On the second-to-last afternoon of his 61st season, I visited Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium to ask him for a favor. Dodger Stadium sits perched like a crown atop a bald head of asphalt, hovering there above Sunset and Echo Park and Chinatown. It affords a periphery-to-periphery look at downtown L.A., a view obscured only by a shower curtain of fog that had been burning off since noon. It was the first Saturday of last October, and the air was hot—it must've topped out at 95—and the stadium, lit up by a sort of perpetual weekend-morning light, seemed indifferent toward hosting late-season baseball. Elsewhere, the air was chilling—New York and Philadelphia and Minneapolis were gearing up for playoff baseball under marble countertop skies. But here, with nothing much on the line, it was the picture of summer dog days.
Yet readied for another day of work was Vin Scully, the no-contest hands-down greatest announcer in any sport of all time. I heard him coming before I fully registered his presence. The voice—in the form of pleasured chatter with the beat reporters and parking attendants—sort of led him around, its wafer-thin reverb shadowing whatever he said. Scully joined the franchise in 1950, calling games for the Dodgers over the radio and on television ever since. He followed the team from Brooklyn, introducing Angelenos to a game they'd never had the opportunity to treasure, and grew to serve as a sort of national paragon for the way sporting events could be verbally accounted. During 62 seasons with the Dodgers, Scully has witnessed firsthand an unfathomable enormity of baseball. But even if we eschew the taken-for-granted superlatives, it's still remarkable to plumb the depths of that enormity, and draw to the surface the moments that defined his career: Sandy Koufax's perfect game, Henry Aaron's record-breaker, the Bill Buckner blunder, Kirk Gibson, and so forth. They're moments that more or less serve as a highlight-reel of modern baseball. Just two weeks ago, Scully announced that he'd be returning for a 63rd season. Last October, he told me: "I think it's like a pretty good ball player who does things effortlessly—and then it becomes a little more difficult. And eventually he knows, I can't quite do it anymore. I haven't gotten to that stage, but I'm aware that that stage is really just around the corner. Kirk Gibson has teased me, 'You'll never leave. You're like an old player—they're gonna have to cut the uniform off of you.'"
In the press box cafeteria at Dodger Stadium, we grabbed some coffee. He dumped in more sugar than I'd expected, and I told him the favor I had in mind: that, amidst the twilight of his career, I hoped he'd recall the greatest baseball moments he'd seen up close. "That's a lot," he said—robin-egg eyes, that familiar swirl of ginger up top. "That can't be done." But then he proved it could.
Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World"*
October 3, 1951
The Call: Scully serves as an apprentice in the announcer's box to Dodgers' legends Red Barber and Connie Desmond; Thomson's walk-off homer ends the Dodgers' season and sends the Giants to the World Series (Don DeLillo would forever immortalize the game in his masterwork, Underworld.) *Scully wasn't at the mike for this one, but he witnessed the shot from the booth.
"Fortunately for me—and I say that without any false humility—I wasn't on the air for that game. That might have been an awful lot for a kid. I was only 23 at the time, and I was behind Red Barber and Connie Desmond. We had a wonderful relationship in the booth. Red was certainly a father figure, Connie was like an older brother, and I was the kid. So there we were broadcasting the game. The Polo Grounds was in a horseshoe form, and so was the press box. It was kind of a low-ceiling press box, so I was hunched over, leaning over Red—not touching him, but leaning, watching the home run.
Red had always said to me 'Never get close to the players, because it psychologically might alter your judgment. You don't want to criticize a good friend and then it makes your description less clear and honest.' Of all the fellas on the team—and I was virtually as young as most of them—Ralph Branca [who gave up the home run] was my closest friend. His wife-to-be was Ann Mulvey, and a couple of times I dated her roommate, and the four of us would just go out to dinner, that kind of thing. So I remember watching the home run, seeing Ralph, that big body just slump over and walk off. I knew where Ann was sitting, and I remember seeing her with a handkerchief up over her face. It was very hard. I remember going into the clubhouse. In the old Polo Grounds, you were in the press box behind home and the clubhouse was in centerfield; that's about 480 feet or so, and you walked on the field all the way across, and then you went up a flight of stairs—one to the Giants's side and one to the visitors. When I went up to ours, Ralph was spread-eagle on the stairs with his face down—there's a classic picture of that—and I looked, horrified, and I kind of tiptoed around him and went over into the trainer's room. Now, it was deathly quiet in our clubhouse, not a sound, but just across a very short hallway was the Giants clubhouse, and I mean, they were going wild! It's bad enough to lose, but to hear the guys who have just beaten you, it really added to the atmosphere. I remember Pee Wee Reese was sitting on a rubbing table—Jackie Robinson was on another—and they were both quiet. I came in and I sat over in the corner. All of a sudden Pee Wee said, 'You know Jackie, what's always amazed me?' And Jackie said, 'What Pee Wee?' And he said, 'After all these years that this game hasn't driven me crazy.' I'll always remember that. The impact was so great. The Dodgers were 13 and a half games in front in August and they wind up losing. So here I am, my first two years, and I've got so much heartache—not so much for me, I was kind of in shock—but for them, my friends, to see them all suffering so much. Wow. I guess I thought, 'I'll never see anything like that again.' "
1953 World Series, Game 1
September 30, 1953
The Call: At age 25, Scully becomes the youngest ever to call a World Series.
"There was a labor disagreement: Red felt that he had done a lot of World Series games and they were still paying—believe it or not—just $200 a game. So Red appealed, and they said, 'No that's what you're gonna get.' So he said, 'I'm not gonna do it.' Well out of the blue I got a phone call saying, 'We want you to do the World Series.' I thought, 'Well, whoa whoa whoa.' So I call Red and I said, 'Look, I've been doing this four years, I don't wanna do a World Series over your labor negotiation.' He said, 'Vinny, what's going on with me, it's not gonna change, and if you don't do it, they'll get somebody else to do it. So I'm giving you my blessing. Do it.'
So the morning of the first game—and they were all day games back then—I was living at home with my mother and father and sister. And for my mother, a typical Irish mother, breakfast was the most important meal of the day. So we had the whole thing—the orange juice, the bacon and eggs, the toast. Everything was fine, but when I went upstairs I threw everything up. Because I'd only ever done just a little tiny bit of television and all of a sudden I'm going to be working with the great [Yankees announcer] Mel Allen. Mel and I had been slight friends, but when I got to the park he said, 'I just talked to your boss'—that was Walter O'Malley—and Mel was kind enough to say this: 'Walter said to me, 'Mel, take care of my boy.'' Well that made me feel kind of extra warm and good, so I got through the World Series. That was really an impactful time, 1953. I was 25 years old. That's a big job for a kid."
Don Larsen's Perfect Game
1956 World Series, Game 5 (October 8, 1956)
The Call: Scully is at the mike for the first and only perfect game in World Series history.
"When Major League Baseball opened up its own channel, they began by showing the Larsen perfect game. Now, it was a Saturday afternoon. I was watching football and I knew at a certain hour that MLB network was going to come on and they were going to show that thing. I admit I thought, Well, Mel did the first half, so I'll wait a while. Eventually, I switched back and it was Mel doing the top of the 5th inning. Then he introduced me. I sat there, I was just so disappointed in the telecast. First of all, we didn't have the equipment that we have now, but more than that, the announcing was so dull. TV was vastly different than radio. In those days, you were intimidated by the cottage industry of television columnists. They loved to whack the announcers saying, 'They talked too much,' and so forth. When we got on the air doing that perfect game, what Mel did during that first half—and part of it must've been the baseball superstitions—he would say: 'That's the ninth man he's retired. That's the tenth man he's retired.' Today, I would say, 'He's pitching a no-hitter.' But not back then. By the time he got to the top of the fifth, you'd say 'And that's the 15th man he's retired.' Whoa, I'm thinking, The great Allen has laid it out for me. So I picked right up, 'That's the 16th man, that's the 18th, that's the 20th.' Today I would say, 'Call your friends, this fella is pitching a perfect game!' Anyway, it was just, 'Foul ball, ball two,' because we were intimidated by the idea we were talking too much. So I can't watch it. I was just so dull professionally, and so different from what I would've done under the same circumstances today. I've never watched it again. Never."
Sandy Koufax's Perfect Game
September 9, 1965
The Call: Scully's ninth inning has been described as not only among the best calls of all time, but among the best baseball writing of all time. Read it in its entirety here. Or alternatively, here's a taste.
"And you can almost taste the pressure now. Koufax lifted his cap, ran his fingers through his black hair, then pulled the cap back down, fussing at the bill. Krug must feel it too as he backs out, heaves a sigh, took off his helmet, put it back on and steps back up to the plate. ... Sandy back of the rubber, now toes it. All the boys in the bullpen straining to get a better look as they look through the wire fence in left field.... A lot of people in the ballpark now are starting to see the pitches with their hearts.... The time on the scoreboard is 9:44. The date, September the 9th, 1965, and Koufax working on veteran Harvey Kuenn.... Two and two to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away. Sandy into his windup, here's the pitch: Swung on and missed, a perfect game!... On the scoreboard in right field it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. And a crowd of 29,139 just sitting in to see the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit, no-run games. He has done it four straight years, and now he caps it: On his fourth no-hitter he made it a perfect game. And Sandy Koufax, whose name will always remind you of strikeouts, did it with a flurry. He struck out the last six consecutive batters. So when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that "K" stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X."
"On radio, you're in your own little world. Every time I'd be doing a possible no-hitter—I think I've done something like 25 no-hitters and a couple of perfect games —I would always put the date on the tape. Not for me, but for the player, so that 25 or 30 years later when he's playing it for his kids or grandkids, you have that date. 'And so on this May 25th when he walks out to the mound...' Well, with Sandy, I'd already done that three times! And I'm thinking as the game is going on, 'cause Sandy was a good pal, and I'm thinking, What can I do to just make it a little special for Sandy? I came up with the idea—which is the worst idea in the whole world because it doesn't mean anything in baseball—I started putting the time on the tape. Well, I put it on just for Sandy, figuring he'd be sitting there with his grandchildren and he'd hear the exact same time: 'Strike two and it's 9:38.' When the game was over, the biggest impact in the city was that they thought it was the most dramatic, theatrical calling of a game they'd ever heard because I'd put the time on it. And it was purely for him, not for anybody else! Because as we all know time doesn't mean anything. In the old days sure, there were curfews and blue laws, but not anymore. That was just one of those nights, and I'll be honest, it was pretty well done on my part, but I lucked out. It's kinda like Sandy pitching a perfect game—everything has to happen and that particular night it was pretty good. It could've been another night where I was stepping on my tongue and all that stuff. I just always thought God helped me through that, and I'm glad for Sandy. That's all."
Henry Aaron's 715th Home Run
April 8, 1974
The Call: After permitting the crowd's cheers to shower the airwaves for several minutes, Scully returned to the microphone to weigh in on the magnitude of the feat.
"What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron...And for the first time in a long time, that poker face of Aaron's shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months. It is over."
"We were in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and Al Downing was going to pitch for the Dodgers—left-hander, black, soft-spoken, beautiful guy. I put the nickname on him 'Gentleman Al' because there was something about him, and I used to say he might as well wear a bowler hat and carry an umbrella when he goes out to the mound. So Al was pitching... But let me lead in to the home run with another story first: When I was very small, when I was eight years old, I wrote a composition for the nuns saying I wanted to be a sports announcer. Nowadays that would be commonplace, but when I was eight years old, which was shortly after the discovery of fire, I wrote I wanted to be a sports announcer. Well, nobody ever thought about that. Boys wanted to be a fireman, policeman, soldier, whatever. The girls wanted to be ballet dancers and nurses. And here's this kid saying, 'I want to be a sports announcer.' The reason was, and I've told this a million times, but we had a big old radio in the apartment for my mother, father, sister and myself. The only thing we had was Saturday afternoon football games. I used to take a pillow and a little box of saltine crackers and a glass of milk, and I would crawl under the radio and put a pillow in there and my head was directly under the loudspeaker. It could've been Georgia-Georgia Tech or Alabama-Mississippi. And yet here's a kid from Washington Heights in New York, but that wasn't the important thing. I didn't know anything about the players, but when someone did something and the crowd roared, and that noise came down out of that speaker, it just washed all over my body. I got goosebumps. I'd think 'Oh would I love to be there.' And then I started thinking 'I'd love to be that fella doing that game.' And that's where it started. It just kept growing and growing, and finally it came to be.
And so the biggest thing, when the ball was hit, was that I got this tremendous rush of goosebumps for this marvelous accomplishment, and the place went bananas, I mean just crazy. So I didn't want to say anything; the crowd noise to me was like a symphony, and I took the headset off and I walked to the back of the booth. I stood back there and just watched it, and loved listening. There I was, the eight-year old boy—I was under the radio again, just listening to this crowd. When I came back again, I just said what I felt, and what I felt was that it was great for Henry and his family; it was great for the team and the city and the state. But eventually, my mind kept saying, This is bigger than that. This is huge. This is a great sociological thing because a black man is being honored in the Deep South. I mean you've got yourself a monumental moment. So all of that came out. That was it. When Henry hit the home run, I guarantee you that's the longest uninterrupted crowd noise, maybe in the history of sports because there was nothing else to say. Everybody tuning in knew where he was, what happened, what it meant. There was nothing else to say—just that roar of the crowd.
George Plimpton actually wrote a small book about Aaron and the chase. He came up to me the night of that game and said, 'Did you prepare anything to say on the home run?' I said 'Oh noooo.' And he said 'Why? Milo Hamilton said he had it all prepared.' I said 'No, I'd be frightened to do that.' He said 'Frightened? Why do you say that?' I said, 'Well, if I'm going to write it out, then I'm thinking, This is my priceless statement. And if you remember, George, it wasn't for sure; Buckner climbed the little fence and reached up. He didn't catch it but he could've caught it.' And George, not knowing anything about baseball, he said 'Is he good at that?' I said 'No George, no one's good at climbing a fence!'"
Kirk Gibson's Home Run
1988 World Series, Game 1 (October 15, 1988)
The Call: Scully relays the blow-by-blow of the bottom of the ninth, culminating with what he considers to be "the most theatrical home run" he's seen in his career. Check out a clip of the home run here.
"In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened."
"If I categorized home runs that I've seen, without a doubt the monumental one is Henry's... but I've seen a lot of classic, great home runs. Gibson's was probably the most theatrical home run I've ever seen. In the ninth, after the outs were made, we went into commercial, so I talked to the truck, which I rarely do, and I said 'Fellas, when we come out of commercial, stay with me.' So the first shot out of commercial was the dirigible floating above, so I said, 'If you're here in the ballpark, and if you have a pair of binoculars, the first thing you'd do is look in the Dodger dugout'—and wham! there was a shot of the dugout. And I said, 'If you look the length of the dugout to see where Kirk Gibson is...'—and they panned the whole dugout—'...obviously, if he's not in the dugout, he's not gonna play tonight.' Meanwhile, Kirk is sitting in the dressing room, he's got bad legs, can't play. He's got two huge sacks of ice, one on each leg, and he's sitting there by himself looking at the TV monitor at that dramatic sweep of the dugout, and listening to my 'He won't play,' and all that stuff. It did something to him, and so he yells out, 'Bullshit Vinny!' and throws the ice down. And he said to the kid in the locker room, 'Tell Tommy [Lasorda] I'll be right down.' Now, as the inning progressed, we had Mike Davis up there—outfielder, aggressive hitter, didn't walk that much. But fate had it so that Mike walked, and while he's heading to first, the camera [snaps] takes a shot of the dugout, and I said something like, 'Guessss whooo's comin'...' And here he comes, with a bat as his cane, hobbling, and then of course, fouling off those little pitches, any one of which if stays fair he's dead 'cause he can't run, and I kept saying, almost praying, please don't let him strikeout. He's had such a great year that on this national stage, just let him hit a ball hard. So when he hits the home run, the whole building... from the empty dugout to the walk, to him suddenly using the bat as a cane... it was just the most theatrical home run. And the place went crazy. I don't know where it came from, but out came a line that later on I thought only could've come from The Boss. That line, 'In a year of the improbable, the impossible has happened'—which, I must admit, is a pretty good line—it just totally came out of nowhere. My heart, that's where it came from, and God helped me out."
Bill Buckner's Blunder
1986 World Series, Game 6 (October 25, 1986)
The Call: Scully deviates from his Dodgers duties to call the '86 World Series.
"A little roller up along first.... Behind the bag.... It gets through Buckner! Here comes [Ray] Knight, and the Mets win it!"
You know the story: the Red Sox and the Mets, and what looked like an easy ground ball... It was the shock of it, more than anything. You just don't expect a big leaguer to have it happen. Home runs are thrilling, but the shock of this little ground ball going through his legs, I don't know how else to describe it. It was a lightning bolt. That's probably what I would call it. Here the game is progressing nicely, and then suddenly: hit by lightning. When it was all over, I felt badly because Billy had played with the Dodgers. To this day, if I saw it I'd be startled. It's what makes this game so great, you just can't take anything for granted."