On the Mike for 50 Years

Sep 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In baseball, players come and go. So do managers, owners, even stadiums. But for the Los Angeles Dodgers and their millions of fans, there has been one constant for the past 50 years: Vin Scully behind the lead microphone.

Mr. Scully, 76, actually began his career with the Dodgers more than 50 years ago in a supporting role beside another legendary red-haired announcer, Red Barber.

Since then, Mr. Scully’s mellifluous voice, folksy charm and old-world elegance have been hallmarks of the Dodger franchise. He combines his keen insight into the game and its history with a broad-based knowledge of literature and popular culture to elevate his announcing to a level rarely if ever achieved by anyone else in the 65 years television has carried the game. Who else would comfortably allude to Germanic mythology while discussing Hank Aaron’s record-breaking home run, which Mr. Scully called for a national telecast?

He has received virtually every possible honor for a broadcaster, including the George Foster Peabody Award and inclusion in the baseball Hall of Fame. To these, now add TelevisionWeek’s Lifetime Achievement Award, which he is being given in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to television coverage of America’s pastime.

TelevisionWeek’s Eric Estrin caught up with Mr. Scully at Dodger Stadium before a recent Dodgers-San Francisco Giants game. Mr. Scully granted this rare interview in the press box that bears his name, then went to the booth to prepare for the game.

TelevisionWeek: You’ve been the Dodgers’ lead announcer for 50 years. That’s an amazing accomplishment.

Vin Scully: Well, I didn’t accomplish anything. I really look upon it as God’s gift. I was given the opportunity at a very young age, and then my health has held up. So my only feeling is one of overwhelming gratitude.

TVWeek: Tell me about some of the changes you’ve witnessed. There’ve been so many technological changes. How have you had to adjust to them?

Mr. Scully: Well, not very much. It’s a director’s medium. The announcer is taken by the hand to follow the picture. I don’t have to worry about all the equipment. What I have to do is to watch that monitor and try to complement it in one way or another. I work hand in hand with the director.

TVWeek: Most baseball broadcasters work as part of a team. I don’t know that there are too many solo announcers left in the game.

Mr. Scully: Well, not anymore. The reason we did it, at least my philosophy about it is, if I want to sell you something-a car, whatever-it is better for me to talk directly to you than to talk to a third person and tell him how good the car is. We’ve always felt it was also easier on the listener, I think.

TVWeek: Does it create a lot more pressure on you to keep things going by yourself?

Mr. Scully: Well, no. I don’t have to keep things going. The sport itself keeps things going. I just try to hang on with both hands, you know. What I do out here is the first three innings of every game is a simulcast. So the first three innings I’m doing both radio and television. At the end of three innings we break away and I stay on television, and radio goes its separate way. Now 50 years ago that would’ve been unheard of. The media would have complained bitterly about too much talking. I think the one thing that helped me here was the late and great Chick Hearn, who did the Lakers basketball games and always did a simulcast, so I think people here then were pretty well prepared for me to do it-not the whole game, but a couple of innings.

TVWeek: Do you take a different approach for those three innings?

Mr. Scully: I try to, and it’s pretty hard. What I have tried to do is cut back a little bit on radio description, because an awful lot of people are looking at the picture. And every now and then I will say, `For those of you watching on TV, isn’t that a cute-looking little kid?’ I can’t do that very much on radio. So I’m trying as hard as I can to be cautious and not go overboard in one direction. But I admit it’s a high-wire act.

TVWeek: What are some of your challenges? There must be days when you just don’t feel like calling a game.

Mr. Scully: I tell you the truth-a lot of times you leave the house and it’s a lovely afternoon and you think, `Gosh, you know, I’d love to be home with my wife doing this or that or playing golf or whatever.’ But when I get here and that crowd comes in, and when they play the national anthem and the Dodgers run out on the field, all of a sudden here comes the adrenaline, and I love it. I would not want to be anywhere else during that game.

TVWeek: Does your mind ever wander when you’re in the booth?

Mr. Scully: Well, sometimes, if you’ve gone through some difficult times, the game itself serves as a salve, as an escape. You throw yourself into the game because you don’t want to think about some of the problems you have, and I’m sure the players have the same thing.

TVWeek: What do you see as your primary job? Do you consider yourself a journalist, an entertainer, an employee of the Dodgers? You wear so many different hats at once.

Mr. Scully: Well, that’s true. I think first of all I have to be a journalist or a reporter, and I have to be accurate. If I’m not accurate, the listener or the viewer will lose respect for me and for my judgment. Consequently, I try very hard to be impartial. Plus, you’d like to be informative. You’d like to be able to add more than just, `A fly ball to left field caught by so and so.’ You do your homework, you do background. If you can come up with an anecdote every once in a while, I think that adds to it. So yes, you are an entertainer a little bit as well. But the one thing I have always, always tried not to do is get out in front of the game.

TVWeek: How do you mean that-getting `out in front of the game’?

Mr. Scully: Well, you could suddenly start recounting all kinds of things from your life or whatever, and the game suddenly becomes secondary, when you’re talking about yourself. I’d rather use that time talking about players.

TVWeek: Isn’t it ever appropriate to inject something personal?

Mr. Scully: I always feel I have an obligation, let’s say for Memorial Day, or June 6, the anniversary of when we invaded Europe, the date of the battle of Midway in the Pacific. … A lot of things, I feel it’s my obligation to make sure they’re not forgotten, so I try to do that as well.

TVWeek: But people love to hear your stories about the old-time Dodgers.

Mr. Scully: Oh sure, I’m a bridge, I admit that. I’m a bridge from Ebbets Field and Brooklyn to the Coliseum and Dodger Stadium. I’m a bridge for ownership, from Branch Rickey to Walter O’Malley to Peter O’Malley to Bob Daly and Fox, and now to Frank and Jamie McCourt.

TVWeek: You enjoy that role, don’t you?

Mr. Scully: Oh, sure. Probably one of the wonderful rewards you get if you’ve been allowed to work as long as I have is that people will say to me all the time, `You know, when I hear your voice, I think of summer nights with my dad,’ or, `I remember mom and I used to listen …’ You get such a nice feeling that the good Lord has allowed you to be that kind of a bridge.

TVWeek: What time do you usually come to the stadium?

Mr. Scully: For a 7 o’clock game, I leave the house at quarter to 3, like the start of a relay race, and usually I get here about 20 to 4. It’s not like you arrive and walk in the booth and go on the air.

TVWeek: How do you prepare for each game? You never take it for granted, do you?

Mr. Scully: No, you can’t, you really can’t. What I do is I draw up a lot of things every day on the computer, and there’ll be plenty waiting for me here-sheets and sheets and numbers, everything. What I try to do is go through it all and highlight a few things. Those highlighted things I want to have at my fingertips. I think they’re kind of important or interesting. But the big temptation-like being lured out to the rocks by the Lorelei-you have all this stuff, you wind up with your head down, looking, and something happens out on the field. That would be the worst thing to happen to you, so yo
u have to be very careful about that.

TVWeek: So it’s a balance.

Mr. Scully: Yeah, if you’re lucky, it’s a balance. The big goal, I think, is to make it sound easy. If somebody says, `Gosh I heard you yesterday and that must be the easiest thing in the whole world,’ they don’t realize it, but that’s a compliment.

TVWeek: You’re very good at that. It sounds like you’re just doing what comes naturally.

Mr. Scully: Well, I try, and part of that is that over the years you become more relaxed. In the very beginning, I was surrounded by two wonderful announcers, Red Barber and Connie Desmond. And New York had Mel Allen, another great one, and Russ Hodges, another great one. And then here was this kid, who used to play stickball in the streets, suddenly on the air, not competing with them but trying to belong. So my first thought in all those days was a negative one-`Don’t mess up.’ That’s all I thought of-`Please don’t mess up.’ Then as the years go by you begin to relax, and after a while, when you relax, then some of you surfaces. Whatever’s inside of you.

TVWeek: Reminds me of a story I once heard about how you used to love to listen to the crowd noise on the radio.

Mr. Scully: Oh, I lived in a fifth-floor walkup apartment in New York, and we had a big radio on four legs with crosspieces to support the four legs. And in those days, you didn’t have baseball, but you did have college football. And I would take a pillow and a glass of milk and some Saltine crackers, and I would crawl under the radio, and I would put the pillow on the crosspiece, and I’d put my head on the pillow. And I would listen to a game that wouldn’t mean anything, but the roar of the crowd just got to me. It would come out of the speaker like water out of a showerhead; it would just wash all over me. And I would get goose bumps and be ecstatic, thinking, `Wow, I’d love to be there.’ Not to play. I’d love to be there to broadcast it.

TVWeek: You wanted that even as a kid?

Mr. Scully: Oh, yeah, I was 8 years old and wrote a composition for the nuns, a typical what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up [piece]. And all the boys wanted to be policemen, firemen, doctors, and the girls wanted to be nurses and ballet dancers and mommies. And I wrote I wanted to be a sports announcer. It was really out in left field.

TVWeek: Do you ever watch baseball on TV?

Mr. Scully: Not really, no. Red Barber made a very interesting comment to me when I first started. And again, New York-three teams. And he said, `I don’t want you to listen to other broadcasters.’ And I said, `Oh, why?’ He said, `Because you bring something that no one else brings.’ And I looked at him-what in the world could that be? And he said, `You. There’s no one in this world exactly like you. Don’t lose it.’ And I realized then what he was telling me. If I listened to other announcers, consciously or subconsciously I might pick up voice inflections or phrases or style. So I do not listen. If you hear me, whatever I say, that’s me. I probably should have learned other things from other broadcasters, but that’s the price you pay. If you’re going to hold on to that `you,’ then you can’t intermingle with the other fellas.

TVWeek: Surely, over the years you must have heard some of the other great announcers.

Mr. Scully: Well, I worked with Red, and during the World Series I worked with Mel. I used to harmonize with Russ in his kitchen.

TVWeek: You’re a singer?

Mr. Scully: Oh yes, oh gosh yes. And Ernie Harwell’s a dear friend, so I’m aware of those fellas. But for instance, if I’m on the road, and let’s say it’s Saturday and we’re playing a night game, under no circumstances would I be watching a Saturday afternoon game.

TVWeek: Really?

Mr. Scully: No, one game a day is plenty for me. Plenty, and I admit it. And I love the game, but one game a day is plenty.

TVWeek: I thought there was an expression you took from Don Drysdale, whom I know you listened to, because you were sitting right beside him for many years. He used to say something that you also say: `The catcher is wigwagging a sign [to the pitcher] …’

Mr. Scully: Oh, no, I did that …

TVWeek: That was you first?

Mr. Scully: Yeah, yeah …

TVWeek: All right, he took it from you.

Mr. Scully: Well, that doesn’t bother me that people will take little things. You know, I don’t care. Yeah, I’ve been doing that and `shuffling cards,’ where the catcher’s calling signs. That’s been me for years.

TVWeek: Do you ever write these things, or do they just come to you?

Mr. Scully: Oh no. Interesting that you ask that-I’ll tell you why. The night that Henry Aaron was breaking Babe Ruth’s record in Atlanta-against the Dodgers, Monday night … George Plimpton, the writer, was there. And George interviewed everyone imaginable about that home run, so eventually he got to me. And he said, `Did you have something prepared to say?’ And I said, `Oh, no.’ And he said, `Why not?’ Well, I said, `First of all, I would be afraid that I would be so eager to say whatever it was I’d prepared, and maybe it wasn’t a home run.’ Remember, when the ball was hit, Bill Buckner, the Dodger outfielder, went back to the Cyclone fence around the bullpen, climbed the fence and reached high in the air and almost caught it. And Plimpton, who was not a baseball man, said, `Is he good at that sort of thing?’ And I said, `No, George, no one is, but he might have caught it.’ So I had nothing prepared at all, and I never have prepared, no.

TVWeek: That’s even more remarkable, then.

Mr. Scully: You know, it’s amazing. It’s like the ballplayer. The ballplayer has eye-hand coordination, some days better than others. We have similar coordination-eye-brain-mouth. Some days it works very well, and some days it doesn’t work well.

TVWeek: Were there any calls you made that you were particularly happy with?

Mr. Scully: One of the things, and I’ve heard it several times now-when Kirk Gibson hit his [game-winning, 1988 World Series] home run, it was shocking. I mean absolutely, and it’s considered the greatest single moment in Southern California sports. And it struck the very core of my being when the ball was hit. And I always shut up after I call it and listen to the crowd. And then the crowd got into me. When I hear it, I wonder, `Where did that come from?’ Because what came out was, `In the year of the improbable, the impossible has happened.’ And if you ask me, did you write that? No way, I don’t know where it came from. And the only thing I did in the car going home, I said, `Thank God.’

TVWeek: Yeah, that was one for the ages. So when they play it back you don’t have to say, `Oh, no, did I say that?’

Mr. Scully: You know what, a lot of times, day after day, you’ll do the game, you’ll get in the car and you’ll think about your work, and you’ll think, you know, `I should have said …’ or, `I wish I’d have said …’ but it’s gone.

TVWeek: Yeah. But tomorrow’s another game.

Mr. Scully: That’s right, but then once in a while, you’ll hit one pretty well.