VIN SCULLY

VIN SCULLY: A REMEMBRANCE PART TWO; Historian Curt Smith covers voice’s role in LA and nationally

BASEBALL? – VIN  SCULLY? – NO ONE BETTER – THE VERY BEST!

Curt Smith

On August 2,Vin Scully died at 94, having visited more 10,000 big-league baseball games and tens of millions of Americans on radio and television since 1950. Several days ago we etched his life from 1927 birth to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to the Dodgers’ 1957 Westward-Ho. Today recalls the existential pleasure he brought to Los Angeles, then the nation on network television—Vin surely the greatest sportscaster of all time.

“Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good afternoon to you wherever you may be,” was his daily invite. “It’s time for Dodger baseball!” welcoming and beckoning. In 1958, Scully first urged Southern California to “Pull up a chair” to follow the famed former Brooks. “Until then, the closest big-league city was St. Louis,” said the great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray. “The Dodgers had a selling job to do, and the salesman was Vinny.”

In Brooklyn, the Dodgers had televised each game. Owner Walter O’Malley banned all home video in Los Angeles. His decision gave Scully, with his bending vowels and allusions and similes—“He fought it [an elusive grounder] to a draw”; an injured player was “listed day to day. Aren’t we all?”—vast leverage. Interest turned to radio, of which Scully was a wiz,  especially given where the new team played.

While Dodger Stadium rose in the Chavez Ravine, the 1958-61 Dodgers occupied mammoth Memorial Coliseum, a 93,000-seat track and field and football stadium built in 1923. The furthest outfield seat lay 700 feet from home plate, leading thousands to bring radios to a game, Scully telling them what they couldn’t see. Overnight, he became a.k.a. The Transistor Kid, his voice everywhere—Venice Beach, Whittier Market, in the stands, on the field.

Vin Scully (l) and Willie Mays in SF, the day the broadcaster retired. (2016) Vin called him the best in 1950 and Red admonished him. “You’re not qualified yet.”

Even then, Los Angeles sprawled, lacking a focal point. Scully largely became it, a balm for thousands of harried drivers in freeway-gridlocked cars. In 1962, Dodger Stadium opened to boffo  reviews, LA tying for the pennant before again losing a playoff to the ’Jints. The ’63ers did what seven other Dodgers teams could not—sweep the Yanks! Britain’s Edmund Burke once said of a peer, “Here lies the summit. He may live long, he may do much, but he can never exceed what he does this day.” In 1965, Scully climbed his first LA play-by-play summit.

By that September 9, Sandy Koufax, an almost perfect pitcher, had done everything but throw a perfect game. Vin’s ninth inning alone brandished prose for which a writer would kill. “And there’s 29,000 people in the ballpark and a million memories.” Booing an outside pitch called a ball, “A lot of people at the ballpark are starting to see the pitches with their hearts.” With one out: “I would think that the mound at Dodger Stadium . . . is the loneliest place in the world”—each extempore. Then: “It is 9:46 p.m. Two and 2 to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away. Sandy into his windup, here’s the pitch: Swung on and missed, a perfect game!”

Hitting his mute button, letting the crowd “wash over him” as he had as a child, sitting under the family radio, Vin used silence for effect, finally saying: “On the scoreboard in right field it is 9:46 in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California,” 29,139 seeing “the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit, no-run games. He has done it four straight years, and now he caps it: On his fourth no-hitter, he made it a perfect game. And Sandy Koufax, whose name will always remind you of strikeouts, did it with a flurry. He struck out the last six consecutive batters. So, when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that ‘K’ stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X.”

Later, The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives called “Scully’s work during that game” as flawless as 27 up and down: “considered by many to be the best radio broadcast in baseball history.” At 37, was he peaking? “Not hardly,” to quote John Wayne. Each game began with an empty canvas on which to paint. “With radio, you come into the booth, bring your brushes and pallets, and you mix the paint and put things together,” Vin said. “And then you have a broad swath and fine line there. And at the end of three hours, you say, ‘Well, that’s the best I can do today.’ On TV, the picture’s already there. So what you’re doing is shading, subtle things.” Scully did his darndest, put away the paint, and returned next day.

Scully’s voice seemed young into well in his eighties. First, he took care of himself. Second, he never grew smug. The kid who grew up in lower-middle-class Manhattan, a devout Catholic who attended Mass all his life, gave the work ethic new definition. He hosted NBC TV’s 1969-70 It Takes Two quiz show and the syndicated 1973 Vin Scully Show. His first wife, Joan, died in 1972. A year later he wed Sandra Schaefer, who had two children. “Adding to my three, we had The Brady Bunch,” quipped Vin. “With the bigger family, I thought I ought to work a little harder.” He began to do CBS tennis, golf—with baseball, his favorite sport—and pro football, Vin believing he had been promised lead play-by-play.

The 1981 NFC title game featured Vin’s most famed non-baseball call: “[Joe] Montana looking, looking, throwing in the end zone,” he said. “Clark caught it! Dwight Clark! . . . It’s a madhouse at Candlestick with 51 seconds left!”: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27. Scully adjusted smartly to the NFL’s faster pace, the telegenic sport having less need for anecdote. Yet CBS thought analyst John Madden its football meal ticket, deeming play-by-play’s Pat Summerall’s just the facts ma’am prose a better fit than Vin’s with Madden’s verbosity.

Feeling misled, Scully spurned a new CBS pact, closing football’s window. Meantime, baseball’s open door had continued to let him use silence as a tool. In 1974, Henry Aaron needed one home run to top Babe Ruth’s career record 714. On April 8, LA met his Braves at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, on a rainy night in Georgia. Vin peered at Aaron, waiting. “The outfield deep and straightaway,” he began on flagship KABC. “Fastball! There’s a high drive into left left-center field! [Bill] Buckner goes back! To the fence! It is gone!” Rising, Scully moved to the back of the booth and hushed for nearly half a minute, resisting the urge to talk above the crowd,

Finally, Vin retook the microphone. “What a marvelous [a favorite Scully word] for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world,” Scully said. “A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol [emphasis added]. And it is a great  moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron, who is met not only by every member of the Braves but by his father and mother.” Embracing, Hank said he felt 10 years younger.

In 1976, Dodgers fans voted Scully “the most memorable personality in [LA] franchise history.” That year CBS Radio, for whom he did six All-Star Games and 12 Series, acquired baseball rights. Gradually, the Dodgers began to telecast from other West Coast cities, letting a larger audience hear Vin’s vivid tints and bold pastels, Scully at first on the tube every inning. Over the years, he worked with such radio/TV partners as Jerry Doggett, Ross Porter, Don Drysdale, and Charley Steiner.

In 1982, Scully got a Night at Dodger Stadium, star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick award for “broadcast excellence,” at Cooperstown saying, “I would like to pray with humility and with great thanksgiving.” By then, NBC Sports head Arthur Watson, eyeing baseball’s next TV contract, felt only Vin’s benediction could make it work, the game’s easy rhythm the ideal stage for a storyteller, Scully scoring “guys who use statistics the way a drunk uses a lamp post—for support, not illumination.” NBC’s new $550 million 1984-1989’s Game of the Week pact fused Vin’s play-by-play and Joe Garagiola on color. “Some people were hoping we’d be … always sniping at each other,” said Scully. “But they forgot that Joe and I are two old pros.”

Game’ s 1984 first year of exclusivity raised its long-time static Nielsen rating, The New York Times saying, “That the duo . . . is very good, and often even great, is no longer in dispute.” All decade Scully’s narrative became baseball’s. That fall he aired the Padres-Tigers Series, hushing as San Diego’s Kurt Bevacqua went yard. “For one minute, as the replay showed Bevacqua turning around in a circle and jumping for joy, [Vin] didn’t say a word,” the Washington Post observed. Din dissolved to break “with absolutely nothing said.” If silence is golden, Scully had become a vein.

In 1986, the then ill-starred Red Sox lost a surrealistic Fall Classic sixth game 5-3 tenth-inning lead. After the Mets tied the score, “The winning run is at second base with two out!” said Vin. “Three and two to Mookie Wilson . . . Little roller up along first  . . . behind the bag . . . It gets through Buckner! Here comes [Ray] Knight! And the Mets win it!” Scully’s usually singsong voice throbbed, rocked, alight with feel. It is how millions will always remember him. New England remembers how in Game Seven the Sox lost the World Series, too.

Memory also evokes the 1988 Series opener: A’s up, 4-3, in the ninth. The Dodgers’ leading slugger was injured, supposedly unavailable even to pinch-hit. “The man the Dodgers need is Kirk Gibson,” Vin said, scanning their bench, “and he’s not even in uniform.” Icing a knee in the locker room, Gibson heard him. Irate, he got into uniform, Scully soon saying, “And look who’s coming up!” With two out and one on, Kirk, limping to the plate, barely fouled four balls, then hit a 3-2 pitch. “High fly ball into right field! She is gone!” Vin disbelieved. Sixty-seven seconds later: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!” Again, he left the mic, deferring to the viewer. A good painter knows when less is more.

That winter baseball killed NBC TV’s Game of the Week, CBS breaking the bank for exclusivity, only to slash regular-season coverage. “It’s the passing of a great American tradition,” Scully mourned. “I really and truly feel that. It will leave a vast window . . . where people will not get Major League Baseball.” In its absence, ratings plunged. “I feel for people who come to me and say how they miss it, and I hope me, showing more decency than owners who, quoting Oscar Wilde, knew “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Game had helped make him a beloved household name.

Curt Smith wrote a popular biography, profiling baseball’s best ever announcer.

NBC’s coverage let America grasp what people privy to his stints in LA and The Apple had already known. Eddie Gomez, who played bass with Bill Evans, termed the jazz pianist’s aim “to make music that balanced passion and intellect.” That was Scully. When ESPN Radio outbid CBS wireless in 1998 for exclusivity, it approached Scully and the network’s Jon Miller about sharing the Series. “I still love the challenge of informing and entertaining,” Vin, declining, told The New York Times, “but all I do on the road is go to my room, to the ballpark, and back to my room … I’m saying, ‘The meter is running.’”

Post-Game, the Voice who ferried 25 Series, 11 All-Star Games, and 20-hitters reaped awards like Koufax did Ks. Vin made every major radio/TV Hall of Fame and got a 1995 Lifetime Achievement Emmy, 2014 Commissioner’s Achievement Award, and 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Fan ballot named Scully the all-time favorite Dodger. In 2001, Dodger Stadium’s press box was named for him; 2010, the American Sports Association voted him top-ever sportscaster; 2014, he became grand marshal of the Rose Parade and 100th Rose Bowl game, met by “the roar of the crowd” as Vin and wife Sandra “traveled [Pasadena’s] Colorado Boulevard,” said the Orange County Register. Two years later, Dodger Stadium’s address was renamed 1000 Vin Scully Avenue.

In 1998, its namesake had left network radio. In 2000, Scully cut his Dodgers wireless slate to home and Western road games and to simulcasting on radio for three innings each game. On June 6, 2015—the 71st anniversary of D-Day’s invasion of Normandy—Scully explained why the Navy man deemed it an almost sacred day. Next April 12, he began a record 67th and last year behind the same team’s mic—more than two-thirds of baseball’s broadcast history. “It’s the perfect time,” he said of retiring. “I kept thinking, ‘I’ll be 89 when the season starts. If you go one more year you’ll be 90.’ It’s unfair to listeners.”

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 93] what comes out of his mouth naturally is pitch-perfect, and better than anyone could ever write.” That

winter Vin’s wife of 47 years died of ALS—Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Upon Scully’s death, they left behind five children, 21 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

I like to recall two notes of Vin’s lasting tune. On May 7, 1959, professional baseball’s then-largest crowd, 93,103, lauded Roy Campanella, paralyzed a year earlier in a car accident, at a Yanks-Dodgers exhibition game. After the fifth, Memorial Coliseum 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, “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.” Scully’s magic never said good-bye.

The second note ended his final broadcast on October 2, 2016, from ironically the Giants’ AT&T Park. “You know friends, so many people have wished me congratulations on a 67-year career in baseball, and they’ve wished me a wonderful retirement with my family. And now, all I can do is tell you what I wish for you”fittingly, an Irish poem.

“May God give you for every storm, a rainbow; for every tear, a smile; for every care, a promise and a blessing in each trial. For every problem life seems, a faithful friend to share; for every sigh, a sweet song and an answer for each prayer.”

“You and I have been friends for a long time,” he closed. “I’ll miss our time together more than I can say. But you know what? There will be a new day, and eventually a new year. And when the upcoming winter gives way to spring, rest assured it once again will be time for Dodger baseball. So this is Vin Scully, wishing you a very pleasant good afternoon, wherever you may be.”

***

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. curtsmith@netacc.net

 

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David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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Michael Green
1 month ago

Lovely. Absolutely lovely. I remember reading a couple of things. One is that when CBS got baseball, Brent Musburger was to be the #1 voice (and of course was let go). I read that he offered to step aside if they wanted to sign Vin. CBS said no. Shame on CBS. But considering that CBS kind of emasculated Jack Buck so that Tim McCarver would be the star, I wonder how Vin would have dealt with that. The other is that after he announced he would be retiring, Vin told someone that it was getting harder to do the preparation… Read more »