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Vin Scully, who is widely regarded as the greatest broadcaster in the history of sports, has been enamored with the sound of play-by-play for all but the first few of his 86 years.
“I was about 8 years old when it first manifested itself,” Scully, who is in the middle of his unprecedented 65th season calling games for the Dodgers organization, told The Hollywood Reporter from the Dodger Stadium press box earlier this month. “We had a big, old, four-legged radio in the living room with a cross piece at the bottom, and I would take a pillow and some Saltine crackers and a glass of milk, and I would literally crawl under the radio so that my head was directly under the speaker. I had no idea who was playing; the thing that captured my imagination was the roar of the crowd. I fell in love with the roar of the crowd.”
That “little redheaded kid,” who was born and raised in New York, came of age at a time when the city had three Major League Baseball teams — the Yankees, the Giants and the Dodgers — and the sport quickly captured his imagination. He lived in the shadow of the Yankees, in the Bronx. He grew up a fan of the Giants, mostly because he felt sorry for them. But, through a rather remarkable series of events, he landed a job with the Dodgers, back when they still played in Brooklyn — and when he was just 21 years old.
After serving two years in the Navy during the final years of World War II, Scully headed off to Fordham University, where he played center field on the Rams’ baseball team (he and Yale’s George H.W. Bush both went hitless in one otherwise forgettable game in 1947) and worked in radio for the first time (he helped to found the school’s FM radio station, WFUV, and broadcast a cross-section of athletic competitions on it). Upon his graduation in 1949, he sent 150 letters to radio stations on the East Coast seeking employment; only one, WTOP, the CBS Radio affiliate in Washington, D.C., even bothered to reply. They offered him a gig as a “summer replacement announcer” calling games for vacationing broadcasters, and he jumped at the opportunity. “It was a 50,000-watt station,” he recalls, “so I went from not even the minors — from amateur — to the major leagues in broadcasting.”
By the end of the summer, Scully had impressed his employers enough to receive an offer to return in a full-time capacity the following February. In the meantime, though, he returned to New York, and was given several letters of introduction to people at CBS Radio there who might be able to use him in the interim. One of them was the network’s head of news, Ted Church, who met with Scully and, upon discovering his passion for sports, sent him to see the head of sports, the legendary Red Barber, who also called Dodgers games with his partner at the time, Ernie Harwell. Barber was unable to see Scully when he first stopped by, but a few days later he reached out to him. As Scully remembers, “I came home one night and my wonderful Irish red-haired mother said to me, ‘Oh, Vinny, you’ll never guess who called!’ And I said, ‘No, Mom, who?’ She said, ‘Red Skelton!’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t think so, but could it be Red Barber?’ ‘Yes!’ So I went to see Red.”
Barber had already checked out Scully’s background and credentials and decided to offer him a trial run, of sorts: he dispatched him to Boston’s Fenway Park to call the B.U.-Maryland football game. Even though it was, by this time, the dead of winter, Scully was delighted to have the opportunity: “I thought, ‘I’m working for CBS, so I’ll have this glorious glass-enclosed booth — why do I need a hat and gloves and coat?’ So I went to the ballpark, went to the roof and there was no glass-enclosed booth. There was a poor engineer huddled in the cold with a card table, all of his gear on the table, a microphone and 50 yards of cable.” Despite the brutal conditions — “I thought my jaw was frozen,” he says — he powered through and never mentioned “anything except the game that I was doing.” On Monday, Barber got a call from B.U. apologizing for what they had put Scully through, all of which was news to Barber. “Red was so impressed — not so much with the job that I did, but the fact that I never mentioned or complained about the working conditions. And, I will always remember, he said, ‘Well, don’t worry, you’ll have a nice booth next week. You’re doing Harvard-Yale.'” At the end of the football season, though, Barber thanked Scully for his hard work and wished him luck back at WTOP.
Shortly thereafter, Scully heard from Barber again. “Out of the blue,” he recalls, “I get another call from Red. Ernie Harwell had switched from the Dodgers to the Giants. There was an opening in Brooklyn. Red thought about who should fill it. As he told me later, he thought, ‘I don’t want to get a thoroughly experienced professional sports announcer who might get his nose out of joint because he’s only going to do an inning here or an inning there. What about that redheaded kid? Maybe I could meld him and mold him and shape him?’ So they took me to Florida, on a one-month option — and that’s 65 years ago.”
By the time the team headed north for the regular season, Scully started to panic. He was to work as a broadcaster, alongside Barber, in a city in which games were also being called by masters of the profession like Mel Allen, Curt Gowdy and Russ Hodges. Moreover, he had never even been to Ebbets Field, and actually had to ask for directions to it. And, once he got there, he couldn’t quite believe it: “Here I am, with Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider — I mean, it was overwhelming. So all I tried to do is stay out of the way, not say anything unless someone asked me, and, when I went on the air, it was like I didn’t try to broadcast. What I tried to do is not make a mistake.”
Three other guys who were on the team when he arrived were the pitchers Don Newcombe, who was the reigning Rookie of the Year Award winner; Ralph Branca, who was a year away from giving up “the shot heard around the world” to Bobby Thomson; and Carl Erskine, who would throw two no-hitters in the next six years — all of whom spoke with THR for this story.
“I remember saying, ‘He looks like a pup out of Red Barber,'” Erskine, who is now 87, says with a chuckle from his home in Indiana. Newcombe, who is now 88, remembers, “He didn’t have a car then because he couldn’t afford a car, so he rode with me and we became good friends.” And Branca, who is now 88 and still living in New York, recalls, “I met him in the locker room. He came in, announced who he was and that he had been to Fordham, and we kind of bonded because he’s a New York boy and I’m a New York boy.” (The two ended up going “on a bunch of double dates” — Branca with his future wife and Scully with her roommate — when the Dodgers visited Cincinnati.)
While the Dodgers quickly embraced Scully, it was some time before Scully felt comfortable around them. “It took me quite a while to allow myself to come out on the air unencumbered by the fear of committing an error of some kind,” he confesses. Eventually, Barber, whom Scully came to regard as “like a father” prior to Barber’s departure in 1953 (when he left to join Allen in the Yankees’ booth), sat him down and set him straight: “Red said to me, ‘Young man, remember that what you bring into the broadcasting booth is something that no one else in the world can bring.’ Well, I was pop-eyed. I could not believe that. I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Yourself. There’s no one else in the world quite like you.'” With that, and with time, Scully began to come into his own, and became not only a witness to history, but a capable conduit through which the people of Brooklyn who could not make it to the ballpark experienced it, as well. By 1955, when the Dodgers won their one and only World Series back east, with Scully in the booth, he was a part of the family.
Just a few years later, however, he had to decide whether or not he wished to remain so. In advance of the 1958 season, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley decided to move the team to Los Angeles — and to ask Scully to come along. Scully remembers feeling a bit conflicted about the situation. “I thought, ‘I’m leaving everything that I’ve known,’” he says, “however I was thrilled that I had a job,” and he quickly accepted the offer. He adds, “I found out later on that a lot of the people out here were trying to get Mr. O’Malley to hire west coast announcers, but Mr. O’Malley was an amazing man, as far as loyalty is concerned, and because he felt that Jerry [Doggett, who had become Scully’s junior partner in 1956] and I were loyal, he said, ‘No, I am bringing my men with me.'”
It was in Los Angeles — first at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and, after 1962, at Dodger Stadium — that Scully really came into his own. Erskine, who also made the move with the team, says, “I give Vin Scully credit for selling the Dodgers to Southern California.” Newcombe, who also went west, agrees, emphasizing, “He became the best in baseball.” Scully, characteristically humble, deflects the credit. He says “the single greatest thing that helped [with his transition] was the transistor radio” — which many fans brought along to games at the cavernous Coliseum in order to keep track of the far-away action — “because I really started to talk to the fans, as opposed to broadcasting the games.” Consequently, Angelenos came to feel that Scully was a friend, and, over the ensuing no-hitters and perfect games (he’s called 20 and 3, respectively, most recently Clayton Kershaw‘s no-no in June), as well as World Series championships (1959, 1963, 1965, 1981, 1988), he became a local hero. “It’s an overwhelming feeling of how they care for me,” Scully says of his interactions with fans in the Los Angeles area.
The one thing about which Scully fans never heard much on the air, though, is his personal life, which has had more than its shares of ups and downs. In 1972, his wife of 15 years and the mother of his three children, Joan Crawford (no relation to the actress), died of an accidental medical overdose. Despite his grieving, Scully continued to come in to work, and it was through the Dodgers that he met Sandra Hunt, who was working for the team as an executive assistant and who, after a nine-month courtship, became his second wife in 1973. She had two children from her own prior marriage, and they later had a child together. “He needed what I needed, I needed what he needed, and it was great,” Sandra says. “Our children loved each other, and they loved me, and I loved them, and he was wonderful with my children and it’s been great.”
In addition to his sunny personality and mellifluous voice, the two things about Scully that have most impressed generations of Dodgers fans — and really baseball fans of any denomination — are how well-prepared he is for every game and how eloquently he calls every game. “He knows everything,” laughs Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp. “He knows stuff about you that you don’t even know about yourself!” Adds Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, “The way he tells a story and kind of paints the game is just beautiful.”
It doesn’t happen by accident: as he was taught to do by Barber, Scully really does his homework — “all year long.” He explains, “I might pick up a magazine, and if there’s an article about a player or a manager I’ll tear that out. And if that person is with the Cardinals, I’ll put it in the Cardinals file and then, when we’re playing that team, I take out that file.” According to Sandra, who has sat behind him in the SportsNet LA broadcasting booth during every home game this season (they arrive at 3:30 pm for 7:10 pm games), “He reads and he prepares and he studies and he researches and he’s into it — books and articles and everything. He’s just very curious.” She continues, with a chuckle, “I was asking him on the way here, ‘Did you study any participles or phrases or verbs or adverbs or any new things to put into your lingo?'”
But, just as Scully knows precisely what to say in any given situation, he also possesses an even rarer talent: he knows when it is better to remain silent. After the Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, after Hank Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run in 1974 and just last month, when Clayton Kershaw pitched a no-hitter, he announced the play and then sat back and said nothing. In situations like those, he says, “I try to call the play as quickly and accurately as I can, and then shut up, because I’m enjoying, like the eight-year-old kid, the roar of the crowd.”
As Scully heads into the second-half of his 65th season with the Dodgers (no play-by-play announcer has been with a single team longer in the history of professional sports), who are currently in first place in the N.L.’s west division (with a league-best record of 54-43), he shows no signs of slowing down. “He’s the best in announcing, as far as I’m concerned,” Newcombe says. “He’s one of those remarkable people that just seems not to have aged,” adds Erskine. “He just gets richer in his style, in his voice. I think it’s astounding.”
Inevitably, though, the question comes up: could this be his last season behind the microphone? Scully has always maintained that he’ll keep going as long as his health is good, his work is up to his standards and his wife doesn’t object. To this reporter’s eye, he appears to be the picture of health and he calls a game as well as ever. As to the third item on that list, Sandra says that people shouldn’t look for her to tell him to call it quits. She laughs, “I think we’d both be bored!” Scully, for his part, deflects the issue, emphasizing, “I have been so fortunate and blessed that whatever I have has helped me get along with people on the air,” adding, “I’m eternally grateful to God, and I thank the people for putting up with me for all these years. It’s been great.”
Whether or not Scully returns to the booth next season, one thing is for sure: he has made his mark on the Dodgers organization and on the sport of baseball in a way that no one else ever has. For a baseball fan — particularly one from Brooklyn or Los Angeles, but really “wherever you may be,” to borrow a familiar phrase — getting to meet Vin Scully is like getting to meet the Wizard of Oz. He’s got a mighty voice. He seems to be as all-knowing. And he sits in a booth high above us mere mortals. The biggest difference, though, as this reporter discovered in the course of working on this story, is that Scully is as impressive as advertised.
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