LOS ANGELES — Usually the sentence appears almost docilely: This is Vin Scully’s 66th season broadcasting Dodgers games. It appears amid neighboring sentences as if it’s supposed to sit there and blend in: This is Vin Scully’s 66th season broadcasting Dodgers games.
It appears almost as if some blithe relay of some mere factoid, as if it could start with “Hey” and then a comma: This is Vin Scully’s 66th season broadcasting Dodgers games. It appears as plain English even as a reasonable person might deem it staggering.
This is Vin Scully’s 66th season broadcasting Dodgers games. Sometimes, if you repeat the truth enough, it can become almost believable.
Yet long past 1950 when he started mid-century, on past the end of one century and well into another, deep into the spring of 2015, here he studies his game notes with his highlighters. Here he walks through the Vin Scully Press Box at Dodger Stadium with a sturdy gait that makes age 87 seem a swell place to be. Here he sits in the dining room, receives a coffee from a Dodgers employee, says to her, “Thank you, Maria; how are you, dear?” and says, “She’s one of the pillars of the community here.”
Here he speaks still, to a listener at a table, later to a million listeners on Dodgers home (and selected road) broadcasts, with that voice that, by now, according to so many ears, would have to qualify as medicinal.
There have been 87 Novembers since his birth in the Bronx barely made the November (29th) of 1927, and 66 summers since he started at WTOP radio in Washington as a “summer replacement announcer” fresh out of Fordham in 1949, and 65 November 12s since a fateful one at Fenway Park in 1949. On any list of adjectives about Vin Scully, No. 1 is “grateful,” his gratefulness sustained even through the death of his first wife at 35 from an accidental medical overdose in 1972 and his first son at 33 in a helicopter crash in 1994. His birthdays include 16 grandchildren and zero self-congratulation: “I don’t want to say, ‘Hey, hooray, I’ve made 80,’” he said. “I don’t want to do that. I just will take it, thank you very much. I accept it.” Hours before a first pitch in late May, he says, “I’ve always felt, it’s a gift of God, whatever I have, whatever has made me do what I do for as long as I do it. But I know I can lose that in one second. A stroke. Whatever. One second. Blow the whole thing. So, when you do think about that, you realize how fortunate and how blessed you’ve been, and that’s really how I feel.”
He’s seasoned enough that he fields one question before it’s asked: “If anybody asks me about longevity, I would say I have my mother’s genes, and she lived to be 97. So that’s the only idea. I mean, I don’t have any secrets like, ‘Well, I’ve lived this long because I eat tapioca every day.’ No.” He’s seasoned enough that he once played center field in a Fordham-Yale game during which George Herbert Walker Bush, who turned 91 this month, played the opposing first base. “Mr. President,” Scully once said to Bush during a golf round, “as long as you’re in the White House, remember, you can say anything you want about your baseball career, but remember the day that we played each other, we both went 0 for 3.”
Somehow, in that way life goes, these whole 66 years hinge at least slightly on one Saturday, Nov. 12, 1949, when CBS Radio’s “The Football Roundup” and its famed honcho Red Barber faced an announcer shortage and sent to Boston a hopeful Scully, not quite 22. As part of the afternoon-long reports on four top college games, he would tell the story from Fenway Park, where Boston University played a rising Maryland. As Scully rose that morning, he envisioned both an afternoon in a glass broadcast booth and an evening at a dance with his Fordham friends, who would attend the concurrent Fordham-Boston College game.
The dance came true.
The booth did not, and with Scully “very young” and “full of beans” and thinking of the dance, he had opted to leave the hotel coatless, hatless, gloves-less and, soon, hapless.
The anticipated Notre Dame-North Carolina game in New York turned into a 42-6 dud without North Carolina’s injured Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, so attention shifted to Maryland’s riveting 14-13 win, and to a very young broadcaster in very steep discomfort. “So I had a lot of air time,” he said. “And I never mentioned anything. I never said, ‘I’m freezing. I’m not in a booth. I’m running up and down the roof with 50 yards of cable.’” He had a microphone in one hand, a “three-deep card” in the other. He was “frozen,” a word he emphasizes by holding onto the “o” a good while. “I just tried to do the game. So when it was all over, I was heartbroken. I thought I blew a big opportunity and all that stuff.”
He went to the dance, tried to reintroduce his blood to the concept of circulation, met his friends, went home with “a buddy and his girlfriend, whom he married,” and who “was consoling me, ‘No, I’m sure it was better than you think’” — even as he remained in the vicinity of inconsolable.
Sixty-five-plus years on, in the agreeable air of Los Angeles, one of the most treasured figures in the entire American culture still accepts the barrage of compliments that gush toward him. He still says his near-blushing thanks. On June 6, Dodgers vs. Cardinals, he mixed his play-by-play with D-Day stories, including one about the soldier and eventual author J.D. Salinger. Even so, his appeal to so many has to stem from the way he spends much of his broadcasts, from the nuts-and-bolts of the game, from the sound of that voice after the care of his pregame study, from such subtleties as his use of a “mercifully” as in, May 24, Dodgers vs. big-inning Padres, “. . . flips over to first, mercifully, the double play to end the inning . . .”
All along, he has sustained an appreciation for the skill on the field. That began in earnest his first year, 1950, in Brooklyn Dodgers days, when Manager Burt Shotton had heard of Scully’s Fordham center field days — good field, good throw, jammed too often as a hitter — and asked him to don a Gil Hodges uniform one day before an exhibition in Battle Creek, Mich.
“Gil Hodges was a marble statue,” Scully said. “And here I am, ‘Dodgers’ is down by the belt. My number is halfway down the back of my pants. But I got the uniform on, and I have a glove and all that. And I go out, and I remember, I played pepper with Carl Furillo, he was our right fielder, terrific guy. And it was just like college, playing pepper and everything. And then, I went out in the outfield, and Shotton said, ‘I want to see you shag some balls.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’
“I went out to center field, and there was a left-hand pitcher named Joe Hatten. And Joe and I were standing out there, maybe 300 feet from home plate during batting practice. And Roy Campanella got into the batting cage. And he swung, and he hit what I would call a high line drive. It just stayed straight. And I said, ‘Joe, I’ve got it.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ And I caught it, but you know, the impact was like no impact I ever felt before. It was like maybe I was playing third base. And as soon as I caught it, I remember I turned to Joe and said, ‘Joe, I don’t belong out here.’ And you have no idea how fast that game is that they play.”
And: “And I watch them day after day and I think, ‘How good they are. Ho-oh-ly mackerel.’ And that’s what I love about it.”
He caught Campanella’s drive in Michigan only months after bemoaning his own alleged failure in Boston. He would go on to become an integral part of the colossal Los Angeles as well as to the nation on the NFL (last game: Dwight Clark’s San Francisco catch in January 1982), on golf, on the World Series (Kirk Gibson’s home run in 1988: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”)
Before all that, as it happens, a call came, on Nov. 14, 1949.
“It’s one of those things in life,” Scully said in the year 2015. “Monday, someone, an official of B.U., called Red and apologized for putting the young announcer through . . .” and his sentence trailed off there. “Well, this just flabbergasted Red. And now he thought, let’s say I did a really ordinary job. In his mind, ‘Wow. He did that well with all of the things working against him. And never mentioned it.’ That’s what got Red. So the next thing I know, I go to spring training, get a 30-day contract to do some games, and either continue with the Dodgers or they leave me with the alligators.”
“Now it’s 66 years,” he said.