name, address, and number. Each week Vin heard College Football Roundup, skipping from game to game.

In November, Ernie Harwell was promoted at the last minute to CBS’s primary game, creating a void on backup Boston University–Maryland. To replace him, Red recalled Scully and phoned his home. “Vinny, you’ll never guess who called you,” Bridget said, opening the door that night. “He wants you to call him.” Vin said, “Who was it?” Red Skelton, mama said.

Barber assigned Scully to the game at Fenway Park, where, coatless on a frigid day, Vin didn’t find a booth. Instead, every time someone threw a pass, he had to race across the roof to report the unfolding action. Since his game was close, Roundup moved there after halftime. By the third quarter, Vin fought frostbite, sure he had failed.

Vin Scully and Jerry DoggettThat week Fenway brass apologized to Red about the booth. Scully impressed him as a stickler for preparation and for not noting his travail. Two days later Barber phoned: “You’ll have a booth next week—Harvard-Yale.” A month earlier Brooklyn’s Harwell had been hired by the Giants, prompting Barber to broach a plan to then co-owner Branch Rickey: “take a promising young man and train him.” Rickey said, “Fine, that is, if you find the right man.”

Red phoned Scully to ask him to join the Dodgers, launching radio/TV’s longest same-team and big-league streak: 67 years. Vin had never entered Brooklyn till the day he went to work. Train, bus, and trolley seemed impractical, “Ebbets so far away.” Braving “on-the-job training,” the rookie living with his parents brought Red an early lineup card. “‘This man hit third yesterday,’ he said. ‘Why is he fifth today?’ It was the last time I didn’t know.” (Vin Scully with his longtime partner and friend, Jerry Doggett.)

The Ol’ Redhead was a hard taskmaster. One day Scully, on radio, was left alone at the mike: Barber, to do TV; veteran Connie Desmond, to “get coffee”; the future legend, to fill air-time hopefully without a slip. After October 1951—the Dodgers and Giants tied for a pennant, forcing a best-of-three playoff—tension further intensified. Vin, then 23, never forgetting how the fate of a franchise turned on a swing.

“At the start of [Game Three’s] the ninth,” Scully said, Brooklyn up, 4-1, Vin saw a man at the Polo Grounds carrying a huge horseshoe of flowers fit for a funeral home. Its banner read, “GIANTS, REST IN PEACE.” The ’Jints’ Bobby Thomson then hit his epochal 5-4 flag-waving homer. Vin “wondered what did that guy do with those flowers? … You can’t just suddenly put that under your coat”—though Flatbush tried for decades to put The Shot out of mind.

In 1953, Brooklyn took a second straight pennant. Barber then sought owner Walter O’Malley’s aid to refashion his NBC Series TV fee as Dodgers Voice. O’Malley refused, Red resigning, Walter next offering the Classic to Vin, who, heartsick, asked Red for consent. He said, “If there was anyone I’d want to take my place, it’d be you.” The day of the Series opener, Vin “tried to play it cool,” eating breakfast with his family, then throwing up. Writer George Vecsey felt the continuum. “Vin’d been raw, but we heard Red fuss over and teach him.” Later Vin termed Barber “a father to me in every way.”

In 1955, the Bums made the Series again, seven straight lost the elephant in Brooklyn’s room. In Game Seven, Dodgers up, 2-0, the Yanks’ Elston Howard made the final out. Said Scully, simply: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world.” All winter, people asked how Vin remained so calm. “Well, the truth is,” he said, “I was so emotionally overwhelmed by it all that if I had to say another word, I think I would have cried.” The New York Times’ John Drebinger wrote: “Brooklyn at long last has won the World Series and now let someone suggest moving the Dodgers elsewhere.” Someone would.

By 1957, jet travel had halved New York–Los Angeles flight time to four and a-half hours, making the Bums’ shift possible. The Brooks dealt their Texas League franchise to the Cubs’ Pacific Coast League Angels. In return, they got Southern California big-league rights and their small-scale version of Wrigley Field as a possible home for the relocated Dodgers. “Walter was looking ahead,” said Vin, “in case he couldn’t get what he needed to stay.”

On May 28, 1957, the National League said that “the Dodgers could move if we eased scheduling by getting another team to California,” said rookie broadcaster Jerry Doggett. On August 8, the Giants said they were moving to San Francisco in 1958. Next month they and the Dodgers played one last time at the Polo Grounds, Vin recalling ’Jints patrons or players being pelted in Brooklyn with “beer, coins, whatever fans would find.

“I’d go to the ballpark just hoping no one would get hurt,” Scully reminisced on air. This game reflected a different hurt. “You want ’em to take their time,” he said, sensing that the crowd hoped to “holler.” The youth in his childhood park wished to mourn. “Boy, it’s funny being a kid raised in New York,” he said, “You sit here watching this ballgame and looking at the Polo Grounds and your memories go wild.” The Giants won, 3-2. It didn’t matter.

Ebbets Field held a final service for 6,702 congregants on September 24: Bums 2, Bucs 0. On October 8, after Los Angeles’s City Council voted to give three hundred acres of land to the Dodgers for the deed to Wrigley Field and to set forth their commitment to build a 50,000-seat park, O’Malley said his club would move to California in 1958. Brooklyn mended, but never healed.

Scully looked on, torn and relieved when, ignoring advice to hire West Coasters, O’Malley told him he would remain the franchise Voice. After debate, the Dodgers chose to play in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, its configuration foreign to baseball’s, the last row of bleachers 700 feet from the plate. As noted, the transplanted Bums did not televise, accenting radio, of which Vin was a master, calling plays in a park that many there could barely see. By the early ‘60s, Scully was a Southland ubiquity in a way he had never been in New York.

When Vin joked, wrote Steve Bisheff, “the … park would erupt in laugher, often startling players on the field.” On a freeway, his language “drifted up from every traffic jam and outdoor cafe.” In 1962, the Coliseum yielded to five-tier 56,000-capacity Dodger Stadium, luring a bigs high 2,755,184. In 1963, Vin aired Sandy Koufax’s coming-out: a 25-5 record, NL-record 306 strikeouts, and another high of 15 Ks in the Series opener v. the Yanks. He then completed a 2-1 Game Four sweep—to Scully, “If you had any connection to the Dodgers, probably the sweetest moment in their history.”

For Koufax, life was as sweet on September 9, 1965, Scully phoning flagship station KFI to have it record Sandy’s last half-inning. Three times earlier, he had “walked out to the mound to pitch a fateful ninth-inning” no-hitter. This was “the toughest”: No Cubs had reached base. After Sandy fanned the last six batters, Vin mused how “when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record book, that K stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X.”

Next month LA won another title, Vin viewing each game as an empty canvas: “You get your paints and brushes, and you mix the paints. Afterward, on radio and TV, “you say, ‘OK, that’s the best I can do.’” Upon Koufax’s final out, he said: “On the scoreboard in right field it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of the Angels.” Looking ahead, Scully was already eying the clock.

Vin’s vitae lists 12 All-Star Games  and 24 World Series; every major radio/TV Hall of Fame; a Lifetime Achievement Emmy and Presidential Medal of Freedom; even Dodger Stadium’s address renamed 1000 Vin Scully Avenue. He never grew self-satisfied, hosting the network It Takes Two, The Vin Scully Show, tennis, golf, and football. Yet baseball towered, as in 1974, Vin leaving the booth on Hank Aaron’s 715th homer, finally returning and admiring: “A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”

In 1976, Dodgers fans voted Scully “the most memorable personality in [LA] franchise history.” Next year baseball’s new four-year pact with NBC gave ABC its “first Series. They wanted their own guys,” columnist Phil Mushnick said, citing a network niche as crucial to a postseason job. Scully did CBS Radio’s late-1970s and early 1980s All-Star Game and Series, yet needed network TV for more people to fully appreciate his vivid tints and bold pastels.

In 1982, Scully got a Night at Dodger Stadium, star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for “broadcast excellence.” At Cooperstown, he said, “I would like to pray with humility and with great thanksgiving.” NBC’s Arthur Watson knew that for his next baseball pact to work, the Game of the Week required Vin’s 1980s benediction to catch the game’s soul, spurning, as he said, the cross of “guys using statistics the way a drunk uses a lamp post—for support, not illumination.”

All decade Scully’s take on history became baseball’s history. In 1986, the then ill-starred Red Sox lost a 5-3 tenth-inning lead. “Three and two to … [Mookie] Wilson!… Little roller up along first … behind the bag …It gets through [Bill] Buckner! Here comes [Ray] Knight! And the Mets win it!” Vin cried, voice throbbing, then hushing. It is how millions still remember him.

Others invoke the 1988 Classic opener, the favored 104-58 A’s ahead, 4-3, in the ninth. The Dodgers leading slugger was hurt and supposedly unavailable even to pinch-hit as Scully scanned their bench. “The man the Dodgers need is Kirk Gibson, and he’s not even in uniform,” said Vin. Icing a knee in the locker room, Gibson heard him and, irate, got into uniform. With two out and one on, Scully, eyeing a monitor, said, “And look who’s coming up!”

Limping to the plate, Gibson barely fouled four pitches, then swung at a 3-2 pitch. “High fly ball into right field! She is gone!” Vin exclaimed. Sixty-seven seconds later: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!” Again, Scully fled the mike, deferring to the viewer. A great painter knows that less is often more.

Vin’s post-Game age fused message and messenger: impossible to repeat, or forget, Gibson’s deed. In 2020, the Dodgers won their first World Series since Gibson’s blast, asking Scully to narrate their highlight film. Emmy Award-winning Aaron Cohen wrote the script. “It was daunting,” he said. “[At ninety-three!] what comes out of his mouth naturally is pitch-perfect, and better than anyone could ever write.”

Let us leave Vin on May 7, 1959, 93,103 lauding Roy Campanella, paralyzed a year earlier in a car accident, at a Yanks-Dodgers exhibition. After the fifth inning, lights dimmed as Pee Wee Reese wheeled Campy across the first-base line toward the mound, each person there asked to light a match. “The lights are now starting to come out, like thousands and thousands of fireflies,” Vin said of the silent tribute, “starting deep in center field, glittering around to left, and slowly the entire ballpark”—then magically, “a sea of lights at the Coliseum”.

“Let there be a prayer for every light,” said Scully, “for on his last trip to the mound, the city of Los Angeles says hello.” Vin’s genius has never said good-bye.

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Curt Smith

CURT SMITH is what USA Today calls the “Voice of authority on baseball broadcasting.” His newest book, Memories from the Microphone: A Century of Baseball Broadcasting, was released this fall. He is a former Speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush. Associated Press “Best in New York State” radio commentator, and Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. Mr. Smith writes twice monthly for Messenger-Post Newspapers.

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Michael Green
Michael Green(@michaelgreen)
1 month ago

What a wonderful tribute (not that I’m surprised that it’s a wonderful tribute). There’s so much to say, all we can say is that he was the best ever.