Iconic broadcaster Vin Scully was baseball’s merry poet laureate and so much more
Vin Scully, the LA Dodgers broadcaster of nearly seven decades who died on Tuesday at 94, leaves behind a towering legacy as a paragon of joy in a world of anger and calm in a time of chaos
“Hi everybody! And a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be.”
Whether they were navigating Los Angeles traffic, retreating to their couch after work, preparing their dinner or eating it, millions of Angelenos turned on their televisions or radios at 7pm to join their nightly summer appointment with Vin Scully.
Scully, who died on Tuesday at the age of 94, was the Dodgers broadcaster for 67 seasons before retiring in 2016. He moved with the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958 and spent nearly seven decades inviting viewers and listeners to join him.
His solitary presence in the booth turned broadcasts into fireside chats with millions of Angelenos and fans outside of greater Los Angeles who could find a feed of a Dodger game. Bob Costas called Scully the greatest baseball announcer that ever lived. Current Dodgers announcer Joe Davis said he was “as great of a storyteller as there has been in modern history”. In November 2016, US president Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Obama recalled that Scully asked whether he was deserving of such an honor, saying that “I’m just an old baseball announcer.”
Obama looked to the audience and then to Scully. “We had to inform him that to Americans of all ages, you are an old friend.”
A child of New York City, Scully was captivated by radio broadcasts of college football games and the roar of the crowd that crackled through AM radio. After graduating from Fordham University in the Bronx, Scully’s first professional assignment was a college football game between Maryland and Boston University at Fenway Park. There were no seats in the press box, so he called the game from the stadium roof. A year later, he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and traveled west when the team moved to Los Angeles.
Just as Scully found his calling with an ear to airwaves, generations of children wanted to be sportscasters because of him. Anytime between the dawn of spring and the dusk of summer, Scully regaled his audiences with his lifetime of stories while narrating the drama of Major League Baseball. West coast fans remembered Scully narrating easy summer nights and backyard barbecues, east coast fans remember him as the last voice they heard before drifting to sleep.
When faced with the most dramatic moments of his career, Scully brought viewers closer to history with restraint and simplicity. After announcing Hank Aaron’s home run to pass Babe Ruth as Major League Baseball’s all-time home run leader, Scully let 27 seconds pass, leaving viewers only with the visual of Aaron rounding the bases, the partying of a boisterous crowd and the thunder of celebratory fireworks. Once Aaron was greeted by his teammates, Scully resumed his narration.
“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,” Scully said. “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.”
After his historic “behind the bag! It gets through Buckner!” call in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Scully lets the raucous New York Mets crowd carry the broadcast for over three minutes before telling viewers that “if one picture is worth 1,000 words, you’ve seen about a million words.”
Fans of the Dodgers can pick between any number of his legendary calls: When Sandy Koufax threw his perfect game in 1965, striking out the last six batters in the process, Scully stated that “when Koufax wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that K stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X.” When hobbled Dodgers slugger Kirk Gibson hit a home run to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Scully graced the call with “in a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!”
Scully announced three perfect games and 25 World Series over 67 years of handling play-by-play duties for the Dodgers. His extemporaneous brilliance shined during the most dramatic moments, but it was his daily company that endeared himself to viewers, listeners and the coaches and ballplayers that he covered. He eschewed homerism in favor of personal stories and history lessons. His languid narration complemented baseball’s methodical pace so viewers could learn about Hatshepsut, Alexander the Great and the history of beards, the conquests of seafaring pirates, or the time a player extracted two baby jackrabbits from the innards of a rattlesnake. Every story had a moral, and none of them came at the expense of what was happening on the field.
Scully preferred subtlety to bombast and colored his broadcasts with a gentle sense of humor that never mocked his subjects. During one Dodgers broadcast on April 20, he noted that it was Adolf Hitler’s birthday before spitting into the microphone twice. When narrating an ejection, he’d explain to the audience that the seething player or manager thought the umpire’s call was “blinking fertilizer.” Once, he even read a fan’s grocery list.
In a 1981 golf tournament, he invited viewers to “pull up a chair and take a look at the agony of a gentleman who is caught in the pot hole at 14” as golfer Rik Massengale attempts seven shots to escape a cavernous bunker. Almost two minutes later, during which Scully invokes poetry and imagines the internal monologues of Massengale and his caddy, Scully described the golfer as “a casualty of what looks like a meteorite that landed just to the left of the green on 14”. If the on-field action slowed, Scully offered listeners everything from one-man shows to history lessons to keep the broadcast moving.
His zest for storytelling only grew as he entered the twilight of his career that spanned seven decades. With the help of a devoted research team that he’d frequently extoll during broadcasts, weekday evenings and weekend afternoons with Scully were joyous treks through personal histories and old textbooks. To the wartime generation, he was an old friend; to the baby boomers, he was a father figure; to the rest of us, he was a grandparent reading bedtime stories. No matter their age, every listener was rapt when Scully spoke.
It took him just four minutes to tell the history of Friday the 13th – Tuesday the 13th is considered unlucky in Mexico and Greece while Friday the 17th is bad luck in Italy. It is then that second baseman Mark Ellis approaches the plate. “Luckily he wears No 14,” Scully says. “I’m not trying to get smart, I just figured you folks would find it a little interesting. Like you, I’d be lost without Google.”
When the Dodgers faced Pittsburgh pitcher Arquimedes Caminero, Scully explained the science of Archimedes Principle and his youthful struggles with geometry in under 30 seconds. During an at-bat by Arizona outfielder Socrates Brito, Scully summarized the death of Greek philosopher Socrates in just over two minutes. Did you know that Socrates could have escaped his captors, but elected to stand trial so long as he was given a free nightly dinner? You may know that Socrates died after drinking hemlock, but did you know that hemlock was a member of the parsley family?
“It was the juice of that little flower that took Socrates away,” Scully said right as Brito swung and missed for strike three. “A bad outside pitch is chased by Socrates. And down he goes!”
Maybe the most magical part of Scully’s personality and career was his exuberance for the fans who filled the stadium and tuned in to enjoy his broadcasts. Whenever the cameras focused on children, Scully would dote on them as if they were his grandkids. When the cameras caught a toddler sucking her right thumb during a September 2016 broadcast, he recited Shel Silverstein’s ‘Thumbs’ before the first pitch of the inning.
Even in death, it was Scully’s zest for life that motivated so many touching tributes when news of his death broke on Tuesday. He was a few months shy of his 90th birthday when he said “no matter how many tomorrows I have, I’m spending the todays exactly the way I wanted to.” When a reporter asked what he did on his first opening day as a retiree, Scully said he was engaged in the other national pastime: paying bills.
When he signed off for good in October 2016, Scully looked into the camera and said that “we’ve been friends for a long time, but I know in my heart that I’ve needed you more than you’ve ever needed me and I’ll miss our time together more than I can say.” As Scully ascends into the sky, one he might describe as “cotton candy pink with a canopy of blue, good enough to eat”, the world misses Scully more than it ever has before: gone is a paragon of joy in a world of anger and calm in a time of chaos.
Everybody knew that Scully would shine under the brightest lights and highest drama, but he is missed because invited us to join him after our best day or our worst, in times of joy or in times of grief. And for a few hours, Vin comforted us from the pleasant confines of the press box, a needed respite from life’s everyday stresses.
And every night, he’d invite us to join him again the next day when it was time for Dodger baseball.