If you are a sports fan, and perhaps even if you are not one, you have probably heard of Vin Scully and understand why his death Tuesday, at age 94, generated so many end-of-an-era remembrances. After all, in addition to being a radio announcer for the Brooklyn and then Los Angeles Dodgers for 67 seasons, Scully was a national figure — the voice of iconic moments such as Dwight Clark’s legendary catch in a 1982 NFL playoff game and the devastating Red Sox meltdown in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame while he was still in the first half of his career. He got the Presidential Medal of Freedom right after he retired in 2016.
But the national broadcasts revealed only part of what made him so beloved. To fully appreciate the genius of Vin Scully and the dedication he showed, I think you had to live at some point in Los Angeles, where I grew up, or in one of our brethren towns along the Dodgers radio network, which has outposts from Hawaii to New Mexico and the Caribbean.
If you heard Scully day in and night out on the radio, where he worked alone, without an ex-jock spouting clichés, you got him in all the unglamorous moments that make up most of a baseball season. This is not primetime stuff. I’m talking about Sunday games on the East Coast that would begin at 10 am in Los Angeles and midweek games that would go into extra innings and end around midnight. Scully was known for his ability to fill time during games, not with statistics but with stories about players and where they came from. Best of all, he would relay these anecdotes over the course of multiple at-bats and even multiple innings, keeping the thread of a story going while still calling the game. He never, ever sounded bored, like he was just vamping to fill airtime. All these typical workday broadcasts of regular season games added to the foundation of his reliability.
Consider the day in June 1989 when he called a 10-inning nationally televised game for NBC in St. Louis in the afternoon and then flew to Houston to announce that night’s Dodger game against the Astros for the local L.A. broadcast. That game went 22 innings and took more than seven hours. Then he called the next day’s 13-inning Dodgers-Astros game, which means Scully called 45 innings in 29 hours. And trust me, 35 innings of the 1989 Dodgers felt like 135. “This was really nothing,” Scully told the Los Angeles Times afterward. “You know, as a youngster growing up in the Bronx, I had a lot of tough jobs. I washed silverware in a hotel, I shoveled snow, I slotted mail, I was a milkman. A lot of people have it tougher than I do. I love my work and am well paid, so I’m the last person who should ever complain.”
We’re talking about Los Angeles, remember — a city riddled with prima donnas. Vin Scully stood out for being such a mensch.
Not that he’d use that word himself — but I know he’d appreciate it. One September night when I was about 14, I was listening to a game on the radio, and the first pitch came as the sun was setting. Scully, who always began games by saying something like “pull up a chair and spend part of your evening with us,” added, in my recollection: “And we’d like to wish our Jewish friends across the Southland a very happy Rosh Hashanah.” Thanks, Vin!
That was who he was: not just a wordsmith with a voice so buttery that people would bring their radios to games and have him describe what they could see right in front of them, but above all a gracious host.
His ubiquity in the L.A. soundscape stemmed in large part from the fact that Southern California was a particularly good place for radio, because of all the time people spent in their cars. But I also think people just loved the way he talked to the audience — as if we were all friends.
I met him one time. It was 1996 and we were in the press box at Wrigley Field, where the Dodgers were playing the Cubs, and I, the greenest reporter you could ever see, was assisting a Chicago sportswriter. Between innings I went to the bathroom, and Vin Scully used the urinal next to me.
Starstruck, and unsure how to strike up a conversation in such an awkward setting, I mumbled something. Gentleman Scully responded kindly and kept the banter going as we walked over to the sinks to wash up. What was a kid from the Southland doing here in Chicago, in the press box? I explained myself as economically as I could. “Well, best of luck to you,” he smiled — and he punctuated it with a wink.
I knew that wink! It was the same one he’d give on TV, at the end of the pre-game show, right before they went to commercial. Vin would tell us all to stick around for the ball game, and he’d wink. No matter whether the audience was made up of millions or just one person, Vin Scully knew how to elevate the most mundane of moments.
Brian Bergstein is the editor of Ideas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.