August 20, 2014

The Red-Headed Treasure

July 12, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sad already…

Let’s begin at the Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles, maybe fifteen years ago. My office was throwing a lavish Christmas party, a venue that is largely extinct these days, and the largest reception room was packed with company merriment, waiters and an oldies-spinning DJ. As I approached the room with my wife, we suddenly heard a distinctive voice wafting from a lounge in the opposite direction.

It was a man seated at a table, speaking to a small circle of friends with a cocktail in his hand. He had a voice we recognized instantly, but for some reason it didn’t seem to belong in the Christmas season. His tone was calm, assured, certainly friendly, the words eloquent and strung together, and then we caught a glimpse of his neatly combed red hair and it all made sense. Vin Scully was not talking about baseball, which was kind of like hearing Julia Child discuss car repair.

Scully, as most baseball fans know, has been describing Dodger drama to us since the 1950s. I have a rare cassette recording of a Giants-Dodgers game from Ebbets Field in 1957, and it’s always shocking to cart it out and realize that Vin’s voice and style have not changed one iota in over half a century. Even his short mid-inning commercial pitches for Post Toasties are filled with the same charm and wit. Yet for every Snider blast, Koufax gem and Manny moment he’s delivered, I can’t help dreading the day his summer recliner/cold lemonade tones are no longer with us.

Because today’s baseball broadcasting booth is almost exclusively a locker room stuffed with chortling, overly-analytical buffoons more obsessed with flooding the air with verbiage than telling us what’s happening on the field. Two people in a booth is pushing it, and three is a pierside brawl. As Scully himself explained in Tom Adelman’s excellent account of the 1966 season Black and Blue, “If you’re on by yourself, you’re talking to the listeners. If you’re on with somebody else you’re talking to your sidekick.”

Non-L.A. fans lucky enough to hear Scully on their baseball dish packages or MLB radio know what I’m talking about, but for whatever reason his daily masterpieces of reporting haven’t inspired the lords of broadcasting to try the exact format with someone else, and Vin remains the only big league broadcaster around who calls a game himself.

Sure, he’s 81 years old now and prone to more small mistakes, but I would rather listen to three hours of him doing a Rancho Cucamonga Quakes game than three seconds of Rick Sutcliffe babble on ESPN. With Vin on the air you can iron shirts, balance your checkbook or cook a five-course meal in the next room and not miss a single play.

I’ve only lived in Los Angeles about 25 years, but Scully’s voice is already embedded in my summers like midnight crickets, so I can only imagine what he must mean to longtime Dodger fans. Some people still bring radios to Chavez Ravine to let his voice wash over the plastic rows, a practice begun at the old L.A. Coliseum in the late ’50s when fans sat a mile away from home plate with binoculars and needed an audible aid to follow the event. While I would normally resent anyone turning up a radio in front of me at a ballpark, hearing Vin there to explain something I just saw still seems right.

More than being a great game-accounter, though, Scully is a superb storyteller. He will sometimes take an entire inning to recount a tale of baseball lore, and ninety-nine percent of the time it’s one you’ve never heard before. He’ll pipe back in with pitch results in between anecdotes, never misplacing the dramatic thread of field action. At other times, his spontaneous prose will flat-out stun you. “Playing the Padres is like being eaten alive by moths, ” he said once during a 1996 battle, “A walk here, a bunt there, two or three bloop singles and suddenly the sleeve falls off your coat and you’re behind.”

Who will inherit Vin Scully’s throne when he can no longer sit on it? Is anyone even worthy? I favor the schooled, ever-pleasant Jon Miller, but wouldn’t put money on the World Leader ever releasing him from his Sunday night triple chain gang.

No, it’s extremely possible we are hearing the last of an irreplaceable breed. For that reason, while Scully’s words are still gracing the airwaves, be sure to listen to every one you can. Since the 1970s and Roger Kahn’s book, we’ve known who all the Boys of Summer are. As far as a Voice of Summer goes, there is still only one.

You can find more of Jeff Polman’s work at http://1924andyouarethere.blogspot.com/ where he’s conducting a fascinating replay of the 1924 season.

Comments

2 Responses to “The Red-Headed Treasure”
  1. Chuck says:

    Having been born and raised in Los Angeles, Vin has been an indelible part of my baseball experience…. thanks Jeff for putting in words what many have taken for granted.

  2. You are so right. One of the great joys of having Jon Miller here for several years was listening to his uncanny impression of Scully. On the radio he could make it sound just like he had Scully in the booth with him, although to the trained ear of a long-time Scully fan it might have been easy.

    Beautifully done piece though.

    I think the best announcers learned their chops on radio–Scully no doubt did. The requirement to actually be bound by the game, to have to paint the picture of the game for the listener, is essential training. It is why so many of the jocks cannot do anything except run their mouths. That is what they are essentially hired to do–provide color.

    I loved Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese as much as anyone, but so many of the jocks now just have no idea what they are doing in the booth. They should have to do radio first, it would help.

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