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THE TRANSISTOR KID
Robert Creamer
May 04, 1964
When Announcer Vin Scully (left) came to Los Angeles with the transplanted Brooklyn Dodgers, he was a stranger in alien corn. But in the six years since, he has become as much apart of southern California as the freeways (right), whose radio-listening drivers form a huge part of his audience
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May 04, 1964

The Transistor Kid

When Announcer Vin Scully (left) came to Los Angeles with the transplanted Brooklyn Dodgers, he was a stranger in alien corn. But in the six years since, he has become as much apart of southern California as the freeways (right), whose radio-listening drivers form a huge part of his audience

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The inning ended. Scully said, "Ready? One, two, three!" And the crowd roared, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FRANK!" Secory looked up, astounded, and the crowd sat back, bubbling with self-satisfaction.

Early last season a similar incident revealed that Scully had not lost his grip on his listeners. The National League had told its umpires to enforce strictly the balk rule, which provided that with men on base a pitcher had to stop for one full second in the course of his windup before throwing the ball to the plate. Many pitchers were violating the rule unintentionally, and the umpires soon made so many balk calls that they sounded like a flock of crows in a cornfield. The league office eventually backed down and everything became serene again, but before that happened one of the real crises of the Great Balk War occurred at Los Angeles during a game between the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds, the Dodgers and the umpires became embroiled in a loud, long discussion on the question of whether or not a pitcher had stopped for one full second. The argument went on and on, and up in the broadcasting booth Scully was obliged to keep talking. He reviewed the balk rule, the National League's effort to enforce it, the numbers of balks that had been called thus far in league play compared to the number of balks called in previous seasons, and so on. Finally, with the argument still dragging on down below, Scully brought up the obvious but intriguing fact that one second is a surprisingly difficult length of time to judge. He asked his audience if they had ever tried to gauge a second precisely. He said, "Hey, let's try something. I'll get a stopwatch from our engineer..." And with thousands of spectators watching him as he sat in the broadcasting booth, he reached up and back and took a watch from the engineer. "...I'll push the stopwatch and say, 'One!' and when you think one full second has elapsed you yell, 'Two!' Ready? One!"

There was a momentary pause and then 19,000 voices yelled, "Two!" The managers, the umpires, the players, the batboys, the ball boys all stopped and looked around, startled. Scully said into the microphone, "I'm sorry. Only one of you had it right. Let's try it again. One!" And again, a great "Two!" roared across Dodger Stadium and out into Chavez Ravine. The ballplayers were staring up at the broadcasting booth, and one of them got on the dugout phone, called the press box and asked, "What the hell is going on?" The crowd, immensely pleased with itself, waited patiently for the argument on the field to end.

In talking about the two incidents recently, Scully said, "You can't do things like that very often. In fact, maybe in doing it twice we have done it enough. The first time, with Frank Secory, as I was counting one, two, three, I suddenly got the feeling that there wouldn't be a sound, and that I'd be sitting there with a foolish grin and egg all over my face. I felt a great wave of relief when those voices shouted, 'Happy birthday.' Last year, during the balk argument, it seemed a natural thing to do, and the crowd really enjoyed it. I suppose it would work again, but you could get an awful lot of people saying, 'Who does this guy think he is?' "

The loyalty of Scully's listeners, who seem to feel very close to him, and the accuracy with which he reports a game can be traced to his training under Red Barber, the first great baseball announcer and the man who broke Vin into sports broadcasting. In the late 1930s Barber moved from Cincinnati, where he had been doing the Reds' games, to Brooklyn. At Cincinnati, Barber had a relatively small radio audience. At Brooklyn he had the biggest one in America. He created thousands and thousands of new baseball fans in the years when the Dodgers, under Larry MacPhail and Leo Durocher, climbed from the second division to the top of the National League. Barber's homely country expressions, like "rhubarb" and "tearing up the pea patch" and "the catbird seat," entered the language. His influence on metropolitan New York (and despite legends to the contrary, there were more Brooklyn Dodger fans outside that colorful borough than there were in it) was profound. He had the pitchman's gift of getting people on the outskirts of the crowd to come closer. One of his converts in those days was a pleasant middle-aged lady whose interest in baseball before Barber's voice began to sound regularly in her home had been about as intense as her feeling for the problems of Patagonian sheepherders. One Sunday afternoon her two teen-age sons were sprawled in the living room listening to a Dodger game. The other team got a man to first base, but the next batter hit a ground ball to deep short. The ball was thrown to second base in time for the forceout, but the relay on to first was not in time and the batter was safe. As Barber was describing the play, the mother hurried in from the kitchen, carrying a mixing bowl and a spoon and wearing a concerned expression. She cocked her head, heard the end of the play, shrugged and said, "Oh, well. We got the front man."

Barber later developed a tendency to preach to his listeners about certain aspects of the game—his scathing comments on people who would cheer when an umpire got clipped by a foul ball were refined fire and brimstone—but even so he could make the complications of baseball fascinatingly clear to the tyro without irritating the knowledgeable fan. Scully, more relaxed on the air than Barber, is even more successful at doing this. His knowledge of the game is very broad. Counting World Series, playoffs, spring training and regular seasons, he has watched at least 2,500 major league games over the past 14 seasons. That is more than most players ever see, and it is more than a sports-writer would have seen in the same period (since sports-writers get a day or two off each week, whereas announcers do not). Too, Scully devotes a good deal of his spare time to conversation with players and managers, and most of that is spent listening and learning.

Despite his long association with the Dodgers, he never roots on the air. A Scully admirer has said, "If I tune in a game in the middle I can never tell from the tone of Vin's voice whether the Dodgers are ahead or behind. Oh, sometimes I can figure it out from the situation he describes—if the Dodgers have a pinch hitter going up for the pitcher in the fourth inning, say—but I can't tell from his voice. It doesn't get gleeful, it doesn't get dull and flat. I like baseball, and I think he does, too. He tells me what is going on, he tells me things about the game that I want to know."

The fact that Scully does not root for the Dodgers in his broadcasts stems from a decision he made in his first winter in Los Angeles. There was considerable discussion among club officials about the "attitude" that the play-by-play broadcasts should take. Although the broadcasts are sponsored—Union Oil Company holds the rights and usually sells half the commercial time to another advertiser—Vin is an employee of the Dodgers. He is paid about $50,000 a year and is responsible primarily to the club. In 1958 some of the Dodger officials thought that Scully might be wise to adopt an all-out pro-Dodger tone over the air. Such an approach had been considered impossible back in Brooklyn because New York City at that time had three major league teams ( Yankees, Giants and Dodgers) and those tuned in to any game always comprised a mixture of adherents of all three clubs. An announcer openly rooting for one team would have quickly alienated a substantial part of his listening audience. But in Los Angeles, the pro-rooting faction contended, the city was all ours! (And would be until the American League Angels came into being in 1961.)

Scully spent weeks pondering the suggestion and finally came to the conclusion that he would be better off following the style he was used to—that is, to be as objective and factual as possible. "It turned out to be one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me," he said recently. "When Los Angeles had minor league baseball the games were broadcast on a frankly partisan basis. The announcer rooted for the teams. But when major league baseball came to Los Angeles and Jerry Doggett and I did the games straight, without rooting, it had a very favorable impact. It was as if the city, without knowing it, had been waiting for this kind of announcing. People were seeing major league baseball for the first time. It was different, and they liked it. When they heard us they assumed that this was the way major league games were broadcast, and they liked that, too. I think they appreciated the compliment—that what they wanted was a factual report, and they didn't have to be told how to root. Another thing, there are a lot of people living here in Los Angeles who come from back East, from the Midwest, from New York, from all over. They were looking forward to seeing the teams they used to follow back home, and they would have resented it if we had knocked those teams in favor of the Dodgers.

"Besides, I had been brought up in that school of announcing. Brooklyn and the Dodgers meant more to Red Barber than to almost anyone, but on the mike he was always objective, always fair. Barber has been the big influence in my life."

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