The Greatest Broadcaster That Ever Lived
I got the news this morning that Vin Scully died. Like everyone else I was saddened by this for several reasons. Not least of all because his retirement was short (less than six years) and because he still was close to his apex when he finally retired at 88 in 2016.
I am here to tell you Vin Scully is the GOAT. The greatest broadcaster to ever step behind a mic. Better than Edward R. Murrow, better than Walter Cronkite, better than Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. His field was what Pat Riley called “the toy department” but he did it so well and so long. There was no one like him before and there will be no one like him again.
The legend began in Boston on a cold, blustery November day in 1949 when he called a football game between Boston University and Maryland. Scully left his coat at the hotel only to find out that the broadcast booth at Fenway was locked and no one had access. So Scully was given a microphone, placed on the roof and told to go ahead. No spotter, no color commentator. Scully flying solo. He did his best, but afterward was despondent that he had blown his big chance.
Then Red Barber (at the time the CBS Radio sports director) received a note of apology that the broadcast booth was locked and Scully had to do the game from the roof of Fenway. Barber was stunned. Here it was, bitter cold, Scully must have been in pain, and he called the game as if nothing happened. No mention that he was on the roof, no mention of the cold. He simply called the game as best he could.
After this Barber took Scully under his wing. Scully began calling Dodgers games in 1950, and continued to do so for the next 66 years. He also called many football games, including his last one, the 49ers/Cowboys 1981 NFC Championship game. He also called golf, both for NBC and The Skins Game series.
Scully was erudite but accessible, eloquent yet someone who made every word count. He could capture a moment as well as anyone. You can hear the calls in your head. “Montana looking looking looking…CAUGHT! DWIGHT CLARK! And it’s a Madhouse at Candlestick!” “Little roller up along first…BEHIND THE BAG! IT GETS THROUGH BUCKNER!”
And maybe one of his best, that simply doesn’t get the run it deserves: Kirk Gibson’s Game 1 home run in 1988. Everyone remembers Jack Buck’s radio call (where in his excitement he said “The Tigers have won the game 5–4”) but Scully’s call SHOULD be the call of record. He began the at bat in a pedestrian manner “You talk about a roll of the dice, this is it.” And then when Gibson made contact “Fly ball to deep right field…she is GONE!!!!” After which Scully was content to let the pictures and the crowd tell the story for over a minute. When he finally did speak, he began “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!!” No doubt colored by his having followed the Dodgers all year, but it captured the moment perfectly.
One of Scully’s finest calls was the bottom of the 9th of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game 9 September 1965. By himself, Scully captured what was going on. Setting the stage that three times in the last three years Koufax had entered the ninth inning having yielded no hits and now he had retired the first 24 Cubs in order. So many good quotes, all off the cuff: “29,000 fans and a million butterflies”. “The fans are seeing the pitches with their hearts instead of their eyes”. And “I would have to imagine that the pitchers mound at Dodger Stadium is the loneliest place in the world right now.”
In those days before taping games became a regular thing, as a courtesy Scully would roll tape in the bottom of the 9th when a pitcher was working on a no hitter, so that he could have it as a keepsake if he finished. He had done this several times and wanted to add a little something to make it more memorable, more dramatic. So he added the time. That simple add DID make it more enduring. “It is now 9:46 pm”. And then when Harvey Kuenn swung on Strike three Scully in great excitement “Swung on and missed, a perfect game!!!” And again he was content to step back and let the crowd cheering tell the story to the radio audience.
He did this all himself. He did this live on one take. Go and read the transcript. It is Brillant, erudite baseball literature at its finest. And it was Scully, doing what he did best.
(Sidebar: The second batter in that inning was the Cubs catcher, Chris Krug, pronounced KROOG. I wrote a story and named the protagonist’s academic adviser that he was still close with Nora Krug, just because of that. That’s the impact that had on me.)
Scully was truly one of a kind. He preferred to work alone. He was briefly paired with a young Al Michaels but it was not a good fit. He and Joe Garagiola, paired from 1983–88 on NBC, never quite meshed. There aren’t any announcers that have the literary and erudite background Scully have, and unlike what some people did he didn’t drop Shakespeare or Hemingway references to show off, that was simply the way he rolled. And he worked alone until his very last game, a Dodger loss that sent the San Francisco Giants to the playoffs — the team for whom, as a young lad growing up, he had rooted for when they played at the Polo Grounds. Some of Al Michaels’s early calls sound exactly like Scully (listen to the 1972 NLCS), but Scully had a style unique to him. And he did it so long and so well and with such a sense of joy and wonderment. How fortunate am I to do what I do and to have done it for as long as I have?
Scully is also one of the last announcers of national renown that was a baseball announcer first. Many excellent ones, like Michaels, like Joe Buck, eventually wind up as football announcers (Buck does not call baseball for ESPN, or at least he hasn’t). This reflects that football drives sports in America now — ‘central AC league’ chat about conference realignment in college football has dominated sports talk the last month plus, more than any actual sport. And baseball is not nearly as popular as it was — it’s has become a regional sport (you’re not going to find a lot of Dodgers or Giants fans in New England) and baseball rules supreme in only a handful of cities — St. Louis for sure, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. Maybe Atlanta and Chicago, if things are going well. But that’s it. (By the way, NY, Chicago and LA will always be about the Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers. The Mets have a passionate following, to be sure, but the White Sox and Angels might as well be playing on Mars.)
As to who has the mantle as who the standard bearer for baseball announcers is now. Joe Kelly, Scully’s replacement in LA and the lead FOX announcer, is excellent. Bob Costas has always been a baseball guy first and was always good, but he doesn’t call many games anymore. There are also many excelllent announcers at the local level — Gary Cohen and Don Orsillo immediately come to mind — and while they have done national broadcasts, and in Cohen’s case other sports, they are likely to be limited to regional coverage of their teams. But it does seem Cohen and Orsillo are with the Mets and Padres, respectively, for the duration. (To me, Cohen and Orsillo deserve national platforms.).
Orsillo could have been the Red Sox Vin Scully, but management cut him loose. And he is dearly missed. Even now there are many, MANY Red Sox fans who dearly miss Don and would take him back in a second. (For the record Dave O’Brien, Orsillo’s replacement in Boston, has never been embraced by the fan base and is in an impossible situation, even now; but if you give him a chance, as I did, you’ll find he’s a fine announcer in his own right). The good news is that with Juan Soto now with the Padres, Orsillo should be calling some important and exciting games. The Pads have San Diego to themselves, maybe they need Orsillo more than the Sox do. But I digress.
Maybe Scully never reported on serious news, or Hollywood news. Maybe he never called a Super Bowl. Or any other sports other than baseball, football or golf. Maybe he wasn’t an anchor, maybe he wasn’t the best interviewer. Maybe he wasn’t a guy that brought the best out of broadcast partners. But he WAS the best at what he did. He knew what he was best at, he constantly honed his craft from that cold November day in 1949 to when Will Venable flied out to Angel Pagan for the final out on October 2, 2016.
And no one did it better. And no one will do it like Vin.
And in the end, while it is a sad day and while we will all miss Vin, the world is a better place because he was here. And as I’m sure he himself would tell us all, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Today, we are all Dodger fans. Out.