Obituary: Vin Scully (1927-2022)


RIP to Vin Scully, the greatest broadcaster in the history of baseball — if not all of professional sports. In a career that spanned 67 years, Scully’s voice was a constant in Dodgers history, from Jackie Robinson to Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers announced that Scully died on August 2 at the age of 94.

“We have lost an icon,” said Los Angeles Dodgers president and CEO Stan Kasten in a statement. “The Dodgers’ Vin Scully was one of the greatest voices in all of sports. He was a giant of a man, not only as a broadcaster, but as a humanitarian.. His voice will always be heard and etched in all of our minds forever.”

In recent days, some of sports’ most brilliant writers have penned their thoughts about Scully and his significance. You can take your pick of moving essays. For me, the way to honor a departed artist is to enjoy their art all over again. When John Prine died in 2020, I made myself a Handsome Johnny (his drink of choice), put on one of his albums and appreciated his lyrical genius once more. If an author dies, read one of their books. If an actor dies, watch a movie or a TV show. For Vin Scully, listen to his greatest calls. And Scully was an artist, make no mistake about it. If you’ve listened to a baseball broadcast, you’ve heard good and bad announcers. You know the bare minimum of what’s expected, and you know which announcers go above that line. Scully was a different class. He could weave a play-by-play from a Clayton Kershaw shutout with reminisces about Jackie Robinson or Tommy Lasorda, or he’d throw in a history lesson on a topic you knew nothing about. And it all fit together. So honor Vin Scully by listening to the master at work, and fortunately there are plenty of clips around. On MLB.com, there is a list of his greatest Dodger calls, for starters, including Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit World Series home run, Hank Aaron‘s 715’s homer off Al Downing, Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, and more. And we’ll go into his life story here.

Source: Daily News, August 19, 1956.

Vincent Edward Scully was born in Brooklyn on November 29, 1927. When he received the Ford C. Frick Award in 1982 at Cooperstown, he described his younger self as a “red-haired kid with a hole in his pants and his shirt-tail hanging out, playing stickball on the streets of New York.” He attended Fordham Preparatory School and then Fordham University, where he played on the baseball team as an outfielder. He was on the varsity team for three years and hit around .270 in his estimation — good, but not good enough to make playing ball a career. Scully’s calling was at the announcer’s table, though. He called basketball and football games on WFUV — 90.7FM. The radio station was founded in 1947, when Scully was a sophomore. He graduated in 1949 and came to be known as the “Patron Saint” of WFUV Sports. He was presented with a lifetime achievement award from the station in 2008, which is now called the Vin Scully Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports Broadcasting. He was inducted into Fordham’s Hall of Honor in 2011.

After graduation in 1949, Scully was hired by Red Barber, acting as the sports director of the CBS Radio Network, to call college football games. One of those games was a tight contest between Boston University and Maryland at Fenway Park. Not only did Scully impress Barber with his broadcast abilities, but he called the game while standing outside, completely exposed to the cold and windy weather. Barber liked that Scully didn’t let the poor conditions affect his work. By the following year, Scully was added as the third man in the Brooklyn Dodgers radio and television booth, alongside Barber and Connie Desmond. The announcement was made in the Daily News on January 4 1950: “To fill the vacancy created by Ernie Harwell’s switch to the Polo Grounds airlines, the Brooks have signed Vincent Scully, 23, for the radio and TV job with Red Barber and Connie Desmond. Scully, a Fordman grad, had a full mop of the gleaming red hair that Barber used to have.”

Scully stayed in that position for the next 67 years. But that was hardly his only job, though. At that moment in his life, Scully was a rookie broadcaster and did whatever was asked of him. In 1950, you could hear his voice at a college basketball game or a boxing post-fight show. He made baseball history during the 1953 World Series, featuring the New York Yankees against the Dodgers. Barber declined to take the broadcast job and the $250/day that it paid, so the broadcasting voices were Scully and Mel Allen. In doing so, the 23-year-old Scully became (and remains) the youngest person to call a World Series game.

Scully took over the lead announcer role for the Dodgers in 1954 and held that position with a variety of partners, including Desmond through 1956 and Jerry Doggett through 1987. He called his innings by himself, unlike the broadcasting teams that are common today. He quickly became known, and appreciated, for a willingness to let the ballgame play out. He didn’t need to talk over the action. At a relatively young age, Scully had established himself as one of the best broadcasters in New York City. The sheer number of baseball highlights and feats he witnessed as an announcer is staggering. He was there on October 8, 1956, when Don Larsen threw the only perfect game in World Series history. He kept quiet about it, too, until the ninth inning. Then, he broke the “unwritten rule” and announced to the audience, “Larsen is pitching the greatest game I’ve ever seen… no hits, no runs, no errors and nobody left on base.” Fortunately, Scully didn’t jinx Larsen’s final three outs by telling everybody what was happening in the game, and he became one of the first announcers to routinely discuss no-hitters as they were in progress.

Red Barber considered Vin Scully the closest thing to a son as he ever had, and Scully considered him a father figure. Source: Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1966.

Scully spent his offseasons in Bogota, N.J., where he lived with, “my father, my mother, my sister, the canary and myself in that order of importance,” he quipped. He said in a 1957 interview that while he was impartial on the job, it didn’t mean that he wasn’t an invested participant in the ballgame. He noted that he lost 7 pounds during the 1955 World Series, just out of anxiety that 75 million people across the country were listening to his voice. He also rose and fell with the fortunes of the players. “When [Gil] Hodges was in that slump of several years ago, I suffered almost as much as he did,” Scully remarked.

In 1957, Scully said farewell to his bachelorhood and married former fashion model Joan Crawford on November 9. They would remain married until her death in 1972. It was also his final season in Brooklyn. He and the Dodgers moved across the country to Los Angeles after the season. Neither he nor the Dodgers were an instant sensation. In fact, Scully wrote a lovely article for the Los Angeles Times in June of 1958, in which he discussed Sister Virginia Maria, the nun and eighth-grade teacher who toted a sponge and pail of water to clean the chalkboard and who supported Scully’s dreams of working in radio. Then he mentioned the priest at Fordham Prep who fostered Scully’s oratory skills and borrowed black shoes from every priest in the school so that the young man could have a proper pair of shoes for an oratorical contest. After setting the stage, Scully got to the point of the column.

“The transition to California has not been an easy one,” he wrote. “After eight years of hard work in New York it was like beginning all over again. Trying too hard to make a good impression with a new audience sometimes led to mistakes that I felt I had long since overcome and many times I wished I could erase them with that sponge and little pail of water from grammar school.

“The people have been kind and patient and I think them for that. The first few months in a strange city, in a new ballpark with different surroundings, selling different products has been an awkward challenge. But I think of wearing an unknown priest’s pair of black shoes and the fact that they soon felt comfortable to me and I feel better.

“I hope I can become a reasonable success in Los Angeles for the sake of my wife and my family. And I’d like to feel that a kind little nun and a thoughtful priest back in New York will be proud of me.”

Scully became more than a reasonable success. In fact, it soon became unthinkable to watch a Dodgers game without his voice narrating the action — even if you were at the game. First at the Los Angeles Coliseum and then at Dodger Stadium, Dodger fans brought their transistor radios to the ballpark with them so they could hear Scully’s broadcast. As Los Angeles Times writer Bill Shaikin pointed out, Scully first became aware of his power when he instructed fans at the game to wish umpire Frank Secory a happy birthday in 1960. A stadium full of fans shouted “Happy Birthday, Frank” to a very surprised umpire in response. Prior to Scully’s last game in 2016, he told his audience, “The transistor radio is what bound us together.”

As a handsome man with a golden voice, Scully had a chance to make a mark in Hollywood. He had a bit part in “Wake Me When It’s Over,” a 1960 comedy starring Ernie Kovaks and Don Knotts, and narrated “Expedition Los Angeles!” a documentary-style TV series. Scully frequently narrated television shows throughout the years. He didn’t want to be gone from home during the offseason, so the work was a way for him to stay busy without having to he away from his wife and children for too long. “It’s funny, but it looks like I may have to start worrying soon about over-exposure,” he joked.

The Los Angeles Dodgers won the 1959 World Series, erasing any ill will that the team’s brusque East Coast ownership may have generated with the team’s new West Coast fan base. Scully’s own call of Hodges scoring the winning run in a one-game playoff against the Braves — “And we go to Chicago!” — became one of the first of many memorable Dodger moments improved with Scully’s narration. Scully never let his own fame as “Voice of the Dodgers” go to his head. There were no wild stories of him carousing with the ballplayers. In fact, pitcher Clem Labine was once fined for missing curfiew and got a phone call from his irate wife, demanding to know what he’d been doing. “But honey, I was with Vin Scully,” Labine protested. All was forgiven; Mrs. Labine knew that Clem couldn’t have been getting in trouble if he was with the team’s rock-steady broadcaster.

At times, Scully had a talent-laden Dodger team in front of him. He started off in the Jackie Robinson/Pee Wee Reese era and was the voice of the Sandy Koufax/Don Drysdale/Maury Wills championship teams of the 1960s. At other times, Scully was the biggest star the Dodgers had. Though still a relatively young man in the late ’60s, he was held in such high regard to that up-and-coming announcers like Dick Enberg and Al Michaels came to him for advice or borrowed some of his style. “Vin Scully is the best in the business. He has showed us all how a game should be called,” Enberg said as he was becoming the new Voice of the California Angels.

Scully had his opportunities to move to other teams. The expansion New York Mets were supposedly interested in hiring him, and the San Diego Chargers were rumored to want him as a football commentator if they moved to Los Angeles in 1965. Scully remained a Dodger — and Dodgers boss Walter O’Malley paid him his due — but he did take advantage of other opportunities and started to ease back from a full baseball schedule. He tried the role of a game show host in 1969 with a show called, “It Takes Two.” In 1973, he was the star of “The Vin Scully Show,” a half-hour syndicated afternoon talk show.

Source: Talahassee Democrat, December 24, 1978.

Scully expanded his opportunities in other sports, signing with CBS Sports from 1975-82 and then NBC Sports from 1983-89. Those jobs occasionally took him away from Dodger games but gave him the opportunity to call NFL games as well as PGA golf tournaments. He even provided commentary for CBS’ “Challenge of the Sexes,” partnering with Phyllis George for events like a tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Althea Gibson. Scully acknowledged that he hadn’t broadcast a football game since the 1950s and took some refresher courses before making his NFL debut. His plan, though, was to do with football what he had done with baseball — mix together a combination of play-calling with player anecdotes and other interesting tidbits and let the action speak for itself. “I don’t want to get too technical with football. Some broadcasters make it sound as serious and complicated as open-heart surgery. I have no intention of trying to diagram the plays.” He was primarily partnered with Hank Stram during his run of football games, but he was also given the chance to team with John Madden before CBS executives decided that Madden and Pat Summerall were the better fit.

He branched out into baseball beyond Dodger games as well, calling nationally broadcast games for NBC through 1989. He called All-Star Games and postseason series. In these games, he was put into a more traditional two-person booth tandem instead of his usual solo role with the Dodgers. He teamed most frequently with Joe Garagiola on NBC’s Game of the Week. There may have been some friction when they were paired initially. One of the rare instances when Scully offered criticism of someone was when he noted that Garagiola was not the simple country bumpkin that he made himself out to be. But the two gelled into a good tandem quickly. They were behind the mic for Fred Lynn’s historic grand slam in the 1983 All-Star Game and Bill Buckner’s infamous error in the 1986 World Series. That play must have been hard on Scully as well, because he always identified with the ballplayers and knew Buckner as a Dodgers rookie in the late ’60s. All total, Scully called 25 World Series and 12 All-Star Games.

Scully’s call of Gibson’s pinch-homer off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series is an encapsulation of Scully’s work. As the Dodgers crowd erupts, Scully says, “Look who’s coming up,” and then proceeds to not say who’s coming up. He let the screaming crowd set the significance of the moment better than any announcer could. After about 45 seconds of cheers, Scully then goes into the explanation of Gibson’s importance to the Dodgers and his bad legs. Once the at-bat gets underway, Scully and Garagiola give insights about pitch placement and defensive positioning, functioning well as a team. When the home run happens, Scully shouts, “She is GONE!” — and then nothing. The Dodgers celebrate, and Gibson does his famous arm pump, and the only soundtrack to it is Dodger Stadium absiolutely going bezerk. Only after Gibson is mobbed at home plate and limps his way toward the dugout does Scully punctuate the moment with his famous line, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!”

Because he got such an early start in his career, Scully was still a relatively young man when he was honored with the Ford C. Frick Award in 1982 — the broadcasters’ equivalent of a Hall of Fame induction. He was just 54 years old at the time he was inducted, and in broadcaster terms, he was in the prime of his career. Scully continued in his career for 34 years after receiving baseball’s highest honor, in fact. When his contract with NBC ended in 1989, he left national broadcasts behind and returned to the Dodgers, though he returned to providing radio commentary for postseason games.

Vin Scully was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2016. Source: Military.com

Another benefit to Scully’s early start was that he remained at the top of his game for an incredibly long time. In fact, as his career wound down in the 2010s, he wasn’t really a shadow of his former self. He may have spoken a little slower, and he occasionally confused player names, but listening to a Vin Scully game remained a treat. He was insightful, he was witty, he had a well of 70+ years of baseball knowledge from which to draw. Three or four generations of Dodger fans grew up with him as the voice of baseball. Those of us from Generation X got to hear him through his national broadcasts. MLB TV, for all its frustrations, put Scully in the home of every baseball fan in the country. And even though he was in his mid- to late-80s, it was a privilege to listen to him. Not only was he one of the best to ever call a baseball game, but he was the last broadcaster of his era. And he was appreciated for what he was: not only a link to baseball’s past, but a top-tier broadcaster right up to the day that he retired.

Scully’s first wife Joan died in January of 1973 from an accidental prescription drug overdose — she had been ill with bronchitis and a bad cold. He married his second wife, Sandi, in 1974, and the two were together until her death in 2021 from ALS. Scully’s oldest son, Mike, was killed in a helicopter crash in 1994. He is survived by five children, 21 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren.

This is how Vin Scully signed off for the final time on October 2, 2016, after 67 years of broadcasting. It was, as he noted, the 80th anniversary of the World Series game where Yankees had pounded the New York Giants 18-4. Scully remembered that game distinctly, as he developed a love for the Giants because of the lopsided score — a love that lasted until he took a broadcasting job with the Brooklyn Dodgers some years later. It’s fitting to give the man himself his final say.

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4 thoughts on “Obituary: Vin Scully (1927-2022)

  1. A fantastic article. Vin Scully is one of the few folks maybe the only person in the public eye no one ever had a bad word to to say about. It’s interesting to me in that in his farewell message he mentioned God and prayer. Not something you hear about much today. Maybe just maybe that was his open secret. The belief and trust in a higher power. God bless Vin Scully.

    Like

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