Sun, Jun

Vin Really IS the Greatest Radio Broadcaster of All Time


GELFAND’S WORLD-Perhaps it's a bit presumptuous of me, not having been around when Edward R. Murrow was describing the German Blitz against London, but at some point you just have to concede that Vin Scully is the greatest radio broadcaster of all time. How could anyone else have been better? 

This is going to be a comparatively short column, because most adult Angelenos of a certain age already know what I'm talking about. At one time, there was no major league baseball in Los Angeles. 

There were lots of people who had recently moved to California from other parts of the country, and they brought with them their own nostalgias and their former loyalties. The Dodgers joined the Los Angeles version of the melting pot, which included people from all the other major league cities. This made for an interesting era where crowds, first at the Coliseum, and then at Dodger stadium, were sometimes equally split between fans of the home team and fans of the visitors. 

It seemed normal at the time. Why would we have thought otherwise? It was so much different than the current era where people get beaten half to death for wearing the wrong team's jacket. When the cubs came to town, people who had moved out from Chicago might be sitting on both sides of you, and somehow we all managed to root for our teams without bloodshed. It might not have been brotherly love (even for the Phillies) but there was a certain respect. 

And curiously enough, the reason that there was all that mutual respect was that the voice coming through the speaker -- Vin Scully -- was obviously somebody who called things fairly. He spoke highly of opposition players who deserved it, and in so doing, made Dodger victories seem all the more meaningful. I mean, you don't make the home team's victory more exciting by tearing down the talent of the opposition. But if you can make Mays and Marichal into the formidable players that they actually were, then defeating them takes on greater meaning. With Scully, the great players weren't just talents and statistics to be described, they were historical. 

A few years ago, I read an interview with Scully in which he explained how he came to be an unbiased announcer who could jerk tears with the best of them, but somehow maintained his composure. He explained that when he started out announcing for Brooklyn, the aim was to get listeners from all over New York City, which happened to have, besides the Dodgers, the Giants and the Yankees. It wouldn't do for the Dodger announcer to be too one sided, because the station might pick up a few Giant fans in passing, particularly if the Giants were playing the Dodgers that day. 

So Scully learned to apply his talent to describing both teams without denigrating the one or the other. That style stayed with him in Los Angeles, where he could find something interesting, and relatively nice, to say about the opponent's otherwise unknown pinch hitter coming up in the 8th. 

I want to share just one anecdote about Scully because it astonished me at the time, and reflects Scully's brilliance as a reporter. It was the last home stand of an otherwise unrewarding season for the Dodgers. Not a lot of drama, win or lose. But Scully was a pro -- a lot more than just a pro -- and he always came prepared with the arcana of baseball. If it had been an ordinary evening early in the season, he might have told you about each hitter's family, minor league experience, and how he did against left handers. But now it was past that. 

It wasn't really the night for building any team up, because both the home team and the visitors weren't going anywhere in the post season. But Scully had one gimmick to spice up the storyline. For some reason known only to the quirks of statistics, the Dodgers had always avoided being eliminated from the pennant race while on the field at home during the regular season. 

It didn't really matter in the larger scheme of things. Nate Silver doesn't keep these kinds of statistics. But Scully had his storyline, and he rode it masterfully. If the Dodgers lost and the Giants won down in San Diego, and it happened while the Dodgers were still playing their game, then this would have some sort of significance. 

OK, maybe I have some part of it wrong. Maybe somebody can write in and set me straight on the fine points, but hey, I was listening on the radio, and that's how I remember the beginning of what became an amazing performance. In an otherwise dull Autumn evening, Scully managed to take the last dying gasp of a season and give it some significance. It kept a lot of us listening. 

So there we are. Vin is, as usual, painting a picture with words, and those of you who have ever listened to Dodger radio know what I'm talking about. Vin would make you see the players, and the situation on the base paths, and feel the pitch. And while this is going on, he's talking up the question of whether the Dodgers will be mathematically eliminated and he starts speaking for the team: "Not now. Not here. Not tonight." 

Yes, I understand that taken in perspective, it was a bit of a gimmick, but then Scully did something I've never heard before or since. 

It started slowly. He said, let's check on what's going on down in San Diego. You have to remember that baseball didn't always have the kind of coverage where producers can tune into any game at any time. No, in those days there was the teletype. So Vince starts going back and forth between the Dodger game and the game in San Diego, a game that he can only find out about by reading the play by play off the ticker. 

And we got a score of that other game, and a few details of who was on the mound and who was at bat. He went back to the Dodger game, and then brought in a few new details from San Diego. The two games began to merge, and all of a sudden I realized that Scully was calling both games at once. And somehow both games made sense! And while he was calling two separate baseball games at the same time -- the one in front of his eyes and the other by wire -- he continued to drum up the unique significance of the event should the visiting team win in San Diego while the Dodgers were still on the field at home. 

So whatever you want to say about other announcers in other booths, Vin Scully holds the record for best calling two baseball games going on in different cities, all at the same time. 

I understand that the circumstances were not truly as significant as Kirk Gibson's pinch hit home run in 1988, or any of Koufax's starts. But never before or since have I seen (and I use the word intentionally) through the radio speaker two games at once called expertly by one man. 

They should have given Scully a ticker tape parade just for that performance, but it went unremarked at the time. Somehow, over the years, we had learned to expect this kind of performance from Scully. 

Of course what distinguishes Scully from all other sports announcers is his command of the language. He truly is a reporter, rather than just a sportscaster. 

One thing you have to remember is that the people who make millions of dollars anchoring the television news are just reading off the teleprompter. The sentences they recite are written by professional writers. Even then, they don't always get it right.

But there's Vin Scully, night after night, writing the script in his own head and reading it with his own lips to the public. It seems almost inconceivable that anyone could do it that well, and Scully has been doing it since 1950. He's been doing it for 65 years, better than anyone has ever done it. 

Scully is actually quoted at great length in books and on internet sites. Two of his best remembered episodes are his call of Gibson's home run in 1988 and, before that, his entire ninth inning sportscast of Sandy Koufax finishing a perfect game on Sept. 9, 1965. You can read Scully's remarkable call of Koufax's perfect game right here 

Unlike so many other announcers, Vin Scully never raised his voice because he didn't have to. He seems to have been unique in radio history for making the language itself work for him, so well and for so long. 

Note: In further support of Vin as the greatest, listen/watch his call of the recent LaHabra earthquake … which took place in the middle of a Dodger game recently.)  

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]





Vol 12 Issue 28

Pub: Apr 4, 2014

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