This week a certain kind of storytelling will come to an end. Vin Scully, who began broadcasting Dodgers games in 1950, will retire at the age of 88. Yes, he was once a prodigy, announcing major league baseball games at just 22 years old. He did not flame out, as young stars often do. Quite the opposite, he stayed in the same job, incredibly, for two-thirds of a century, even moving with the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958. But to focus on Scully’s longevity is to conceal the fact that he turned baseball broadcasting into an art form.
Scully was part of the wave of baseball broadcasters who rose to fame after World War II. He, along with men like Red Barber in New York (who hired Scully), Jack Buck in St. Louis and Ernie Harwell in Detroit, professionalized baseball broadcasting. Scully and his original colleagues understood that baseball, unlike the other major sports, is a series of small stories within larger stories, and the pauses between action allow a good broadcaster to develop those stories.
Each game has a beginning, middle and end, of course. And each game fits within the context of a season as a whole. This is true for all team sports, though. However, unlike football and hockey where players are hidden beneath bulky equipment, you can see the emotion on a baseball player’s face. Unlike basketball, where the play is more or less continuous, the breaks between bursts of action in baseball allow an announcer to construct a narrative.
Inside of every game there are the stories of innings, where each team must bat and play in the field. Inside those innings are at-bats, where a pitcher faces a hitter, the fundamental conflict of the sport. This confrontation between pitcher and batter, repeated dozens of times in a game, is why, at its essence, baseball is an individual sport.
Scully mastered the art of making us care about the individuals in involved. In the present era, broadcasters do little to hide their rooting interest in the team for whom they broadcast. When Scully began his career, broadcasters were encouraged to be more reporter than cheerleader. That’s changed. Broadcasters now usually just recite the opposing players’ stats and move on.
Scully mastered the art of making us care about the individuals in involved. He reported the numbers but then went well beyond. He made us care about the name on the front of the jersey as well as the one on the back. He did this through simple research. It was not uncommon for Scully to tell listeners about the opposing pitcher’s hometown, how many brothers and sisters he had, who his parents were and if they were at the game. By doing this, Scully gave the story of a game dimension, with characters who have a history. If the player had a tie to something or someone of note, Scully would tell listeners about it with an anecdote.
During a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier this year Scully described what it was like to broadcast in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. He told of how workers got off their shift in the steel mills and came to the ballpark, their clothes still covered with the grease and dirt that their work required.
Scully’s ability to do weave history and the personal into the present was not even his greatest gift. He was blessed with a melodious voice—not too high, not too low— that all but guaranteed him a spot behind a microphone somewhere. He rarely got excited, so when he did his listeners knew it was important.
It was the listeners who built Scully’s reputation. Once upon a time, it was a real commitment to listen to a baseball game on the radio. I can recall many nights growing up in my small Pennsylvania town, fiddling with the radio dial trying to pick up the Reds game or, on a clear night, the Cardinals or the Braves (Scully and the Dodgers were well out of range for me). Most broadcasters talk to each other, but Vin talked to you. Radio listeners are a loyal bunch. They can tell when the broadcaster cares about his craft and will reward him with their time, as they did to Scully and a few others. There was a degree of intimacy that is gone now. Before cable television and well before the internet, the broadcaster was the primary connection between a fan and his favorite team. Now, with a multitude of social media platforms and dozens of cable channels, radio is just one form of communication.
Not that Scully changed. At 88, he was still the best in the business, committed to telling the story of every game. He had few peers and has even fewer heirs. Jerry Howarth in Toronto and Jon Miller and Dave Flemming in San Francisco are all superb. Howarth and Miller have been broadcasting for decades, while Flemming, at 40, is a relative spring chicken. If someone is to carry on Scully’s commitment to storytelling, Flemming seems the most likely candidate.
So, perhaps its fitting that Scully’s last game will be in San Francisco on Sunday when the Dodgers and Giants end this season by renewing their century-old rivalry. In one radio booth, will be the old master, Scully, bidding adieu. In the other will be Flemming. Here’s hoping he accepts the challenge..