Schools sometimes ask me to come talk about sportswriting. When I do, I always get up, put some text on a big screen and say, “See if you can guess who wrote it. It’s about Sandy Koufax’s epic perfect game in 1965.” On the screen, it says:
You can almost taste the pressure now ... Koufax lifted his cap, ran his fingers through his black hair, then pulled the cap back down, fussing at the bill ... There’s 29,000 people in the ballpark and a million butterflies ... I would think that the mound at Dodger Stadium right now is the loneliest place in the world.
Red Smith? Mike Lupica? Jim Murray?
Nope. Trick question. It wasn’t written at all. It was spoken, live, as it happened, by Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.
That’s how wonderful Scully was at calling a baseball game. Words he ad-libbed could keep an engraver busy for decades.
Scully, who died Tuesday at age 94, was such a joy to listen to that even fans who were at the game brought radios. Sure, my eyes saw it, but it’s not real until Vin describes it.
And not just fans. One time in the 1970s, Dodgers pitcher Jerry Reuss was on the mound at Dodger Stadium, and he could hear on all the radios that Vinny was in the middle of a story. “I can hear by his cadence, his inflection,” Reuss said. So he stepped off the rubber and fussed with the rosin bag. “He got his point out,” Reuss recalled a few years ago, “people laughed, and without missing a beat, he said, ‘Now Reuss is ready to deliver.’” Nobody delivered like Scully.
That’s the most remarkable part of Scully’s greatness. He did 95 percent of it without a partner, by design. Why did he need a partner when he had you? “I want it to feel like I’m talking to you,” he used to say. “That’s why you’ll hear me use a lot of, ‘Did you know that?’ or ‘You’re probably wondering why.’ I don’t really do play-by-play. I do conversation.”
My God, could he converse. Scully was so entertaining he could make you look forward to a Los Angeles traffic jam. Living in L.A., I see someone sitting at the wheel of their car in the driveway, engine running, staring at the dashboard, and I know what’s going on: Scully is in mid-story and they just can’t bear going into the house before it’s over.
He was like that in person, too. We were having lunch once when I asked him about a hole-in-one he’d just made.
“Well, it’s funnnnnny,” he said in that voice you’d never forget. “I was playing with a guy who’d make a cup of cohhhhhfee nervous and I wasn’t exactly having a ticker-tape day. Well, it sooooounded like I hit it with the Sunday paper. But as it happens, I’d chosen the wrooooong club, and — looooo and behoooold — the ball rolls straight up into the cup! Thus, disproving the oooooold adage: Two wrongs sometimes do make a right.”
Scully was born to do this. When he was a boy in the Bronx, his family had a big radio that perched on top of four legs. He’d take a pillow, a glass of milk and some crackers, lie under it, and listen to football games. His favorite part was in a big moment when the announcer would stop talking and he could hear the roar of the crowd. “That, to me, was thrilling,” he said.
Scully’s dulcet voice — and his dulcet silences — are woven through the history of American sports. He called Hank Aaron’s 715th home run (“A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South,” he said), San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark’s fingertip catch against the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game (“It’s a maaaaaadhouse in Candlestick!”), Kirk Gibson’s shocking pinch-hit World Series homer (“And, look who’s coming up!”).
What a life he lived. It wasn’t perfect, of course. Nobody’s is. His first wife died at age 35 in 1972, from an accidental prescription drug overdose. A son died in a helicopter crash in 1994. His beloved Sandra, his second wife, of 47 years, suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and died last year. He’d been fading ever since.
The last out comes for everybody. Scully understood that. Once in the 1990s, in listing that night’s injury report, he said, “Andre Dawson has a bruised knee and is listed as day-to-day” — pregnant pause — “aren’t we all?”
Vin Scully was loved in L.A. like nobody who came before him. The Los Angeles Times once did a Final Four-style tournament bracket called “The Biggest L.A. Sports Icon.” The final came down to Vin Scully vs. Magic Johnson. Vin won in a landslide.
It hurts knowing I’ll never get to hear the greatest announcer who ever lived tell another story or turn a drowsy 6-1 game into pure theater. So I’ll do now what Vin taught me to do: Be quiet and let the crowd roar.