A Fond Farewell to Vin Scully, The Voice of Summer

When the modern world gets too fast, and I lose myself under a mountain of work, one baseball announcer is always able to restore tranquillity. Vin Scully, the omnipotent voice of summer, typically provides a moment of still in the gathering vortex of contemporary life.

When more things are competing for our attention than ever before, it’s easy to feel swamped, but there’s gravity in that voice. It tells you to sit still, take a moment to breathe, and realise that it’s okay to smile, it’s okay to just be, and it’s okay to invest in a funny game played by men in pyjamas from February through October.

After a difficult day, listening to Vin Scully narrate another Dodgers game is the perfect antidote. “Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good afternoon to you, wherever you may be,” he declares, and everything is alright. Vin literally tells you to pull up a chair and relax, because we’ve got one hell of a ballgame for you today. Instantly, there’s a comfort level there. For the next three hours, you can forget about everything and just focus on that sweet cashmere baritone. Close your eyes and float away.

As Vin speaks, pictures form in the mind. There’s Gary Sheffield at bat in the cavernous majesty of Chavez Ravine, cheers raining down from the tropical seats. There’s Jackie Robinson rounding second at cosy Ebbets Field, encouragement rolling in from the rafters. There’s Clayton Kershaw snapping off another curve, the greatest of our time working with meticulous care.

From East Coast to West, from bucolic neighbourhood bums to big city juggernaut, from the sainted boys of summer to the millionaire sons of Hollywood, Vin has seen it all. Vin has called it all. He’s the conscience of Dodger history, perhaps more integral to the team’s brand than any player. He’s a living reminder of what this great team means, and a passionate advocate of its ethical trailblazing and pristine standards. Some say he’s the Dodgers incarnate.

The great man is able to bind people together like few other figures in modernity. For instance, I’m a 21-year old British man living in Wirral, a sleepy corner of England, more than 5,000 miles away from Dodger Stadium. But for three hours each day, when listening to Vin, I could be a middle-aged businessman in eighties LA, keen to hear an update on Fernando Valenzuela, or a teenage paperboy in fifties Brooklyn, hopelessly besotted with Gil Hodges and his friends. In this regard, Vin Scully is of time and timelessness. He’s also without equal in his field.

So when the Dodgers are crowned or eliminated this fall, a part of baseball will die, for that will also herald the end of Vin Scully’s broadcasting career. After 67 seasons, the longest tenure of any one announcer for any one team in any one sport, Vin will retire at the age of 88. After twenty no-hitters and three perfect games, thousands of innings and ample Fall Classics, the great man will walk into the sunset, a part of the history he curated for so long. And while key figures retiring is often overstated, Scully really will be missed, because there is nobody else like him, and there never will be again.

Who else do you know that has been the very best in his or her profession for 67 years? Any profession. Not just sports. Not just broadcasting. In the wider context of life, what Vin Scully has achieved, a versatility of skill and longevity of character, is truly outstanding. He’s perhaps the most gifted man ever to sit behind a microphone for any sporting event, and that’s been true since Harry Truman occupied the White House. Listening to him was a gift, and it continues to be so in the fading hours of his reign.

Listening to Vin Scully is now one of the very few things you can do to experience baseball as it was during its golden age. Visiting Cooperstown is on the list, as is taking in a game at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. Vin’s is the last prominent voice from that great epoch when baseball dominated society. This guy has seen them all, from Babe Ruth and Willie Mays to Lou Gehrig and Hank Aaron, right on through to Mike Trout. He’s the living embodiment of baseball history, the conduit of hardball tradition, the keeper of the flame.

Luke Appling was the oldest Major League player in 1950, Scully’s first season. Julio Urias is the youngest player in 2016, his final campaign. That’s a career span of 1930 to perhaps 2030 and beyond. Vin also conversed and befriended coaches and managers who played much earlier than that, increasing the spread of his eminence. For example, the Dodgers manager in his first year, Burt Shotton, was born in 1884, when the Providence Grays were National League champions and the first World Series was nineteen years in the future. Fast forward 132 years, and Vin Scully keeps that bloodline alive, even as the game changes immeasurably, with instant replay and rules on collisions and dance music booming through stadiums.

Indeed, Vincent Edward Scully was born into a much different world. He arrived in the Bronx, New York, on 29th November 1927, a few months after the Brooklyn Robins finished sixth in an eight-team National League. Vin grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, and life in that age wasn’t without turmoil, as Scully’s biological father died when he was four.

The dream of broadcasting sports began a few years later, when Vin fell in love with the crowd noise of American Football games through his wireless. After serving in the Navy for two years, he studied broadcasting and journalism at Fordham University, the first step in a lengthy journey to stardom.

Scully was soon recruited by legendary announcer Red Barber, then a director of the CBS Radio Network. He concentrated on football at first, as Barber gave him some quality pointers: never be a homer, never copy other announcers, and never weigh the broadcast down with opinion. In time, Scully joined Barber in the Dodgers booth, working on television and radio. When Red left for the Yankees in 1953, Vin took over as the principal announcer. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1955, Scully narrated the ultimate dream of Brooklynites, as the underdog Dodgers toppled the mighty Yankees in October. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are champions of the world,” Scully said, concise and poignant as ever. Right now, it’s difficult to describe what those words actually meant to people. It can be argued that Brooklyn Dodgers fans were the most passionate in all of baseball. They lived and died with every pitch of their Flatbush heroes, the original lovable losers who won ten pennants before ultimately triumphing in a World Series. So for Scully to finally inform of success for the prodigal sons was momentous. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

When political squabbles over a new stadium saw the Dodgers leave for Los Angeles after the 1957 season, the heart was ripped out of that vibrant community. Nevertheless, Scully made the journey and found great success on the West Coast. He called five more World Series titles for the Dodgers and became a beloved Los Angeles icon as the ragtag team of his youth was transformed into a sleek powerhouse.

Scully continued to call football games for a long time, while his excellent feel for baseball saw him entrusted with national broadcasts, including the World Series, for many years. He narrated some classic Series moments, from Bill Buckner’s error to Kirk Gibson’s walkoff.

Along the way, Scully overcame great personal tragedy, as his wife died from an accidental medical overdose. Vin was awarded the prestigious Ford C. Frick Award in 1982, finally receiving his moment in the Cooperstown sun, but further pain awaited when his son was killed in a 1994 helicopter crash. In powering through adversity and emerging a better man, Scully was an inspiration for millions, and that had little to do with his voice or baseball in general.

And so, here we are. After a lifetime of ballgames, Vin Scully has just a few remaining. When he began, crowd noise consisted of peanut sellers and beer vendors with thick New York accents. All eyes were on the diamond amid a stampeding susurrus from the crowd, attentive and captivated. Now, as he prepares to finish, the game is accompanied by thumping walk-up songs and the imploring of public address announcers to “Make some noise!” That’s not a polemic on baseball. It’s a tribute to Vin’s stoicism, and his ability to stay current in our capricious world.

In addition to being a pillar of strength, Scully is also exceptionally skilled at what he does. Vin portrays the inherent drama of baseball without being dramatic. He conveys the gallant struggle of the game without being morbid. And he allows us to be mawkish and wistful, which is the essence of baseball for many people. What’s more, he does it all on his own, without a colour analyst weighing down the broadcast with mundane conversation. Vin speaks directly to us, like a conversation between old friends.

To Scully, the game is bigger than any one person, any one moment. He hates to be the centre of attention. The whole ‘farewell tour’ concept makes him uncomfortable. Furthermore, in his broadcasts, there is a near total absence of bias. Sure, exciting moments for the Dodgers are called in more excitable tones, and deep down Vin has great affection for the organisation. But he appreciates how difficult it can be to master the craft of baseball, and his immense respect for the brave souls who even try leads him to a more balanced approach in the booth.

Of course, what Vin will be remembered for most is the incredible stories he tells, and the way he tells them. Even in this age when younger broadcasters use tablets and phones to mine data and plumb the depths of hardball trivia, there’s still nobody better than Vin at unearthing human tales to which we can all relate. With help from two invisible guys in the broadcast booth, Boyd Robinson and Rob Menschel, Vin has gleamed the most wonderful stories organically for decades.

A lot of people would struggle to find on the Internet what Scully learns around the batting cage through conversation. The great man drops in references to Pee Wee Reese and Plato with equal knowledge and passion, and for that reason I always learn something when listening to a Dodgers game. It may be about pirates or bird poop, philosophy or socialism, defensive shifts or knuckleballs. As baseball and the coverage of it faces a crisis of becoming too granular for its own good, Vin still takes the well-rounded overview that I love, and that experience is so enriching.

“Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination,” Scully once said. I couldn’t agree more. And in this sense, Vin is one of the last announcers to concentrate on the beautiful art of baseball, the poetry between the lines, more than the sabermetric sewage it often spawns. Scully delves deep into the minutiae of baseball, and he provides the audience with all the relevant statistics, but that isn’t the definitive prism through which he enjoys the game. Although he did study for the job, Vin is a far cry from the almost robotic announcers we see today. He’s one all alone.

The great Sandy Koufax said he enjoyed watching a Scully broadcast almost as much as pitching in a big league game. There’s just something mesmerising in the undulating cadence of his voice, soothing like honey. It has a familiar oscillation, rising with something close to giddy enthusiasm, then diving smoothly with sagacious calm. Perhaps the greatest tribute is that, when we see quotes from Vin in the newspaper or online, our brains automatically read them in that unmistakable voice, with pauses in all the right places and a tenor that stirs the soul. This is one of the great American voices, regardless of field, and it has left an indelible mark on the national psyche.

Like all great announcers, Scully also knows when to be quiet. That’s a precious gift. Often, he will sit back in big moments and let the crowd noise illustrate the throbbing drama on display. In this regard, Vin has a total mastery of timing. His stories always seem to fit into a specific plate appearance, and rare are the occasions when he needs to carry over a yarn to the next half inning. The game waits for him, an industry saying goes. And well it might, for he belongs to the powerful pantheon of baseball gods.

So now, our attention turns to the future. When Vin steps away, will anybody put the game before himself again? Will baseball ever matter as much to the next generation of broadcasters and those that watch them? I’m not so sure.

Vin was without an ego, while some of today’s announcers are almost corporate brands in themselves, with silky Twitter personas and a sense of self-importance that can be overbearing. Not all, admittedly. But a lot.

Moreover, when Scully retires, the great baseball storyteller will truly be an endangered species. Old stalwarts likes Jon Miller and Pat Hughes, John Sterling and Joe Castiglione remain fine announcers who I really enjoy, while Tom Hamilton and Charley Steiner are also very good at what they do, among others. But the next generation seems to take a different approach that can be stifling for the viewer. Of the newer breed, I like Len Kasper and Josh Lewin a lot, but few other guys actually stand out. We may be heading for an era of cookie cutter announcers, and that’s deeply worrying for a sport that has always inspired individuality in the booth.

And what of the Dodgers? As mentioned earlier, Charley Steiner is a more than adequate successor in the radio booth, but nobody can fully replace Vin Scully. In just a few weeks, one of the biggest pillars of what makes the Dodgers unique will be taken away. Several things come to mind when you think Dodgers: the pristine white uniforms, the blue script lettering, the gorgeous Dodger Stadium, Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier, and Vin declaring, “It’s time for Dodger baseball!” It will be difficult to lose one of those elements, and a part of Dodger tradition will morph into history.

I often daydream about the ultimate baseball game, rather like Ray Kinsella on his Iowa farm. Babe Ruth would obviously play right field for one of the teams, and perhaps pitch an inning or two. Joe DiMaggio would roam centre field, elegant and graceful. Ty Cobb would run the bases with pernicious intent. And, up in the booth, Vin Scully would survey it all and send it onward to the living rooms and porches of people across the land, telling them how the twilight sky is tinged with red like the brushstrokes of a fine artist.

Nobody could ever vocalise baseball like this man for all seasons. Nobody will ever be able to, as long as the game exists.


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