With Scully in the Booth, California Baseball Took Root
At the end of the 1957 baseball season, Brooklyn Dodgers management packed up for a long-threatened move across the continent.
Into the hypothetical moving trunks went the home uniforms saying “Dodgers” across the front, the creaky old heroes of Flatbush and much of the front office, plus Manager Walter Alston and his promising young players. (They were not quite sure whether the young lefty from Brooklyn, Sandy Koufax, would ever harness his velocity.)
Baseball was moving to the Promised Land. The historic New York Giants were also moving, to San Francisco, taking Willie Mays with them. (The noive of them.)
But nothing or nobody in the latter-day covered wagons would transport and transplant baseball to the Left Coast better than a young man not long removed from the Fordham campus in the Bronx and the broadcasting booth in Brooklyn named Vin Scully.
More than anybody or anything, Vin Scully sent baseball floating into the ozone — first from the ill-shaped Coliseum, and then, starting in 1962, from the pastel oasis on a former Mexican camp nestled into Chavez Ravine.
Scully was the warm voice wafting out into a warm climate, instructing the locals in the fine points of big-league baseball. (We sullen, forsaken Dodgers and Giants fans back east liked to think Californians knew nothing about baseball, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams notwithstanding.)
On soft evenings in Chavez Ravine, the common denominator was not crowd noise or public-address announcements but the play-by-play narration of Scully and his sidekicks, discussing strategy as well as the past heroics of Messrs. Hodges and Reese and Snider and Erskine and Furillo, most of them operating on fading batteries.
Scully’s dulcet voice floated on stereophonic waves from new gadgets called “transistor radios,” easy to carry into the ballpark.
He was not the normal homer baseball announcer who was prone to saying things like, “Let’s get us a few runs this inning!” Vincent Edward Scully, who died Tuesday at 94, never shouted, never rooted, never patronized, never sermonized — just called plays and added personal notes about the players. His mellow, pull-up-a-chair approach was like having a beloved elder explain the game unfolding on the field. In 1958, only 30, Vin Scully was the repository for the history of a franchise beloved in another world.
“It wasn’t the first baseman, or the manager, or the team — certainly not with the won and lost record, because they had a tough year,” Peter O’Malley, the son of the former owner Walter O’Malley, said in a mid-July essay by Bill Shaikin of The Los Angeles Times about Scully’s immediate impact on Los Angeles.
“It was Vinny who introduced the team,” he added. “There was no one who could have done it better. When you pause to understand the impact that he had then, as well as today, it’s extraordinary.”
One consolation for the heartbroken Brooklyn fans left behind by the Dodgers was that Scully remained within earshot. He called World Series games often enough that we could be reminded of what we had lost. Gil Hodges and Duke Snider came to the Mets as faded icons, but Scully would materialize on the air waves at the peak of his game.
Scully had a good teacher in Red Barber, who was broadcasting Brooklyn games when Scully was a young (Giants) fan. Barber had his practiced Southern patter. (“Tearing up the pea-patch,” “the two teams are having a rhubarb,” the Dodgers are “sitting in the catbird seat” — we came to know exactly what each one meant.) But behind the jocular and charming regionalisms, Barber was a complicated religious man who had once thought about being a teacher.
In an informative biography published in April, “Red Barber: The Life and Legacy of a Broadcasting Legend,” Judith R. Hiltner and James R. Walker tell how Barber imposed a strict regimen on his young understudy.
One day Scully was a bit vague on the air about why a player was not in the lineup; Barber let him know he should have found out why in the pregame access to the manager.
Another time, the authors relate, Scully was drinking a beer in the press lounge before a game, a normal practice in Scully’s experience. Barber, no stranger to alcohol, told Scully that he could not afford to be seen having a beer because it could be held against him if he had slip-up at the microphone.
The authors note that Scully may have smarted at the close discipline, but that he always treated Barber as his mentor, in his public statements and in letters to “The Old Redhead.”
If Barber was known for his Southern style, Scully became known for his silence. He realized that a momentous play deserved the roar of the crowd rather than the roar of the broadcaster. He would sit by the microphone and let the roars waft outward.
In 1986, Scully was back in New York, watching the Red Sox inch up the dugout steps, waiting for the final out for the franchise’s first World Series championship since 1918. Instead, Mookie Wilson’s little dribbler slithered past the aching legs of first baseman Bill Buckner, and the World Series was suddenly extended to a seventh game.
“Little roller up along first … behind the bag!” Scully began, but then added: “It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it!”
Shea Stadium went mad as Scully sat by the microphone for three full minutes. Then he added, “If one picture is worth a thousand words, you have seen about a million words, but more than that, you have seen an absolutely bizarre finish to Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The Mets are not only alive, they are well, and they will play the Red Sox in Game 7 tomorrow.”
Here, for once in his magnificent career, Scully missed something. He was quoted as saying he never thought he would hear normally neutral New York sportswriters cheering a victory by the Mets. I later noted in print that we were not cheering, we were gasping at the horror of suddenly having to rewrite our stories, at midnight, to note that the Mets had inexplicably survived to play the seventh game (and win the Series, after a rainout on Sunday.)
Scully’s impeccable reliance on the action on the screen served him well two World Series later when an injured Kirk Gibson hobbled up to pinch-hit with the Dodgers trailing the Oakland A’s. He tersely called the game-changing homer, but then went silent for 65 seconds as Dodger Stadium erupted, then made one brief comment, and went silent again for 29 seconds. He was Vin Scully, and he knew the fans back home in front of the tube could supply their eyes and ears, their own emotions.
Major League Baseball had come a long way since Walter O’Malley ran away with Our Bums. Baseball had grown from essentially the eastern half of the United States to a worldwide sport. In Canada, in Latin America, in Japan, all over the world, the fans knew the score.
Vin Scully knew his audience. He carried himself with the aura of a self-confident but low-key star. He knew he was part of the show; he did not have to babble.