Vin Scully on life and lessons from his rookie year with the 1950 Dodgers
In 1950, an unfussy, callow rookie tiptoed into the Dodgers broadcast booth and never left. Vin Scully was just 22 and a year removed from his graduation at Fordham when he suddenly found himself alongside veterans Connie Desmond and the legendary Red Barber in calling Brooklyn Dodgers games on radio and television.
Sixty-five years later, Scully and the Dodgers are both in Los Angeles and both still together. Throughout a career in which he has called the NFL, golf, tennis and, of course, baseball for a national audience and even did college basketball in his early days, he remains a fixture of Dodgers games on both television (for SportsNet LA) and radio (KLAC).
Scully is now arguably the Dodgers’ biggest star, but in his debut season, the prodigy knew his place. "I was as young or younger as most of the players,” Scully says. “So as long as I kept my mouth shut, I fit in.”
At the recommendation of Barber, Scully succeeded Ernie Harwell in the Brooklyn booth for the 1950 season. Harwell found Barber to be fastidious and demanding, and it became so unbearable for him that after the 1949 season he crossed town to join the more easygoing Russ Hodges in the Giants’ booth. (Interestingly, all three men would follow Barber into the Baseball Hall of Fame in successive years, with Hodges winning the Ford C. Frick Award in 1980, Harwell doing so in ’81 and Scully in ’82.) Recognizing what Scully was enduring in his first year under Barber, Harwell asked him how it was going. "Red's giving me a tough time," Scully admitted. Harwell confidently counseled him to "hang in there. Barber is tough but a great teacher. It will be worth it.”
For Scully, the entire 1950 season was baptism by fire at the side of Barber, who proved to be a stern taskmaster. When he caught Scully having a beer in the press room before a game one time, he excoriated him.
Barber, a native of Mississippi and Florida, was a baseball broadcast pioneer. More so than any of the early baseball broadcasters, he gave the game a descriptive rhythm that made it perfectly suited for radio. Arriving from Cincinnati in 1939, Brooklyn found Barber's Southern accent comforting. Peter Golenbock wrote in his book, Bums, "If the Dodgers were a religion, then Red Barber was Billy Graham." Barber, though, wasn't universally liked. In Lindsey Nelson's book, Hello, Everybody I'm Lindsey Nelson, the Hall of Fame broadcaster quoted longtime NBC Sports chief Tom Gallery as saying, "I hate that psalm singing, sanctimonious son of a b----."
Under Barber, Scully felt somewhat defensive. Every day, he tried not to err and to prove himself worthy of his lofty role. But being third on the depth chart behind Barber and Desmond made it hard to get the kind of play-by-play reps that could grow his skills. And when games weren’t televised the youngster was often not assigned any play-by-play at all.
Other media members were more welcoming. Dick Young of the Daily News, perhaps the most influential writer in the city, could be unrelenting, yet he took a liking to Scully. “Young called me ‘Skooly’ and not to just monkey around with my name," Scully says. "‘Skooly’ was for ‘schoolboy’ because of my young age. Dick Young was probably the greatest writer to cover a professional team."
During that 1950 season, Young got into a verbal altercation with the Dodgers’ 65-year-old skipper, Burt Shotton. "Young could be unforgiving when he had a dislike,” Scully says. “He had words with Shotton after Shotton didn't like what he wrote. From that point on Young referred to him as ‘kindly old.’ Once ‘kindly old’ was in concrete it then became KOBS (for kindly old Burt Shotton). Like a bulldog, Young never let the bone go."
Young wasn’t the only problem for Shotton that season. Despite boasting seven All-Stars in catcher Roy Campanella, first baseman Gil Hodges, second baseman Jackie Robinson, shortstop Pee Wee Reese, centerfielder Duke Snider and pitchers Don Newcombe and Preacher Roe, the Dodgers were in fourth place as late as mid-August before ripping off a 10-game winning streak that carried Brooklyn into second, four games behind the Phillies, a young team known as the Whiz Kids. The Dodgers fell back to nine games behind entering play on Sept. 19 but then went 12-3 to climb within two games of Philadelphia, which came to Ebbets Field for the last two games of the season.
Brooklyn won the first game 7-3 and needed only to beat the Philies and their ace Robin Roberts in the season finale on Sunday, Oct. 1 to force a three-game playoff for the pennant.
In the bottom of the sixth, the Dodgers were trailing 1-0 when Reese smacked the ball to deep rightfield. "Resse's shot bounced on the five inches of the concrete at the base of the screen and just stayed up there,” says Scully, who remembers the game perfectly. “It was the most miraculous home run. The ball sat there at the base of the screen. It was the most unbelievable home run I ever saw. You could see the rightfielder, Del Ennis, plead for it to come down. There was nowhere for it to go. It just stayed there between the edge of the concrete and the base of the screen. There were only five inches up there, if that."
In the bottom of the ninth with the game tied 1-1, Brooklyn squandered a couple of tasty chances to score the winning run. With first and second and no one out, Snider lined a single to center. Cal Abrams was on second and raced for home. "Instead of hitting the inside of the bag at third, Abrams, a New York kid, rounded third by the way of the coach's box and he failed to score,” says Scully. “Centerfielder Richie Ashburn threw him out at the plate. Later in the inning, the Dodgers had the bases loaded with one out and Carl Furillo fouled out."
In the top of the 10th Dick Sisler hit a three run homer for Philadelphia, giving the Phillies a 4-1 win and the pennant.
The postmortem is etched in Scully's memory: "I took the antiquated elevator down and went to the clubhouse. One of the big doors from Ebbets Field to the street was open and there was a station wagon parked outside. It was heaped with clothing and trunks and suitcases. Walking by, I asked whose station wagon it was. It obviously belonged to someone prepared to leave town in a hurry. I was told it was Furillo's. He had fouled out with the winning run at third base. Had he hit a fly to the outfield the Dodgers would have won. I said to Furillo what a young kid would, ‘Tough luck.’ And Furllio looked at me and responded, ‘You either do or you don't.’ That was it. It was the most professional approach and because it was my first year, it stuck to my ribs."
After the 1950 season, the winds of change howled through Ebbets Field. Owner Walter O'Malley, who until then had a minority stake in the team, took full control of the Dodgers. He let go of both Shotton and general manager Branch Rickey.
Within a few years, Barber and Desmond were gone too. O’Malley didn’t renew Barber’s $50,000 contract for the 1954 season, just months after Barber had turned down the assignment to broadcast the 1953 Dodgers-Yankees World Series on NBC television because of a spat with rightsholder Gillette over his $200 per game compensation. And by Labor Day of 1956, Desmond’s drinking problem had cost him his job.
With those two gone, Scully’s star rose. At last he was given the air time to grow his talent. He loosened himself of the grips of Barber and carved his own style that was warm, entertaining and inimitable. In 1957, when he told his audience that he just spilled a cup of coffee over a pair of slacks fresh out of the dry cleaners, Barber wasn't there to say, "Who cares?" Scully had built sufficient capital and respect to do things his way.
In those last couple seasons in Brooklyn, it was Scully who was held in awe by aspiring broadcasters. Marv Albert, a teenager at the time, was a Dodgers intern. On game days, he lugged his heavy Wollensak tape recorder to a corner of press row at Ebbets Field to practice his play-by-play. The press box attendant would occasionally ask Albert to tone it down a decibel. After Dodgers’ broadcasts signed off, he occasionally scurried into the broadcast booth and picked up scraps of Scully's commercial copy off the floor so that he could learn to read the ads.
When the Dodgers bolted Brooklyn at the end of the 1957 season, O’Malley brought Scully with the team to Los Angeles, but he essentially shut down the telecasts. O’Malley had felt that televising home games contributed to the attendance challenges at Ebbets Field, and he wasn't about to make the same mistake in California. In 1958, the only Dodgers’ games on television were those played in San Francisco against the rival Giants, who had also moved across the country.
Though Scully has been famous for more than half a century he still remembers what it was like during his rookie season.
“I was in the back of the bus with the humpies, the guys who didn't play a lot,” he says. “I was welcomed and they made me feel very much at home. However as a kid born and raised in New York, I was totally in awe of the starting team: Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Cox, Duke Snider and a host of others.”
Of the 37 players who suited up for the Dodgers in 1950, only six are still alive. Three of them, pitchers Ralph Branca, Carl Erskine and Don Newcombe, were household names in Brooklyn and beyond. Two of the other three, Tommy Brown and Bobby Morgan, had cameos. Joe Landrum barely had a sip of coffee.
Scully still sees Newcombe and Erskine. The former is a special advisor to the Dodgers who can often be seen at the ballpark. The latter attends Old Timer’s Games, where Scully can reminisce about the day the man provincially accented New Yorkers called “Oisk” struck out 14 Yankees in Game 2 of the 1953 World Series.
Branca and Scully have been friends dating back to the latter’s first season, although mentor Barber had advised his protégé not get too chummy with players lest he lose his objectivity. "Ralph and I were very close,” says Scully. “Before he was married, we would double date and spend a lot of time together.”
Branca would achieve lasting recognition in 1951 for giving up Bobby Thomson’s famous Shot Heard Round The World home run that won the pennant for the Giants. For more than 60 years he has carried that misstep with grace and dignity. He has had problems getting around in recent years, but when 42, the movie about Jackie Robinson, hit screens in 2013, Branca was able to get to a special screening in his home county of Westchester, New York. By Ralph's side was his bride, Ann. Scully says that one of the reasons Ralph “carried the cross exceptionally well” was that he and Ann were getting married almost immediately thereafter.
The fact that Scully can still provide instant thumbnail bios of Branca, Erskine and Newcombe—at least one of whom helped Brooklyn win six pennants and a World Series title between 1947 and ‘56—is no surprise. But seven decades later, the names Brown and Morgan, long forgotten by most, are anything but vague to the Dodgers' broadcaster. Ask him for curbside sketches of the two and he will paint profiles, colored with rich detail.
"Brown was a young kid (16) when he first played for the Dodgers,” Scully recalled. “They used to count the home runs he hit, not during regular season games but in batting practices. He broke Babe Ruth's record in a week, in batting practice! Unfortunately he was not that hitter when the game began.”
When Bobby Morgan's name was raised, Scully's voice perks up.
"Bobby Morgan was a wonderful player out of Oklahoma. Frank Shaughnessy, president of the International League, said something like Bobby Morgan is the best third baseman since Pie Traynor. It put lots of pressure on him. The one thing I will never forget was that Bobby Morgan was involved in the greatest catch that Willie Mays ever made! And Mays would be the first to agree with me."
On April 18, 1952, the Dodgers played their home opener the Giants. In the seventh inning, Morgan hit a line drive to left-centerfield, sending the 21-year-old Mays in pursuit. "In those days, Ebbets Field had a gravel warning track and a concrete wall,” said Scully. “Mays, running as hard as he could, hit that gravel fully extended, made the catch, hit the base of the concrete wall and rolled over on his back, with his hands together, on his chest. The leftfielder for the Giants was Henry Thompson. He ran over, took the ball out of Mays' glove, held it high in the air, and the out was flashed by the umpire."
Landrum, meanwhile, appeared in just 16 big league games in 1950 and ’52, and was likely referenced more by Scully when his son Bill reached the majors in 1986, serving as a relief pitcher for four National League clubs over eight seasons.
One day this April, two southpaw greats, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, took the mound on a quiet weeknight at Dodger Stadium. Scully, getting ready as always to broadcast the game, thought perspective. These two teams have been rivals for more than 125 years. Scully juxtaposes the Bumgarner-Kershaw matchup with the heavyweight pitching battle of the 1960's, the Giants' Juan Marichal and the Dodgers' Sandy Koufax. He spends almost half an inning early in the broadcast, tantalizingly setting the scene, weaving in relevant details of gargantuan clashes of the past. Who could then turn off the television? Whether one was watching the game in Southern California, where it was early in the evening, or listening via satellite in Florida, where it was late at night, Scully had his audience hooked.
His voice is still redolent of Southern California's summers. The sound of his play-by-play is steadily reassuring in a city that's trendy and in a world that's multitasking.
Harkening back to Furillo's trenchant comment after the difficult loss to the Phillies that ended his first season, Scully says, "Furillo's grandson was out here recently and it brought back that professional approach: ‘You either do or you don't.’”
Yes, Scully did then and still does it now, 65 years later.
David J. Halberstam is the former play-by-play announcer for the Miami Heat and the author of Sports On New York Radio: A Play-By-Play HIstory.