Vin Scully, whose mellifluous voice painted vivid baseball images on the fly, making him the greatest play-by-play practitioner of his time, died Tuesday. The long-time voice of the Dodgers was 94.
“We have lost an icon,” Dodgers team president and CEO Stan Kasten said in a statement. “His voice will always be heard and etched in all of our minds forever.”
While accepting induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1982, Scully wondered how he was able to make it to the hallowed ground of Cooperstown.
“Why me?” Scully asked. “Why with the millions and millions of more deserving people would a red-head kid with a hole in his pants and his shirt hanging out, playing stickball in the streets of New York, wind up in Cooperstown?” Scully asked. “Why me, indeed.”
Writers, poets, pundits, and any baseball lover with an opinion to offer, often tried defining how Scully, primarily a one-man band, made magic calling games on the radio. He elevated play-by-play to an art form. His paintings will never be duplicated. Scully’s descriptions could make even the most routine plays riveting. His magnificent story telling was part of the package. Yet what he really accomplished was not all that complicated. Scully was not some wizard practicing broadcasting alchemy. Simply put, he had the ability to make millions of listeners believe he was talking to them – individually. Vin Scully was a friend who opened the front door and greeted you the same way each and every summer night, saying: “It’s time for Dodger baseball.”
Recollections of hearing him for the first time define Scully’s impact and greatness. Bob Costas still recalls how he, as an eight year old, rode shotgun for his father as he drove across the country in 1960 to their new home in California. The father and son’s constant companion, and subject of conversation, was the baseball on the radio and the voices they were listening to. “And as this long trip began to near its conclusion, I guess we got as far as Nevada, and through the crackle and static came the most distinctive voice of all. And I can still hear my dad, who passed away in 1970, but I can still hear him on that summer night in 1960 say: ‘We’re getting closer. That’s Vin Scully.’
“That’s the first time I ever heard Vin Scully’s voice,” Costas said. “It’s a memory that connects to the game and my dad. A memory I will never forget.”
Through his calls, Scully authored countless memories. It could be as simple as the one he made in 2007, when Dodgers infielder Chin-lung Hu reached safely on a single.
“OK, everybody. All together …” Scully said. “Hu’s on first.”
Or it could be historic and socially significant, like his call of Henry Aaron’s 715th career home run, hit off Al Downing, which broke Babe Ruth’s record. When the ball sailed over the fence Scully said, “It’s gone!” Then, he instructed the engineer to open the crowd microphone so listeners could only hear the fans cheering for a few minutes. Scully, standing in the back of the broadcast booth drinking water put down his glass and returned to the microphone to caption the moment.
“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,” Scully said. “And for the first time in a long time, that poker face of Aaron’s shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months. It’s over.”
Scully’s words produced accolades. Yet his decision to go silent, and use the crowd reaction as a dramatic device, received almost as much applause. Scully would say he was simply relying on his past.
“I remember when I was growing up. We had one of those huge old radios at home that sat high enough off the ground so that I was able to crawl under it, actually under it,” Scully said. “I’d sit there for hours with a box of Saltines and a carton of milk and listen to guys like Ted Husing and Bill Stern do college football games. Games like Georgia Tech-Navy, Mississippi-Mississippi State, which I should not have cared the least about, but was enthralled with.”
“It didn’t matter to me,” Scully said. “I used to just love to hear the roar of the crowd wash over me. And I knew if I ever got the chance to broadcast, I’d let the crowd be the big thing.”
And he treated that crowd as if it was the only thing. Night after night he paid attention to detail. The way he put one particular night into perspective, after Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect against the Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965, defines the true meaning of classic.
Koufax had just struck out Harvey Kuenn to nail down the perfecto and Scully let the crowd noise take over. Then, he delivered the exclamation point.
“On the scoreboard in right field it is 9:46 p.m. in the city of angels, Los Angeles, California, and a crowd of 29,139 just sitting in to see the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit-no-run games. He has done it four straight years, and now he capped 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 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.”
Scully was born in the Bronx. His father died of pneumonia when he was seven and the family moved to Brooklyn. He went to Fordham Prep then on to Fordham University, taking advantage of all the media opportunites he could. Scully worked on the school newspaper, radio station, and was a stringer for the New York Times. He also was an outfielder on Fordham’s baseball team. He was in the Navy for two years and returned to Fordham, graduating in 1949.
That summer, Scully was scheduled to meet with Red Barber, the head of CBS Radio Sports who was also called Brooklyn Dodgers games with his partner Ernie Harwell. Barber could not make his first meeting with Scully, but a couple of days later tried contacting him again.
“I came home one night and my wonderful Irish red-haired mother said to me, ‘Oh Vinny, you’ll never guess who called,’” Scully said. “And I said, ‘No Mom, who?’ She said, ‘Red Skelton!’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t think so, but could it be Red Barber?’ Yes! So I went to see Red.”
Barber eventually assigned Scully to work a Maryland-Boston University football game from Fenway Park. He did not work from a broadcast booth but from the roof with the wind whipping.
“I thought I would have a beautiful booth and didn’t bring a hat or coat or gloves. We were on the roof of Fenway with a card table and a microphone and 50 yards of cable,” Scully said. “I did the game going up and down the roof with the microphone as the teams went up and down. I never mentioned anything about it during the broadcast. It became a terrific game. When it was over, I was so cold and and so unhappy and I thought I had blown it.”
He didn’t. When Harwell left the Dodgers and moved to the New York Giants Polo Grounds booth in 1950, Barber hired Scully to replace him.
“Red thought, ‘Instead of hiring a professional, I’m going to take that kid and see if I can make him a reasonably successful broadcaster,’” Scully said.
When Barber moved to the Yankees booth before the 1954 season, Scully became the voice of the Dodgers. He was 26-years-old.
From that point on, Scully never looked back. Brooklyn fans and the Dodgers were like family to him. When Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley decided to moved the team to Los Angeles in advance of the 1958 season he asked Scully to come along. The voice was conflicted.
“I thought, I’m leaving everything that I’ve known,” Scully said. “However, I was thrilled that I had a job.”
The Los Angeles fans became addicted to him, bringing their transistor radios to the ballpark to hear his calls. On occasion, he would play directly to the crowd. Before a game in 1960, Scully found that one of the game umpires, Frank Secory, was celebrating a birthday.
So, on the radio, Scully said: “I’ll count to three and everybody yell, Happy Birthday Frank!” Scully counted and the crowd responded.
Scully’s appeal would broaden. He became a became a national voice working the NFL on CBS and baseball and golf on NBC.
But Vin Scully will be remembered for his work behind that Dodgers microphone, a sweet soloist. The one, only and forever voice of summer.