"When I was a kid of seven or eight," says Vin Scully, in a voice like drawn butter, "we had a big four-legged radio in our living room in New York. And I loved to get a pillow and a glass of milk and a plate of saltine crackers"—on his tongue, "saltine" sounds sumptuous—"and lay with my head on the pillow directly under the loudspeaker of that radio. It was probably some meaningless Alabama football game, but even so: It was as if the speaker was a showerhead and the roar of the crowd was pouring down on me."
If you are privileged, then, to press a radio to your ear when Scully is calling a Los Angeles Dodgers game, you will hear the roar of a distant world, like the sound of the surf in a seashell. When Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run off the Dodgers' Al Downing in 1974, Scully stepped—while on the air—to the back of the booth, poured himself a cup of coffee and stood there silently sipping for several minutes, awash in the ambient sound. "What am I supposed to say?" he asks. " 'He hit a home run'?" But his insides, as ever, were a delirium.
"I still get goose bumps in dramatic moments," says Scully, who has been a Dodgers broadcaster for 53 of his 74 years. "I can't tell you how many times I will stand up in the booth and the anthem is being played and I'm thinking, 'How lucky can I be? How can I possibly be doing this? And for so long?' It really is overwhelming, and my only feeling is this tremendous depth of gratitude to God." The question he repeatedly returned to in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1982 was "Why me?" It is fitting, in this season when players have threatened to strike, that in a poll connected to the 40th anniversary of Dodger Stadium, fans named an announcer as their favorite Los Angeles Dodger.
Of all time.
Scully was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers at age 22, and Red Barber himself called to deliver the news, leaving a message with Scully's mother at their apartment. When Vin came home, she could hardly contain herself, blurting, "Red Skelton called!"
In the ensuing decades Scully has become—if you believe Ernie Harwell, the legendary Detroit Tigers announcer, whom Scully replaced in Brooklyn and who will retire after this season at age 84—the best broadcaster of baseball in history. When Scully and the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles after the 1957 season, he single-throatedly sold more radios than Philco. In one early game at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Dodgers played through the '61 season, he mentioned on the air that umpire Frank Secory was celebrating his birthday that afternoon. Instantly, the crowd yelled, as one, Happy birthday, Frank, and Secory blinked back at them in bewilderment. "I happened to arrive here at the same time as the transistor radio," says Scully, reposing resplendently in the Vin Scully Press Box at Dodger Stadium. "And at the Coliseum many of those fans were 70 rows up and couldn't actually see. They needed a radio."
Scully made those people see. He could make Ray Charles see. (Indeed, he has: Charles, a longtime listener, has said that Scully's voice holds him rapt.) His broadcasts are a series of deft descriptions, apt allusions and joyful noises, seamlessly strung together like charms on a charm bracelet.
Harwell is going, going. And gone—just this summer—are beloved St. Louis Cardinals announcer Jack Buck and revered Boston Red Sox announcer Ned Martin. Just last week the death of Los Angeles Lakers play-by-play man Chick Hearn, at age 85, left much of Los Angeles bereaved.
Scully, then, can scarcely step outside in Southern California without someone handing him a cell phone and imploring him, please, to record a voice-mail greeting. Angelenos will play him like a jukebox, asking him—virtually every day—to say, "In the year of the improbable, the impossible has happened," the phrase that flew from Scully's mouth when Kirk Gibson hit his epic home run in Game 1 of the '88 World Series. "The sweetest thing," says Scully, "is when people come over to me and say, 'When I hear your voice, I think of summer evenings in the backyard with my dad.' "
Scully himself is the father of six. He calls only two innings a game on radio these days before switching over to television, where he insists that his producers show pictures, several times every game, of children in the ballpark. "It can be," he says, "a child watching the game or a child—and this is just as fun—totally disregarding the game."