Baseball’s storyteller, our friend
Irish poets learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made. . . .
— William Butler Yeats,
“Under Ben Bulben”
For 67 years, the son of Vincent and Bridget Scully, immigrants who came to New York City from County Cavan, Ireland, has been plying his trade. For eight years on the East Coast and 59 on the West Coast, on radio and television, he has strolled with Brooklyn Dodgers fans and then Los Angeles Dodgers fans down the long, winding road of baseball’s seasons. In an era with a surfeit of shoddiness, two things are well-made — major league baseball and Vin Scully’s broadcasts of it.
Although he uses language fluently and precisely, he is not a poet. He is something equally dignified and exemplary but less celebrated: He is a craftsman. Scully, the most famous and beloved person in Southern California, is not a movie star but has the at-ease, old-shoe persona of Jimmy Stewart. With his shock of red hair and maple syrup voice, Scully seems half his 88 years.
America’s “most widespread age-related disease,” Tom Wolfe has written, “was not senility but juvenility. The social ideal was to look 23 and dress 13.” It is not Scully’s fault that he looks unreasonably young. It is to his credit that he comes to work in a coat and tie, and prepared — stocked with information.
Aristotle defined human beings as language-using creatures. They are not always as well-behaved as wolves, but everything humane depends on words — love, promise-keeping, story-telling, democracy. And baseball.
A game of episodes, not of flow, it leaves time for, and invites, conversation, rumination and speculation. And storytelling, by which Scully immerses his audience in baseball’s rich history, and stories that remind fans that players “are not wind-up dolls.”
In recent years, Scully has not accompanied the Dodgers on the road. Hence this recent tweetquoting an 8-year-old Dodgers fan, Zoe: “I hate when the Dodgers have away games. They don’t tell stories.”
When the Baltimore Orioles visited Dodger Stadium in July, Scully’s listeners learned that thefather of Orioles manager Buck Showalter fought from North Africa to Italy to Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge. Whenever the Orioles come to town, Scully dispenses nuggets about the War of 1812. On June 6 broadcasts, they learned something about D-Day. His neighbor once was Ronald Reagan.
This is how Franklin Roosevelt began his first Fireside Chat (March 12, 1933): “I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking. . . .” For many years now, Scully has worked alone because he wants to talk not to someone seated next to him but to each listener, which was FDR’s talent. A free society — a society of persuasion, exhortation and neighborliness — resonates with familiar voices, such as FDR’s and Reagan’s. And Scully’s.
On Opening Day this year, before the season’s first pitch, Scully was the center of attention on the center of Dodger Stadium’s diamond, standing on the pitcher’s mound with various retired Dodger stars, including pitcher Don Newcombe. Newcombe, now 90, was the starter in the first game Scully participated in broadcasting — Opening Day, 1950, in Philadelphia. Scully knew players who knew Ty Cobb. Scully’s listeners today include the great-great-grandchildren of earlier listeners. Baseball, more than any other American institution, and Scully, more than any other baseball person, braid America’s generations.
In this year of few blessings, one is the fact that Scully’s final season coincides with a presidential campaign of unprecedented coarseness. The nation winces daily from fresh exposure to sullied politics, which surely is one reason so many people are paying such fond attention to Scully’s sunset. It is easy to disregard or even disparage gentility — until confronted, as Americans now are, with its utter absence.
In late September, Scully will drive up Vin Scully Avenue to Dodger Stadium, settle himself in front of a mic in the Vin Scully Press Box, and speak five familiar words: “It’s time for Dodger baseball.” Later, as the sun sets on the San Gabriel Mountains, he will accompany the Dodgers for their final regular-season series, with the San Francisco Giants, who came west when Scully and the Dodgers did in 1957.
Then, or perhaps after a postseason game, he will stride away, toward his 10th decade. In this era of fungible and forgettable celebrities, he is a rarity: For millions of friends he never met, his very absence will be a mellow presence.