Saying Goodbye to a Legend

by James Scott Bell

home-vin-scullyI’ve never known a breath of life without Vin Scully in it.

Growing up in Los Angeles, and being a die-hard Dodgers fan, I spent my youthful summers listening to Vinnie (we all called him that, he was our favorite uncle or best friend) call the games via my transistor radio. Many a night I’d fall asleep to that honey-toned voice and my mom would have to tiptoe in and turn the radio off.

And now he’s about to retire. After 67 years behind the mike for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers.

It’s like summer itself will no longer be there.

Everyone acknowledges Vin Scully as one of the greatest (JSB would say the greatest) sports announcers of all time.

The question for us today (and for writers) is, Why? I’d say three things:

His precision.

His poetry.

His passion.

Precision: Vinnie is always so prepared, able to talk about each and every player who comes up to bat. On both the Dodgers and the opposing team. He knows their stats, their backgrounds, and the particular stories that turn them into individuals and not just numbers.

He also knows when and how much of that information to give. One of the greatest Vin Scully traits is not over-talking, as so many announcers do. He often just lets the crowd chatter or cheer. It’s like he’s letting you be part of the game. Thus, you never get tired of hearing Vinnie’s voice (one of the most naturally gorgeous in all sports … or any other verbal art form known to man).

Poetry: Vinnie has always been able to weave lovely and often unforgettable phrases into his announcing. He often cites great literature and even popular songs. I remember one game he was calling over forty years ago where he referenced a Jim Croce song, saying, “Tonight, they are playing like a junkyard dog.” I’ve never forgotten that. That’s what Vinnie can do.

Passion: One thing for sure, Vin Scully loves baseball. More than that, he honors it. He knows the rich history of the game, the great players, the important moments. When you listen to Vinnie call a game you are getting more than an account of the innings; you’re getting a history lesson, too.

I just had to write about Vin Scully today, as a bittersweetness overtakes me for the end of an epic era. Maybe I always thought Vin Scully would be there …

And in a way, he will be. For he called my favorite sports moment of all time. And it is now preserved on YouTube. If you want to appreciate the genius, the greatness that is Vin Scully, watch that entire clip of the Kirk Gibson home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

You cannot overstate the drama. The Oakland A’s take a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning. On the mound is the most feared closer in baseball, future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley.

Gibson, the Dodgers’ most valuable player (along with pitcher Orel Hershiser), couldn’t play. He’d injured both legs during the NLCS, and could barely walk, let alone run. But as the ninth inning rolled on, Gibson (in the clubhouse at the time) told manager Tommy Lasorda he could pinch hit if need be.

Which is when Tommy Lasorda faked out Eckersley and the A’s. With two outs, and Mike Davis at the plate, Lasorda put Dave Anderson in the on-deck circle. Eckersley decided he’d rather pitch to Anderson, and pitched around Davis, who drew the walk and trotted down to first base.

Then … suddenly … stunningly … out comes Kirk Gibson.

Watch the clip to see what happened.

gibsonup101513Vinnie, calling the game with Joe Garagiola for NBC, was as precise and colorful as always. At one point he describes Gibson “shaking his left leg, making it quiver, like a horse trying to get rid of a troublesome fly.” Perfect!

But what is so endearing about Vinnie and the home run is that his love of the game and its iconic moments couldn’t be held back. When Gibson’s ball cleared the right field fence, Vinnie for that instant became a fan himself. Not of the Dodgers, but of the game of baseball. He knew this was a moment on par with Bobby Thompson’s dramatic home run back in the 1956 pennant race, or Bill Mazeroski’s game 7 World Series winner in 1960.

So when Vinnie says, “She is GONE!” there’s a little extra oomph in the word gone that reveals the great one’s heart.

As Gibson rounds the bases, with the crowd going nuts, Vinnie lets the TV audience share the experience by saying not one word. He waits over one full minute, as Gibson’s teammates mob him, and then delivers one of the great lines in broadcasting history: “In a year that has been so improbable, the IMPOSSIBLE has happened!”

Writers, learn from the great Vin Scully.

Be precise. Yes, you can—indeed must—let your imagination out to play. But if you want to be a selling writer, at some point you must use the tools of the craft to shape readable fiction. Vin Scully is still one of the hardest working broadcasters in the game.

Be poetic. John D. MacDonald wanted “unobtrusive poetry” in his style. Not so much that it stuck out, shouting Look at this great writing! But more than plain vanilla. The latter can work, but why not reach for more? Vin Scully elevated every game with his prose.

Be passionate. Love telling stories. Joy is one of the big secrets of popular fiction. You can hear the love and joy in Vin Scully’s calls. Here is a man who had his dream job for nearly seven full decades. We always knew it.

Ah, Vinnie. I will miss you so much. You made my summers unforgettable. You transported me to the stadium when I couldn’t be there. And even when I was, I had my transistor with me so I could hear you call the game. So, I might add, did about half of Dodger Stadium.

And someday, when I write the best book of my life, and know it, and hit the key that publishes it, I want to hear your voice in my head:

“She is GONE!”

God bless you, Vin Scully.

So who were the voices of your childhood?

27 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye to a Legend

  1. Dave Garroway, who was the host of the Today Show, back in the early days of television journalism; Arthur Godfrey, who hosted a very early precursor to American Idol; Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo); Buffalo Bob Smith on The Howdy Doody Show; Jimmie Dodd on The Mickey Mouse Club; the immortal Casper the Camel on WTVN-TV Columbus; and freakin’ Flippo the Clown on WBNS-TV Columbus. I watched a lot of television as a child.

        • One of my biggest childhood thrills was riding in the back of my parents’ big old Ford and my dad telling me that Engineer Bill was behind us!

          He drove a car that was tricked out to look like a train engine. And sure enough, there he was. I waved at him. And he waved back!

          I waved at him again, and he waved back again! With a big smile. I’m sure he would have done it a hundred times.

          Bill Stulla. What a guy.

  2. Great post. It seems like Peewee Reese and Dizzy Dean were always on for baseball. I had most of the same hosts that Joe listed. The local weather guys had extra duty. Jack Hill from KNOE, Monroe, LA, hosted the Saturday morning Happiness Exchange: a set of bleachers full of kids with birthdays. Jack would interview each one (including me one day) and let them pick a toy from a rack. On KTVE, El Dorado, AR, Clay Scott hosted the after-school cartoons as Colonel Scott. He wore a flight suit and carried a helmet on and off set. No local clowns.

      • Dizzy Dean spent most of the last years of his life here in Phoenix–bought a carpet store on Central Avenue right across from our Church. He was quite a rascal. My barber–everyone called him the Mayor of North Phoenix because he cut nearly every north side bigwigs–had tons of stories about Dizzy Dean.

        Jim, you didn’t hear his Game of the Week’s broadcasts on NBC?

  3. I grew up in LA, and Vin Scully’s voice always brings back memories. I recall one game he called, where he asked everyone in the stadium (because we all brought our transistor radios to the games to listen to him) to shout out “Happy Birthday Frank Secori” (who was the umpire, I think–amazing that I remember the name at all) and sure enough, everyone did. I have no clue who the Dodgers were playing that day, or if they won or lost, but I remember that moment.

    • That’s the thing, isn’t it, Terry? There are Vinnie moments we remember even though we have long forgotten the game.

      During the 1963 World Series (when those games were always played during the day), I snuck my transistor to school, fed the earpiece through my shirt, and leaned the side of my head in my hand like I was listening to the teacher…but was really hiding the truth: I was listening to Vinnie.

      This is probably why I struggle with geometry to this day.

  4. Being Canadian, the voice of my childhood was hockey announcer, Foster Hewitt. I can still hear his gravelly voice rising with excitement “He shoots! He scores!”

    I enjoyed reading about Vin Scully and the game with Gibson. The great ones have a style we never forget.

  5. Thanks for mentioning our Joe Garagiola. Mr. Garagiola, though not born in Phoenix, was a childhood playmate of one of my heroes, Yogi Berra.

    Mr. Garagiola came to Phoenix and put his life and heart into our community. He was a great supporter of Catholic charity and missions and general community causes. He and Jerry Colangelo are two men who brought major league baseball to Phoenix. Besides all of that, he was simply a genuine nice guy.

    We miss him here. It was great to hear his voice along with Vin Scully’s.

  6. Jim, thank you so much for this! You have truly described my childhood. I remember the first time my dad took me to a game; before it started everyone else was watching the field while I was watching the announcer’s box, trying to see Vinnie. I also fell asleep to that voice, as if as long as Vinnie was there, the world was safe. When the games were on TV and he would split the time with the other announcer, I would turn off the TV sound and turn on the radio so I could have all Vinnie, all the time. Knowing when to be quiet and let the crowd say it all was one of his greatest skills. He was, and is, and likely forever will be, the very, very best.

    And your mention of Lasorda’s fake-out reminds me of my favorite quote from him: “Don’t complain about your problems. 80% of people don’t care, and the other 20% are glad you’re having troubles.”

    • I used to do the very same thing when they’d split the announcing. Once you’ve tasted prime rib it’s hard to settle for ground round …

      …which reminds me of the great, grilled Dodger Dogs courtesy of Farmer John…

  7. Thanks for the memories, Jim. I cried through the end. I grew up in Culver City – a Dodger fan – my grandpa was a Reds fan – so you can imagine the rivalry we shared through the years. In 1988, I was living in the PacNW – near Seattle, my third son had just been born and I was loving the series because Orel Hershiser was also on fire – “catching lightning” – as Vinny said. Grew up with Vin Scully but my kids grew up with Dave Niehaus and the often disappointing Mariners. But in this game during the 1995 season – we were loving baseball and life. My Oh My – We couldn’t believe it. Check out this video of Niehaus and the Mariners win in game 5 – still makes me emotional too. Thanks for sharing the love. Blessings and we need to do an interview with your next release – maybe next year? Love, C

  8. Oh man, I remember that game so well. My husband is a Dodger fan from the Ebbets Field days so I become a Dodger fan as well. I was half-asleep watching that game but Gibson was my favorite player so when he suddenly appeared, I perked up. Then came his Roy Hobbs moment. And, as you aptly note, Scully knew he just had to shut up and let it roll. Great.

    My childhood voice was Ernie Harwell. It wasn’t summer without him. It wasn’t Tiger baseball without him.

    By the way, the husband was across the room watching the Lions-Colts game and went I started up your Vin video ultra-low, it was like I blew a dog whistle. “Why are you listening to the ’88 Dodger game?” he asked. Then he came over to watch it. So thanks from both of us.

  9. Though I went to (notice I didn’t say graduated from), Georgia Tech, those heathens at UGA had Larry Munson as the 12th man calling radio with a growling, gravelly passion that was almost as much a tradition in Athens (GA), as the North Avenue Trade School’s A-Model Ramblin’ Wreck~

  10. Ah, the universal delight of spectacular moments in sport.

    This is a timely column as here in Australia we mourn the passing (yesterday) of Norman May, who became famous calling swimming races for 11 Olympic Games from 1964. He too had tremendous passion for the sports he loved, and an encyclopaedic memory for detail. Unashamedly Australian, he wanted us to win every single race we entered.'nugget'-may-dies/7820584

  11. I was watching when Gibson limped out the dugout to pinch-hit. That image by itself amazed me–what a long-shot, I remember thinking. And then he made history. What you write about Scully is so true–I love how you manage to distill traits that have made him such an iconic figure to help those of us writing books.

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