By Leonard Shapiro
Wednesday, July 29, 2009 3:49 PM
A year ago, a Major League Baseball player sporting an impressive growth of sideburns down each scruffy cheek strode to the plate at Dodger Stadium and took his stance in the batter's box.
The octogenarian up in the broadcast booth couldn't help himself.
"What ho! What ho!" began Vin Scully, the play-by-play poet laureate of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "What men are these who wear their sideburns like parentheses?"
For any fan who has never had the sheer pleasure of listening to arguably the greatest baseball broadcaster ever, perhaps it's time to purchase the full package of MLB games available on DirecTV and satellite radio. Scully's brilliant work is available on both, and people tuning him in on the radio usually have no idea that they're actually listening to his play-by-play going out to the TV audience, and vice versa.
"He is the only baseball broadcaster I've ever known who actually does a simulcast, and it's not even remotely evident to either audience, radio or television," said Curt Smith, who has interviewed hundreds of baseball broadcasters over the last 25 years in researching his meticulously reported books on sports broadcasting, with a heavy emphasis on baseball.
His latest effort, a very lucky for us No. 13 in fact, is "Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story," the unauthorized biography of the Bronx-born broadcaster. Scully grew up as a fan of the New York (baseball) Giants and joined the Dodgers broadcasting team in 1950 as a 22-year-old neophyte fresh out of Fordham University, working in the same booth as the late, great Red Barber, his first mentor.
Now, almost 60 years later, the 81-year-old Scully prefers to go solo for the 120 Dodger games a year he broadcasts -- all home games and every road contest involving a team in the NL West. In his 2005 book "Voices of Summer," Smith ranked the top 101 baseball broadcasters of all time using a wide variety of criteria. Scully was the runaway No. 1, far ahead of No. 2 Mel Allen, No. 3 Ernie Harwell, No. 4 Jack Buck and No. 5 Red Barber.
"Like Roy Hobbs, he's in a league of his own," said Smith, a former White House speechwriter who is now a senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. "I just can't compare him to any other announcer. In 2005, I gave him a perfect 100 points. I could not find a chink in his craft. I listen to him now on satellite radio, and I don't think he's lost a thing. Some broadcasters in their 70s usually lose some strength of voice or even some memory. Vin Scully has lost nothing."
Smith had interviewed Scully countless times over the years and knew full well that he had no desire to write his own memoirs, or allow a ghostwriter to do it for him. Fortunately, Smith's treasure trove of past Scully interview tapes and transcripts provided more than enough material in Scully's own voice, supplemented by over two years of research and many interviews with a wide variety of players, broadcasters, front-office people and other journalists.
Smith co-wrote a piece with Scully for a Readers Digest story on Red Barber in 1993, and considers him a friend. He knew that Scully had always said he would not collaborate with anyone trying to write his story, and Smith never even attempted to change his mind. Likewise, Scully didn't try to talk him out of his latest project either.
"I think he trusted me," Smith said. "He is a man of great modesty and privacy, and I respect that. I did write him to let him know what I was going to do, and he called me and we discussed it. My point to him was that I obviously respected his view, but I also felt that for someone like myself, who has done so much on baseball broadcasting, not to focus on Vin Scully would be like doing a book on contemporary music and not including Frank Sinatra or a book on the presidency and leaving out FDR.
"I told him I would not ask him to participate, but that I had to do this. I also promised him three things. Number one, I would respect his privacy and that his private life was off limits. Number two, it would be a process and not a personal critique. And number three, it would reflect my view of him as the best there ever was. I'd like to think I kept my word."
No question Smith did all of that and more over 234 riveting and exquisitely reported pages in a book that clearly was a labor of love for the author, but hardly a fawning piece of fluff.
For me, it's a little personal, as well. I was a Brooklyn-born kid and maniacal Dodger fan growing up on Long Island. I can still recall listening to Scully under the covers on my scratchy transistor radio long after bedtime, the better to muffle the sound from my sleeping parents just down the hall.
The Dodgers then broke my 10-year-old heart, and millions more just like me, when they pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. I stopped rooting for them forever more, but none of that was Scully's fault, and how could you blame him for heading west to keep his job. Our loss was clearly the left coast's great gain, though Scully eventually went national, too, doing football on CBS in the 1970s and early '80s and baseball's game of the week for NBC, as well.
What made him so very special for all these years?
"He's the complete package, the total goods," Smith said. "Name an attribute and he provides it. I'd begin with subtlety, realism, poetry, accuracy, discipline and a genius with telling facts. He has an anecdote for every situation. He still gets to the park hours in advance of a game and talks to everyone. The voice has a melodic lilt to it. It invites you, as he always says in every broadcast, to 'pull up a chair. Come on friends, sit with me and we'll talk some baseball.'
"It's a cheerful conspiracy with the listener. He's able to quote Faulkner and then talk about a fielder's choice and make it all seamless. Churchill once said words are bullets to use as ammunition. Of course he was using them against the Nazis. Vin Scully uses them so that a listener avoids any temptation to change the dial."
Among thousands of samples, one would have to include Scully once saying "he catches it gingerly like a baby chick falling from a tree" or "it's so hot today the moon got sunburned." A batter "was pumping wood back and forth." Pitching is "like a tailor; a little off here, a little off there and you're done." A game starting with a walk was "a sour note to begin any concert."
Back in the 1980s, Scully said of hobbling slugger Andre Dawson: "He's day-to-day. Aren't we all?"
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times quoted Scully as saying that next season will likely be his last in the booth, even though "he's often said the word 'retirement' terrifies him," Smith said. "He loves baseball and the art form of the broadcast. I think he'll do it as long as he wants to do it, and if he feels he's declining, he'd probably say to himself 'that's enough' and walk away."
Whenever that dreaded day comes, pulling up a chair and watching or listening to a Dodger game surely will never be the same.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.