A gem by the marvelous writer Curt Smith on the life of 94 year-old Vin Scully, MLB Voice, who passed after 67 years in the play-by-play chair.
Vin Scully, known and loved in precincts throughout the land, died at 94 Tuesday night, having broadcast sports, most famously baseball, since 1950: private, literate, “sitting on a mound,” he said, “as a gigantic parade goes by.”
Millions heard Scully’s Dodgers parade in Brooklyn—then listened to it in Los Angeles after the Dodgers’ 1957 Westward-Ho. For a long time, most of America knew Vin from an occasional network World Series here, an All-Sar Game there. Later, we met him regularly over 1970s CBS Radio, the 1983-89 NBC TV Game of the, and future XM satellite radio. Paraphrasing Roy Hobbs from the film The Natural, Vin was “the best there ever was.”
Since the 1980s I have asked many major-league announcers to name baseball’s greatest Voice. In unison, they answered Scully. Upon Vin’s death, the Yankees’ Michael Kay said, “Every game was a master’s class as he turned an inning into poetry.” Dodgers play-by-play man Charley Steiner called Scully “our Babe Ruth.” ESPN’s Karl Ravech mused that he was “a bar that none of us will ever reach.” In how many other fields does such unanimity prevail?
A friend once asked what made Scully, Scully? I mentioned Plato saying, “Before we talk, let us first define our terms.” Vin’s appeal began with a oneness with the Average Joe, privacy, and proportion: wooing but not overwhelming the listener. He was reliable: if Scully used a fact, you took it to the bank. He had a lilting Irish tenor, sang as much as talked the game, and treated a listener with respect, starting each broadcast, “Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant afternoon to you wherever you may be. Pull up a chair and spend part of the day with us.”
Perhaps more than any Voice, Vin used command of language to win and keep his public. Brad Buckholt wrote, “The words Wilver Stargell delight him. To [Vin] they are instruments of music.” His score could change tunes within a batter. A passed ball evoked the Ancient Mariner: “He stoppeth one in three.” An infield hit prompted Eugene O’Neill’s “A humble thing, but thine own.” Scully’s art reflected a lifetime affair with books: “my best friend on road trips.” Dick Enberg marveled, “All those wonderful thing that he does, go instantly from the brain to the mouth. I’ll be listening and think, ‘O, I wish I could call upon that expression the way he does.’”
The man synonymous with radio/TV sportscasting was born November 29, 1927, in northern Manhattan to a silk salesman and an “Irish, red-haired” mother,” he said. In 1932, Vincent Aloysius Scully died of pneumonia, his son barely knowing him. To cope, Vin’s mother, Bridget Freehill, began renting out spare rooms, usually for merchant sailors. One, a British seaman, worked for Cunard Lines. In 1935, he and Bridget wed.
About this time, Scully discovered his favorite place to visit: beneath an Emerson radio “that sat so high off the ground that I was able to crawl up under it.” Each Saturday Vin put a pillow on its crosspiece, devoured milk and saltines, and heard Ted Husing and Bill Stern do football. “I shouldn’t have cared about a game like Florida-Tennessee,” said Scully, “but I did, getting goose bumps from the roar of the crowd. It washed over me.” He was hooked.
At eight, the Giants fan wrote a composition for a parish class about wanting to be a sports announcer. In 1939, the grand stylist Red Barber arrived at Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers’ “Dem Bums.” Entering Fordham University’s Preparatory School, Vin heard Brooklyn’s announcers between classes and jobs to pay tuition. By 1946, he had entered Fordham University, joined the Navy, and returned to college. A classmate recalls Vin “everywhere,” carting a huge tape recorder, “and recording himself.”
In 1949, the senior sent letters to 125 stations, 50,000-watt WTOP Washington the sole station to reply, making him a summer fill-in. Interviewing at the outlet’s CBS network, he briefly met its sport director—Barber! Busy, Red told him to leave a number and address. Each Saturday CBS aired College Football Roundup, skipping from game to game. In November, Ernie Harwell at the last minute was named to the primary game, leaving backup Boston University–Maryland without a Voice. Recalling Scully, Red phoned his home, getting Bridget. “Vinny, you’ll never guess who called you,” she said, greeting him that night. “He wants you to call him.” Who was it? Vin asked. Red Skelton, mama said.
Scully was assigned the game at Fenway Park, where, coatless on a frigid day and lacking a booth, he was forced to broadcast from the roof. When someone threw a pass, Scully had to traverse the roof to report it. The game was close, CBS moving there after halftime. By the third quarter, Vin fought frostbite, sure afterward he had failed. That week Fenway brass apologized, Barber impressed by Scully’s preparation and stoicism for not noting his duress. “You’ll have a booth next week—Harvard-Yale,” Red promised. Under “perfect timing,” Brooklyn’s Harwell had just left for the Giants, leading Barber to suggest to co-owner Branch Rickey that “I take a promising young man and train him.” Rickey said OK, “if you find the right man.”
Barber’s brain child launched radio/TV’s longest same-team and big-league streak: 67 years. As improbable, Vin had never entered Brooklyn till the day he went to work. Mom and pop didn’t drive. Other transportation seemed impractical, “Ebbets so far away.” Braving “on-the-job training,” the rookie still living with his parents brought Barber a lineup card. “‘This man hit third yesterday,’ Red said. ‘Why is he fifth today?’ It was the last time I didn’t know.”
Once Scully was intentionally left alone at the radio mic: Barber on TV and announcer Connie Desmond “getting coffee.” After October 3, 1951’s last National League playoff game, Flatbush needed something stronger. “At the start of the ninth,” Vin said, Brooklyn up, 4-1, “I saw a man walking in the lower deck of the Polo Grounds carrying this great big horseshoe of flowers that you might see at a funeral home.” A banner cloaked it: “GIANTS, REST IN PEACE.” After Bobby Thomson’s mythic pennant-winning homer, Vin wondered “what that guy did with those flowers? You can’t . . . suddenly put that under your coat”—or The Shot out of Brooklyn’s mind. Scully was glad Red called it on flagship WMGM: “Then it would have been too much for me”—still just 23.
The 1952-53 Dodgers were too much for the league, winning each pennant before losing the World Series to the Yankees. Prior to 1966, the Classic was aired by each team’s lead announcer. Before the 1953 Series, Red, weary of sponsor Gillette Co. paying a measly $200 per-game broadcast fee, sought now-owner Walter O’Malley’s aid to renegotiate. He refused, Barber resigning. As a courtesy, O’Malley called Desmond, who passed, then offered America’s then-greatest sports event to Vin. Heartsick, he phoned Red and Connie for consent. Barber, to Scully “a father to me in every day,” told him, “If there was anyone I’d want to take my place, it’d be you.”
Trying to “play it cool,” Vin had a fine breakfast with his family the day of the World Series opener. “Then I went upstairs and threw up.” Future New York Times man George Vecsey felt Scully a continuum. “He’d been raw, but we heard Red fuss over and teach him.” To fill airtime, Vin collected early anecdotes from the park he came to love. At Ebbets Field, a tiny booth hung suspended above boxes. “Fouls came back and made you aware of individuals,” said Vin. Once Brooklyn’s most famous housewife brayed, “Vin Scully, I love you!” The crowd cackled. Flushed, Vin hung his head. “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” said uberfan Hilda Cheste, famed for ringing a cowbell all game..
In 1955, the fabled rivals met again, five prior Series losses to the pinstripes the elephant in Brooklyn’s room. The Yankees took a two-game lead in the first Classic shown in “living color.” The Bums then won three straight before New York forced a seventh game. In the fifth inning, the Yanks’ Mel Allen gave the mic to Vin, Brooklyn soon fronting, 2-0. In the home sixth, Billy Martin and Gil McDougald reached base before Yogi Berra arced toward Yankee Stadium’s left-field pole. Racing toward the line, Sandy Amoros made an everlasting one-handed catch. In the corner of his eye, Vin saw McDougald stumble turning second. Amoros threw to shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who fired to first baseman Gil Hodges—double play.
As the Yanks’ ninth-inning began, a borough held its breath. It had been this way before. Bill Skowron grounded to pitcher Johnny Podres. Bob Cerv flied to Amoros. Podres threw a changeup that Elston Howard banged to Reese, who threw to Hodges. Said Scully, simply: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world.” Today, his words top a giant photo at the entrance to Dodgers offices in Los Angeles. All winter, people asked how Vin remained so calm. According to biographer Greg King, Scully said, “Well, the truth is, I was so emotionally overwhelmed by it all that if I had to say another word, I think I would have cried.”
Next year the Subway Series resumed, Allen and Scully again on play-by-play. In the fourth inning of October 8’s Game Five, Mickey Mantle swung. “There’s one if it stays fair!” Mel said. “It is going, going, gone!”—Yanks, 1-0, later adding another run. Meantime, Don Larsen methodically set Brooklyn down. Only three Brooks even neared a hit, people slowly waking to what was underway. Vin again succeeded Mel in the fifth, neither having to exaggerate. No one had thrown a Series no-hitter. Today no Dodger had even reached base.
Allen sat, “dying to broadcast,” Scully said, as “younger and thoroughly intimidated by Mel’s example,” he followed a no-hitter’s code of silence, later changing his approach. In 1991, a kinescope surfaced of Larsen’s jewel: “Well, all right,” Vin had begun the ninth. “Let’s all take a deep breath as we go to the most dramatic ninth inning in the history of baseball. I’m going to sit back, light up, and hope I don’t chew the cigarette to pieces.”
Carl Furillo and Roy Campanella made out. In the Bombers’ dugout, the game lacked reference even to wizened skipper Casey Stengel. What could you compare it to? With two out, Larsen worked the count on pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell to one ball and two strikes. “Got him!” Scully cried of a called strike three. “The greatest game ever pitched in baseball history by Don Larsen!” Allen, laryngitis shelving him the next day, said, “I don’t think you or I shall ever see such a thing again.” Vin replied, “I think we can both just go now,” later conceding to feeling “wilted, like a rose.”
At that time, the Dodgers seemed set to stay put in Brooklyn. Yet by 1957, jet travel cut the Big Apple-LA flight time in half. Moreover, local crime was rising, Ebbets fraying, its infrastructure too weak to build up and area too cramped to build out. O’Malley bought a 44-passenger airplane, quietly taking a helicopter in 1956 over prime real estate—Chavez Ravine, site of today’s Dodger Stadium. Next year the Brooks dealt their Texas League franchise to the Cubs’ Pacific Coast League Angels. In exchange, the Dodgers got Southern California big-league rights and a small-scale version of Wrigley Field as a possible home for a transplanted club.
“Walter was looking ahead,” said Scully, “in case he couldn’t get what he needed to stay.” He got it, the NL saying on May 28, 1957, that “The [team] could move if we eased scheduling by getting another team to California,” said Dodgers analyst Jerry Doggett. All season the Dodgers kept up pretense. Clown Emmett Kelly, parodying Willard Mullin’s Brooklyn Bum cartoon, was hired to “relieve tension.” On August 8, the Giants said they were moving to San Francisco in a year later. Next month they played the Dodgers one last time at the Polo Grounds. Vin recalling his youth, ’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 within him 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.
That September 24, Ebbets Field held a final service for 6,702 congregants: Bums 2, Pirates 0. Organist Gladys Goodding—“one more d than God,” a bromide went—was “known to take a drink,” said Vin. She arrived with “a brown paper bag, entered her booth with the organ, and locked the door.” The first song was “My Buddy.” Drinking, Gladys “became more sullen,; her songs, funereal.” Irate, O’Malley sent an usher to tell her to be merrier. “She had the door locked,” Scully said. “Anyway, he couldn’t fire her! They were leaving.” With each song gloomier, Gladys reopened the bag.
On October 8, after LA’s City Council voted to give 300 acres of land to the Dodgers for the deed to Wrigley Field and to set forth their commitment to build a 50,000 thousand-seat stadium, O’Malley confirmed that his club would move to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. New York must have felt like Gladys Goodding. For the moment, the best solution was to get sloshed.
On Monday, we will return with the Dodgers’ West Coast reception, how Scully became a radio institution, and how his later embrace by network television let him bring baseball to America as beautifully as any Voice ever has.
CURT SMITH is the author of 18 books, including Voices of The Game, recently named by Esquire magazine among “The 100 Best Baseball Books Ever Written.” His most recent book is the official National Baseball Hall of Fame Memories from the Microphone: A Century of Baseball Broadcasting. Smith also wrote the most speeches of anyone for President George H. W. Bush. Since 1998, he has been Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. firstname.lastname@example.org