Football is to baseball as blackjack is to bridge. One is the quick jolt. The other the deliberate, slow-paced game of skill, but never was a sport more ideally suited to television than baseball. It’s all there in front of you. It’s theatre, really. The star is the spotlight on the mound, the supporting cast fanned out around him, the mathematical precision of the game moving with the kind of inevitability of Greek tragedy. With the Greek chorus in the bleachers.
—Vin Scully, 1976.
When Bryce Harper grew up in Las Vegas, where he could watch the Dodgers on television and listen to Vin Scully, he noticed readily what most of the world knew for decades. It wasn’t just about the game to Scully. “It was about the beauty of the game, the beauty of the fans, how much he could bring the fans together and the Dodgers together, things like that,” Harper told the New York Times once. “When you think of the Dodgers, you don’t just think about all the greats that played for the Dodgers, you think of Vin Scully, as well.”
There was a time when that was said about the man who brought Scully to the Dodgers in the first place, Red Barber. How long ago was that? Put it this way: On April 1, 1950 (this is no joke, folks), future Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was born in New Jersey; surgeon Charles Drew, who invented the concept of the blood bank, died; the number one song in the country (Billboard) was Teresa Brewer’s “Music, Music, Music.” (That was from my ootsy-poo period she said years later, when she transformed into a respected jazz singer.) Milton Berle was numero uno on television, Jack Benny was radio’s king (nobody out-rated him in 1950 except for the rotating ensembles anthologised by Lux Radio Theater), and the Dodgers prepared to break spring camp and get a season going.
The faithful in Brooklyn were as likely to talk about and think about Barber as they were about Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, or Roy Campanella. Little did Barber know that his protege would eclipse even him in recognizability, prestige, and affection after the Dodgers went west.
In Barber’s day and for well enough after, the thought of a farewell tour wasn’t even a topic. Joe DiMaggio didn’t take one with the Yankees; he simply retired, feeling he and especially his bothersome back no longer had it, after the 1951 season. Robinson — despite a hilarious bid to trade him to the New York Giants — simply made his quiet promise of retirement permanent in 1956, standing by an article in Look explaining why.
Ted Williams asked nothing more than a chance to go out like a champion — and punctuated his Comeback Player of the Year season with a poetic home run at the end of 1960. Stan Musial didn’t exactly take the tour, though he was saluted in a few cities in 1963. In 1966, Sandy Koufax—who once told Scully it was almost as much fun listening to him calling a game as it was to pitch a game—confided in one reporter that it would be his final season, then went out, pitched above and beyond even his own extraterrestrial level, and retired formally after the season.
And, in 1973, Willie Mays—by then a further aging Met—simply made you weep for your own mortality when he told a packed Shea Stadium on Willie Mays night, “I look at these kids over there, the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, and it tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America. Thank you very much.”
These days, some farewell tours by baseball’s greats have been sublime. Some have been ridiculous. But when was the last time you heard of a team’s announcer getting the farewell tour? For that matter, name any baseball broadcaster who stayed in the booths for a single team from April Fool’s Day to the day 67 years later that British violinist/conductor Neville Marriner died.
Not that Scully was feted in person in some cities in 2016. As the Times observed wryly, the farewell tour came to him all season. Players and staffers from teams visiting Dodger Stadium made the pilgrimage to the stadium press box, long since named for him, to visit and salute Scully. And he cherished every such visit. Even the umpires. “They look up to the booth and they see me,” said Scully’s Dodger radio broadcast partner, Charley Steiner. “They kind of doff their caps, but they hold their palms upward as if to say, ‘Where is he?’ I’ll say, That’s the best I can do!”
Near the end of August 2016 the Dodgers gave their longtime voice an amusing tribute. When players, coaches, manager, and front office staffers joined up for a team photograph, they hoisted Scully face masks in front of their own mugs. The lone holdout? Scully himself, seated front and center, grinning appreciatively, appropriately, and perhaps just a little mischieviously, before shrugging in mock fatalism.
When ESPN conducted its 2007 polling to determine the face of each major league franchise, with each team’s fans voting, Dodger fans voted Scully in a walk. That sweet man of sonorous voice, impeccable diction, insurmountable knowledge, impeccable wit, and inviolably calm strength, was the only non-player/non-coach/non-manager/non-executive so voted.
It’s rare for a man or a woman to excel at something for the normal career span. Scully excelled at it for almost seven decades. Even his old employer Barber, who was legendary for his understatement and his anecdotal style, seems now to have been an amateur by comparison. Barber gave you a profile of a player while he batted. Scully told stories. Barber was the pleasant horticulturist next door who didn’t mind if you eavesdropped. Scully opened the door, invited you in to pull up a chair (he said it often enough opening his broadcasts, anyway), and poured you a cold, tall one, right before the first pitch.
He meant it when he spoke as though talking to friends, just as his listeners meant it when they told anyone who’d listen that they felt him a friend. Numerous stories about him noted that when people met him for the first time and address him as “Mr. Scully,” he’s quick to offer a handshake and say, “Forget the Mister. I’m Vin.” A few years ago, doing a game that coincided with the anniversary of D-Day, he started a mid-game talk about it thus: “I don’t want this to be an intrusion, but I think we’ve been friends long enough, you’ll understand.”
Vin’s genuine warmth cooled down the most boiling baseball hotheads while inviting viewers to smile with him as he ordered a camera pan to capture a very young child in the park and spoke about that child with a truly fatherly affection. “Hello, sunshine,” he said at one such pan of a baby in her father’s arms. “Sleeping the sleep of the good child.” A man who survived the accidental death of his first wife and (in a helicopter crash) his oldest son, but remarried happily (and remained so) and extended his own family, appreciated and celebrated the ties that bind families, to baseball and otherwise.
On the rare occasion did he editorialise, understated, while observing and discussing less commendable acts on the field. As often as not he was unafraid to keep the microphone unoccupied and let the moment deliver its own message, preceding the silence with something such as, “You really ought to see it and hear it for yourself, so I’m just going to keep my mouth shut.”
But you still require a facility the size of a university video archive to line up the absolute best of Scully because nearly everything he delivered qualifies for the distinction. Which doesn’t mean there weren’t a single wall full of Scully moments that transcended even that actuality. Moments such as 1 May 1959, before an exhibition game between the Dodgers and the Yankees in the Los Angeles Coliseum, as Los Angeles did honour to the Hall of Fame catcher whom an off-season automobile accident left quadriplegic before he could play even one game on the west coast:
Friends, right now the Yankees have been asked to leave the field, and the Dodgers are not out on the field. For right now, the Coliseum, all of the lights will be turned out, as Pee Wee Reese wheels the chair that holds Roy Campanella across the first base foul line, and heads him toward the pitcher’s mound. The lights are going out, this final tribute to Roy Campanella, the lights will be lowered, and everyone at the ballpark, 93,000 people, are asked in silent tribute to light a match to Roy Campanella.
And we would like to think that, as 93,000 people light the match, it would be 93,000 prayers for a great man. The lights now are starting to come out, like thousands and thousands of fireflies, starting deep in center field, slithering around to left, and slowly the entire ballpark lighting up with individual lights. And Roy Campanella, as the years go back, standing off to the right is Pee Wee Reese. A sea of lights at the Coliseum. Perhaps the most beautiful and dramatic moment in the history of sports.
Let there be a prayer for every light. And wherever you are, maybe you in silent tribute to Campanella can also say a prayer for his well being. Roy Campanella, who thousands of times made a trip to the mound, to help somebody out, a tired pitcher, a disgusted young pitcher, a boy who’s perhaps had his heart broken in a game of baseball. And tonight, on his last trip to the mound, the city of Los Angeles says hello to him. Listen . . .
Moments such as the ninth inning of the game in which another Hall of Famer, Sandy Koufax, proved that when it came to an annual no-hit, no-run game, practise makes perfect:
There are 29,000 people in the ballpark and a million butterflies . . . He is one out away from the promised land, and Harvey Kuenn is coming up. So Harvey Kuenn is batting for Bob Hendley. The time on the scoreboard is 9:44. The date September the ninth, 1965. And Koufax working on veteran Harvey Kuenn.
Sandy into his windup, and the pitch—fastball for a strike. He has struck out, by the way, five consecutive batters, and this has gone unnoticed. Sandy ready, and the strike one pitch—very high, and he lost his hat. He really forced that one. That was only the second time tonight where I have had the feeling that Sandy threw instead of pitched, trying to get that little extra, and that time he tried so hard his hat fell off . . . One and one to Harvey Kuenn. Now he’s ready—ball two.
You can’t blame the man for pushing just a little bit now. Sandy backs off, mops his forehead, runs his left index finger along his forehead, dries it off on his left pants leg. All the while, Kuenn just waiting. Now Sandy looks in, into his windup, and the 2-1 pitch to Kuenn: swung on and missed, strike two. It is 9:46 p.m. Two-and-two to Harvey Kuenn—one strike away.
Sandy into his windup. Here’s the pitch—swung on and missed! A perfect game! [Long pause for the crowd noise.] . . .
And Sandy Koufax, whose name will always remind you of strikeouts, did it with a flourish. He struck out the last six consecutive batters. So, when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record book, the K stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X.
Moments such as the bottom of the fourth, Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, 8 April 1974:
He means the tying run at the plate now, so we’ll see what Downing does . . . Al at the belt now, and he delivers, low, ball one. And that just adds to the pressure, the crowd booing. Downing has to ignore the sound effects and stay a professional and pitch his game . . . One ball, no strikes, Aaron waiting, the outfield deep and straight away. Fastball — and a high drive into deep left center field, Buckner goes back, to the fence, it is gone!!! . . . [long pause during crowd noise and fireworks] . . .
What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron, who was met at home plate not only by every member of the Braves, but by his father and mother . . . It is over, at 10 minutes after nine in Atlanta, Georgia, Henry Aaron has eclipsed the mark set by Babe Ruth.
There were Games Six and Seven of the 1986 World Series, when Scully worked concurrently for NBC. There was Fernando Valenzuela’s no-hitter (If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky!), Kirk Gibson’s pinch homer winning Game One of the 1988 Series. (In a season full of improbables, the impossible has happened!) And, his hilarious 2012 interpretation of Dodger-turned-Rockies manager Jim Tracy’s expletive fuming after a shallow sinking line out—or was it?—married on the spot to an argument for instant replay, which finally arrived long overdue two years later.
Uh-oh. Uhhh-oh. The [umpires] meeting looks like they’re going to call it a trap, and Jim Tracy . . . [crowd noise] . . . He caught the ball, Jim says. He caught the ball. He caught the blinkin’ ball. He caught the darn ball . . . [crowd noise, as Tracy pulls his hat off and slams it to the ground two-handed] . . . oh, oh, you’re gone. Heeee’s gone . . . [crowd noise] . . . That is blinkin’ fertlizer! I’m doing the best to translate . . . you’ve gotta be blinkin’ me! . . . The ball, he caught the ball! . . . It’s unbelievable! Blinkin’ unbelievable! . . . No way! No blinkin’ way! No bloody way!
Jim’s gone, so he’s spending house money now . . . [crowd noise] . . . [brief, slow-motion replay of the outfielder’s original attempted off-the-grass catch] . . . take another look, looks like it’s in the glove . . . what’s a shame, really, we have this [replay] equipment, and no one takes avail of it. I mean, they say it would slow up the game, what did that do? They could have had someone upstairs, or an umpire go and look at the tapes. Instead, big argument, the manager’s kicked out of the game, the umpires have to reverse.
I’m not second guessing the reversal, they’re doing the best they think, but I’m just saying here we are, with all that equipment to show it. Want to show it again, Brad? Dustin? Take another look. How do you call it? [The play is shown again, semi-slow motion.] There’s the glove, there’s the ball, it’s in the glove, isn’t it? Didn’t it hit the webbing?
And there was future World Series-winning Red Sox manager Alex Cora, at the plate for the Dodgers against the Cubs’ Matt Clement, 12 May 2004, with future World Series-winning Dodger manager Dave Roberts then a teammate, and Dusty Baker managing the Cubs:
. . . The crowd now is really into the pitches . . . and still two and two. Nobody out. Big foul . . . wow! . . . It’s a sixteen-pitch at-bat, and the crowd loves it, and look at Dave Roberts. They’re all enjoying this battle. Matt Clement and Alex Cora. Coming into the game, Cora was hitting .400 against Clement, he is oh for two tonight. So the game within the game here.
So here’s the sixteenth pitch. What an at-bat! . . . [foul ball] . . . Seventeen pitches . . . it is the rare time that you can be in the ballpark and everyone is counting the pitches, and it’s gonna be a seventeen-pitch at-bat, now, at least. We, I don’t know, you know, they don’t keep records of pitches in at-bats, but it’s kind of special. This will be the seventeenth pitch. Grabowski’s exhausted, and Mike Ireland reminds me how about if Grabowski had been running on every pitch? Time . . . ohhh, the crowd is loving it . . . Ever see so much excitement? And nothing’s happened, that’s what’s really funny about it.
All right, here’s the seventeenth pitch—and, it’s foul. Foul ball by a hair! So that means that it will be at least an eighteen-pitch at-bat . . . Clement has made more pitches to Alex Cora right now than he has made in any inning but the third . . . the eighteenth pitch—high fly ball into right field, back goes Sosa, way back to the gate, it’s gone!! Home run, Alex Cora, on the eighteenth pitch, and the Dodgers lead, four to nothing.
What a moment! 9:23 on the scoreboard if you want to write it down for history . . . what an at-bat! And Dusty Baker says, “We’re gonna stop the fight.” And Dusty’s going to bring in a fresh horse. That’s one of the finest at-bats I’ve ever seen. And, then, to top it off with a home run, that is really shocking. Yeah, take a bow, Alex, you deserve it and then some. Oh, by the way, that also means the Dodgers have homered in six straight, but it took a whale of a job to do it. Stay where you are, four-nothing Dodgers, and look at the ball club.
Somehow the writers and director of the 1999 film For Love of the Game captured the Scully style when casting him as himself, with Kevin Costner cast as a veteran Tigers pitcher in Yankee Stadium threatening a season-ending perfect game while his backstory was told adjacent to the game: the career, the star-crossed romance seeming to end before he arrived at the ballpark, the autograph on a ball telling the Tigers owner he would retire after all.
When Costner’s Billy Chapel consummated the perfecto, with his estranged love watching in an airport bar, Scully crooned, “The cathedral that is Yankee Stadium belongs to a Chapel.” On script, unless—considering his Koufax, Aaron, Valenzuela, Gibson, and Cora calls among thousands—the director crossed out any written comment and substituted, “Let Vin Scully be Vin Scully.”
“I mean, how do you come up with that? It’s completely off the top,” said Gary Thorne, a longtime baseball broadcaster who’s been the lead for the Orioles since 2007 .” It’s completely because you have the talent and ability to do it.”
Scully also had a flair for overcoming his extremely rare mistakes with self deprecating wit and grace. In June of his final season’s work, Scully inadveretently described a Dodgers-Nationals pitching matchup as Clayton Kershaw versus Stephen Spielberg. Nat-for-life Stephen Strasburg’s reaction is unavailable, assuming someone made him aware of it, but a couple of days later Scully owned the mistake: “The other night, I think I said Stephen Spielberg. But I regret to say he is unable to pitch.”
Vin’s ability to put those who met him at immediate ease was equaled perhaps by his parallel ability to put the pompous in their immediate place, my absolute favourite such incident being described by Keith Olbermann, a man about whom much has been written and said that’s not exclusively flattering (including “pompous” as one of his least self-immolating attributes) among those who’ve concurred with his positions, writing in GQ in 2016:
Legendary is the story of the blustery political commentator who years ago had ‘his people’ advise the Dodgers he wanted to meet Scully because Scully was “number one” in his field. “Everywhere I go, Mr. Scully, I try to meet whoever is Number One because I’m Number One in what I do and it’s important to recognize and salute those of my own stature, and you’re Number One here!” The man bellowed on like this for several moments as the crew in the Dodger booth squirmed. When he finally paused, too impressed with himself to sense Scully’s anger, Scully quietly, politely, and efficiently cut the blowhard into little pieces. “Well then, you’ll want to meet Arthur here, who is our Number One stage manager.” The commentator found himself unwillingly shaking hands. “And of course, you’ll want to meet Debbie, she’s our Number One makeup artist.” Another unhappy handshake. “And Don, our Number One cameraman—who, coincidentally is on Camera Number One.” Again with the handshake. “And in the row behind you, that’s Antonio, our Number One intern . . .” Witnesses disagree as to how many Numbers One Scully introduced before the man angrily muttered “I gotta go”—but all agreed he was several feet shorter when he went.
In his final decade’s work, Scully often wavered about returning for the following season and without wavering his fans all but begged him to say it wasn’t so. “The people have responded so well—so touchingly—that it will be very difficult for me to just suddenly walk away,” he said in 2014. “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’.”
“If my math is correct, I’ve known Vin Scully now for sixty years,” said Sandy Koufax to a Dodger Stadium throng on Vin Scully Night in 2016.
More than sixty years. Growing up in Brooklyn, the Dodgers had a redheaded announcer by the name of Red Barber. And he was good. Then, a few years later, another redhead showed up. And I thought he was very good. I’m not sure I realised how good he was until 1958, when the Dodgers from Brooklyn became the L.A. Dodgers, and moved into the Coliseum. It was a very strange phenomenon, to be on the field and hear the broadcast coming out of the stands. The people of Los Angeles, even though they were at the game, didn’t enjoy it without listening to Vin tell them about it. He entertained and he educated.
I knew before that night how right Koufax was. I saw it for myself the first time I took my then-young son to Dodger Stadium. By then, Scully would do all nine innings solo on television and be heard on radio in a simulcast for the first three innings. I’d been to several major league ballparks and a few minor league parks in my life to that point, but I’d never seen so many people in those parks holding small portable television sets in their laps, the pictures turned off and the sound turned up. And it struck me that, whatever they saw on the field, they still wouldn’t believe it actually happened until they heard it from Scully.
But they also heard a man who respected the whole game and didn’t allow himself to become just a home team shill. “For all the years that I heard him,” Koufax continued, “he used the Dodgers as a word. Never the word ‘we’.” Scully’s respect for the game and those who played and managed it extended to the World Series in a way you can’t imagine many other broadcasters bearing.
“Before the World Series, Vin would go to church and pray,” Koufax said. “Not for a win, but there would be only heroes in the World Series, no goats. He didn’t want anybody in the future to be tarnished with the fact that they lost the World Series for their team.” Maybe the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award, honouring the game’s greatest broadcasters (Scully himself was so honoured in 1982), should be renamed the Vin Scully Award.
No volume of clips preserved and stocked aboard YouTube or archive.org atones for knowing that we were without Vin since 2017. But we knew he was still among us, savouring his life, his family, the fans he made friends, and even doing what he could to reassure us when the coronavirus pan-damn-ic struck in earnest in early 2020.
I never had the honour of meeting the man and spending even two minutes in his company, and it feels as though I’ve shirked my duty to remember that once, as a boy myself, I queued up with fellow day campers on a trip to Shea Stadium to get the autograph of . . . Mets broadcaster Lindsey Nelson, affable in his own right and yet to make the habit of wearing his once-well-remarked multicoloured blazers. Now, I wonder: Knowing Scully’s from-boyhood love of baseball and dream to become one of the men who called the games on the air, did he ever queue up for autographs from such radio voices of his formerly beloved Giants as Arch McDonald, Garnet Marks, Mel Allen, Connie Desmond, Don Dunphy, Jack Brickhouse, or Russ Hodges?
The last words Scully ever delivered through the mike and the set as a broadcaster, including the affectionate Irish prayer he offered, passed by soon enough and too damn soon.
Many years ago, a little redheaded boy was walking home from school, passing a Chinese laundry, and stopped to see the score of a World Series game posted in the window. The Yankees beat the Giants, 18 to 4, on October the second, 1936. Well, the boy’s reaction was pity for the Giants, and he became a rabid Giants fan from that day forward, until the joyous moment when he was hired to broadcast Brooklyn Dodger games in 1950. Ironically, October the second, 2016, will mark my final broadcast of a Giants-Dodger game. And, it will be exactly eighty years to the day since that little boy fell in love with baseball.
God has been very generous to that little boy, allowing him to fulfill a dream of becoming a broadcaster, and to live it for sixty-seven years.
Since 1958, you and I have really grown up together, through the good times and the bad. The transistor radio is what bound us together. By the way, were you at the Coliseum when we sang “Happy Birthday” to an umpire? Were you among the crowd that groaned at one of my puns? Or, did you kindly laugh at one of my little jokes? Did I put you to sleep with a transistor radio tucked under your pillow? You know, you were simply always there for me. I’ve always felt that I needed you more than you needed me, and that holds true to this very day. I’ve been privileged to share in your passion and love for this great game.
My family means everything to me, and I’ll now be able to share life’s experiences with them. My wife, Sandy; our children, Kevin, Todd, Erin, Kelly, and Katherine; along with our entire family, will join me in sharing God’s blessings of that precious gift of time. You folks have truly been the wind beneath my wings, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for joining me on this incredible journey of sixty-seven years of broadcasting Dodger baseball.
You know friends, so many people have wished me congratulations on a sixty-seven-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:
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 sends,
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, but I know in my heart that I’ve always needed you more than you’ve ever needed me, and I’ll miss our time together more 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, once again it will be time for Dodger baseball. So this is Vin Scully, wishing you a very pleasant good afternoon, wherever you may be.
Forget the Dodgers; forget Los Angeles; forget baseball, for a moment. Knowing Vin Scully wasn’t at the mike, calling a game, telling the stories within the stories around the stories behind the stories, just like knowing Yogi Berra no longer lives among us on this island earth, America sometimes wasn’t America anymore.
Now he’s gone to the Elysian Fields. Reunited serene and happy with his beloved Sandra, his beloved son Michael, with numerous players who had the honour of their highest triumphs immortalised and their lowest shortfalls given empathy and respect, not opprobrium. From God’s Little Acre in Brooklyn to God’s big ballpark. As was said by one world leader to a fallen other, Shalom, chaver—peace, friend.