I was nine years old when we moved to California in the summer of 1979. I had fallen in love with the Yankees two summers earlier on a trip to New York, so now I found myself three thousand miles and three time zones away from my favorite team. Cable sports networks and the internet hadn’t yet been imagined even in the wildest science fiction, so if I needed to know the Yankee score before the morning paper arrived the next day — and I always did — my only option was to listen to the Dodger game on the radio as I lay in bed.
In the beginning Vin Scully was simply a means to an end. If he didn’t share the out-of-town scores during the final innings, I’d try to stay awake for the postgame show.
Whether doing radio or television, Scully was that rare announcer who worked alone, providing the analysis to his own play by play, so instead of talking to a partner in the booth, he spoke to all of us. He spoke to me. (I’m sure this happened at other ballparks also, but Scully’s one-on-one connection with his listeners was so powerful and ubiquitous that Dodger fans were notorious for bringing their transistor radios to the stadium so they could still hear Vinnie call the game as it unfolded in front of them. Sometimes this would cause feedback during the broadcast, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear Mr. Scully politely ask the patrons below to turn down the volume.)
Like any announcer anywhere, Scully’s repertoire included a handful of phrases that would come up from time to time. If the Dodgers began mounting a rally after trailing throughout, he’d explain that this was the first time the Dodgers were “getting a look at the game.”
As I lay listening in the dark, Scully gave me a look at the game in a wider sense. Even as a boy I knew a fair amount about baseball, and Vin Scully was my guide as I travelled deeper into the game’s history. The wonderfully slow pace of the games allowed him to weave narratives throughout the course of inning, skillfully telling stories one pitch at a time. Davey Lopes would take a throw at second and fire to Steve Garvey to complete a double play, and suddenly I’d hear a story about how Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski would routinely catch a throw from his shortstop by pinning the ball against his closed glove with his bare hand to make for a faster exchange. Reggie Smith’s helmet would come off while rounding third, and it would remind Scully of how Willie Mays would wear his cap a couple sizes large so that it would come off every time he raced around the bases, a bit of gamesmanship that gave the crowd an extra few minutes to cheer and further rattle the opposing pitcher.
These were the bedtime stories I needed, told in the soothing voice of Southern California’s grandfather pulling memories from a lifetime of announcing baseball games. He called some of baseball’s most iconic moments — Henry Aaron’s 715th home run, Don Larsen’s perfect game, any number of World Series clinchers — and even made his presence felt in other sports. His was the voice describing Joe Montana’s pass to Dwight Clark to beat the Cowboys and send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl.
But I’d argue that his Hall of Fame career was built with smaller moments. Describing the ballet of a 6-4-3 double play, narrating a youngster’s efforts to finish a melting ice cream cone in the stands, opening each game by telling his audience, “It’s time for Dodgers baseball!”
Or teaching a nine-year-old boy all about the game.