WHEN I was alittle boy, we lived in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in New York, and we hada big old radio on four legs, and there was a crosspiece to hold the legstogether, and I was about eight or nine, and I would crawl under there with apillow ... ¬∂ The memory is worn smooth in the retelling, wrought perfect afterall this time. How much time, 75 years? A little less.... and my head would bedirectly underneath the loudspeaker, and it didn't make any difference, thesporting event. In those days there was only football really, no baseball, butI could be listening to Georgia--North Carolina, Texas-Alabama, and here's thiskid in New York curled under a radio and somebody would score a touchdown...
The delivery isrun-on, of course, the broadcaster's trick for building drama, capturing theimmediacy of the event. Punctuation is avoided, as if the slightest pause wouldgive the listener enough excuse to tune away.... and the crowd would go bananasand the roar would come down and it would just engulf me. It was like water outof a showerhead."
The timbreremains refreshingly thin, though not fragile, the syrupy tenor as rich asever, the cadences doing as much of the work as the actual vocabulary. How manygenerations have gone to sleep to that sugary soundtrack? Almost 60 years in aDodgers radio booth, the last 50 in Los Angeles, starting in the Coliseum, butmostly in Chavez Ravine. Speaking of the Coliseum: Back in '58, when theDodgers moved to Los Angeles and had to play in that converted footballstadium, anyone sitting 80, maybe 90 rows from the field couldn't tell thedifference between a squeeze bunt and a grand slam. The transistor radio hadjust been invented, so fans could summon that soothing voice, and it wouldissue from thousands of little speakers, aisle to aisle, foul pole to foulpole, an odd and reverberating ambience that became a given. Just part ofliving in the Southland, echoing here and there, from the valleys to the beacheven, like the sound of surf, or something.
In a city that ispredicated on transience, that celebrates change so famously, there is littleroom for local institutions. Who would want to do something, the same onething, for half a century? Somebody without ambition, that's who. Or withoutthe talent to skip town altogether and go national. There is no patience forthe parochial, the small-time, the stay-in-place, not in Los Angeles. If theBrown Derby had really meant to last, it would have franchised.
September 8, 2008
But here's VinScully, age 80, at least one more year on his contract, as suspiciouslycarrot-topped as the day in 1949 that Red Barber discovered him ("RedSkelton just called," Vin's somewhat excitable Irish mom told him), stillcalling games (most of them, anyway), not just a comforting presence or a relicbut a professional reassurance, always finding the lyric to the singsong musicof the night. It's gotten to the point, the man having stitched together allthose seasons, all by himself, that when you say Dodgers, you really mean VinScully. Who else? Gary Sheffield? Not even Sandy Koufax.
How do youexplain this endurance, this identification? He can't, won't. "I haven'tdone anything," he says, drawing the distinction (which many of hiscolleagues ignore) between the principals and himself. "I'm just sittingthere." He's gotten this far without so much as a catchphrase; often he hasdisappeared from the action entirely. His first big call was Game 7 of the 1955World Series, lefty Johnny Podres beating the New York Yankees. "Reesethrowing to Hodges," he intoned. "Ladies and gentlemen, the BrooklynDodgers are the champions of the world." A long silence followed, lest hebreak down crying on air. (He was young then, and these boys were his boys.)Subsequent silences, for which he has become well-known, have been morepurposeful, less emotional. "To this day," he says, "what I'vealways tried to do is call the play as quickly as I can, and then shut up, notonly for the benefit of the listener but for my own joy of hearing the crowdroar." After Hank Aaron's historic blast in '74, he said, "It isgone," and simply let that roar wash, coast to coast, an aural vacuum otherannouncers would have found unforgivable. The moment didn't requirecomment.
SOMEONE WAS smartenough to transcribe Scully's ninth-inning call of Koufax's perfect game in1965—just an example—in all its press-box poetry. Every paragraph is seededwith drama ("A lot of people in the ballpark are starting to see thepitches with their hearts"), bringing you to the edge of your seat ("Heis one out away from the promised land, and Harvey Kuenn is coming up"). Itwas literature, all right, miraculously appropriate to the moment. ("Swungon and missed, strike two! It is 9:46 p.m.") Someone clocked him, too; heremained silent for 38 seconds after Kuenn fanned for the final out.
Of course, thatwasn't the only humdinger. There was Kirk Gibson's shambling pinch-hitappearance in the opener of the 1988 World Series, set up when Scully orderedthe NBC cameras to pan the Dodgers' dugout before the bottom of the ninth.("Well, the man who's been there for the Dodgers all season, Kirk Gibson,is not in the dugout and will not be there for them tonight.") Gibson, icedup in the clubhouse, suddenly inflamed, and you know what happens next. Afterthe game, Scully went down to then owner Peter O'Malley's box and realized allhe could do was pace, goose-bumped.
But baseballbeing what it is, there have been astonishing stretches of tedium betweenhumdingers, and this is the time that Scully, no color man for him, reveals hisgenius. He has been mocked, playfully, for his on-air erudition, lobbing someshow-tune verse, a bit of Shakespeare, a fact so hopelessly irrelevant that youcan almost see the fans in Dodger Stadium, earbuds in place, craning to look upinto his booth: What the hell?
Seeing a ratherremarkable hairdo, recently, he welcomed the player into the game like this:"What, ho! What, ho! What men are these, who wear their sideburns likeparentheses?" That, like the Koufax call, off the top of his head.Occasionally, though, you can hear the clunk of the ol' Internet searchengine—he has always been an early adopter when it comes to technology, goingback to his college days, when he had a personal telegrapher as a stringer forThe New York Times—explaining that a 6'11" reliever is not actually thetallest man who ever lived, but that Robert Wadlow, at 8'11", was, and thathe died of an infection and his coffin was pretty damn big. He's just fillingtime, amusing himself. "Two balls, two strikes, two outs, bottom of theninth."
Scully has made alife for himself, and for some millions of listeners, exploring the tensionbetween the mundane and the heroic, maintaining a dignified presence all thewhile, no rooting for him, no consorting with players, knowing just what to sayand when to shut up. In his mind, he's the host who welcomes you to the party,takes your coat, makes introductions and then stands apart to moderate thechatter. It's his voice alone that's been floating out over this impossiblesprawl, 50 years, gathering everyone under the net, a couple of hours a night,enforcing a community of shared excitement, or puzzlement, or disappointment,Azusa to Temecula.
Several years agoScully, who admits to an Irish introspection, found himself in a hotel room inCincinnati and suddenly heard a clock ticking—he has 18 grandchildren, forGod's sake—and asked for, and got, his schedule reduced by half of the U.S. Heonly works west of the Rockies. In any case, he's not a baseball fanparticularly and doesn't miss the games. He's sat in the stands just once, andthat was at an owner's invitation. It occurred to him long ago that the playerscome and go. The last one he formed an attachment with was Ralph Branca, onlybecause Scully could fill out a hand on a series of double dates, and look whathappened there. Shot heard 'round the world.
Still, he remainsvulnerable to goose bumps. When the Dodgers made news in late July, obtainingManny Ramirez, Scully was properly blasé, saying, "I'm not jumping in theair." He didn't expect Ramirez to be a Dodgers fixture, wouldn't do 50years, that's for sure. On the other hand: the cars circling the stadium,another balmy night in the offering, and who knows what might happen?"Nothing like the bottom of the ninth, tying run on base, Manny in theon-deck circle," he says, as if the thought had just struck him,invigorated now. "Imagine the roar."
Seeing a remarkable hairdo, Scully says, "WHAT,HO! WHAT, HO! What men are these, who wear their sideburns likeparentheses?"