Notwithstanding the inevitable intrusions of newfangledness in baseball—designated hitters, replay reviews, periodic raising and lowering of the mound, ghost runners in extra innings—baseball remains a sport of memory and tradition, its folkways and lore passed on from parent to child since the pre-urbanized America of the nineteenth century. In 1889, when the game began to take root as the country’s national sporting pastime, Walt Whitman declaimed, “Baseball is . . . America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere—belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.” And this game, celebrated by America’s great national bard, engendered its own bardic tradition in the electronic, urban era in the form of the baseball broadcaster. The most distinguished and durable of those electronic rhapsodes, Vin Scully, died on Tuesday at the age of 94.
For anyone who grew up a baseball fan, the voice of Vin Scully was a much a part of the essence of the game as the gloves, bats, balls, and the action on the field he so deftly and at times eloquently chronicled. For a staggering sixty-seven years he was the voice of the Dodgers, first in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles, but listeners throughout the country were familiar with his voice and effortlessly literate style from his long-time stints on national broadcasts: World Series and All-Star games on TV and radio, and NBC’s Saturday game of the week, paired with Joe Garagiola.
Scully’s distinctively melodious, fluidly garrulous baritone punctuated the decades for millions of Americans who can still vividly recall his dramatic evocations of some of baseball’s most memorable moments, many conveyed with a near-preternatural verbal fluency and rhetorical flair that gave his extemporaneous exclamations the feel of polished literature: Don Larsen’s World Series perfect game in 1956, Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965, Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th homerun in 1974 (“What a great moment for the country and the world—a black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol”), Bill Buckner’s infamously booted ball in the 1986 World Series, and the hobbled Kirk Gibson’s miraculous homer in the 1988 World Series.
There were two sportscasting greats who preceded Scully and heavily influenced his style: most important was his mentor at the Brooklyn Dodgers, Red Barber, but also Mel Allen, who was the Yankees’ main play-by-play announcer in the postwar era and worked with Scully on several World Series. Those three are the faces you would find carved on a Mt. Rushmore of baseball broadcasting (although fans of other teams would have their nominees: Ross Hodges or Jon Miller of the Giants, Harry Caray or Jack Brickhouse of the Cubs, Ernie Harwell of the Tigers, Curt Gowdy of the Red Sox, and so on). Here Bob Costas hosts an interesting examination of those two key predecessors of Scully, whose career overlapped theirs for many years.
Because of baseball’s leisurely summertime pace, the longueurs of its simmering tensions and dramas, the announcer—especially the radio announcer—reaches the listener with an intimacy that is unique in major sports. At times, on a darkening summer evening, in the hypnotic accumulation of balls and strikes, hits and outs, victories and defeats, and then the abrupt frenzies of action, the announcer’s voice and words become the game itself.
Philip Roth conveys this peculiarly compelling bond between the baseball radio listener and announcer in this accountof his boyhood summers spent mesmerized by Red Barber “ . . . Red Barber, the Dodger radio sportscaster of the forties, [was] a respectful, mild Southerner with a subtle rural tanginess to his vocabulary and a soft country parson tone to his voice. For the adventures of ‘dem bums’ of Brooklyn—a region then the very symbol of urban wackiness and tumult—to be narrated from Red Barber’s highly alien but loving perspective constituted a genuine triumph of what my literature professors would later teach me to call ‘point of view.’”
Barber became not just the voice of a team but of an entire borough through those seasons of the forties and early fifties. Residents of Brooklyn said that you could follow the game just by walking the streets and hearing Barber’s voice cascading down the block through wide-open windows in those years before air conditioning. Likewise, in the Dodgers’ first four years in Los Angeles, when they played in the endless vastness of the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the most distant patrons could barely make out the doings on the field, Scully’s voice, relayed through thousands of transistor radios in the stands, became an indispensable lifeline to the game, as much for those at the ballpark as for those snarled in the nonstop epic freeway traffic jam that is Los Angeles. Hence in two radically disparate urban settings, at opposite ends of the continent—amid tightly bunched urban streets in the East and far-flung snaking highways in the West—Barber and then Scully not only reported every inning of the Dodgers’ games nearly every day of the summer: for millions of fans, they were the Dodgers, the most immediate and tangible emotional/sensory experience of the long season.
So when one of the great Homeric chroniclers of the diamond passes from the scene, we feel the loss more acutely than we would with the death of, say, a football or basketball commentator. A great baseball voice like Scully’s channels and chants the reassuring, venerable rhythms of the sport, day to day, month to month, summer to summer, spanning the American generations.