Give a word-association test to a baseball fan from Omaha or Memphis or Philadelphia and suddenly throw in the phrase " Los Angeles Dodgers" and almost certainly the answer will be " Sandy Koufax" or " Maury Wills" or " Don Drysdale" or even " Walter O'Malley" or " Chavez Ravine."
Give the same test to a fan from Los Angeles and the odds are good that the answer will be " Vin Scully."
Scully is the tall, slim, red-haired native of New York City who has been broadcasting Los Angeles Dodger games ever since there has been a team called the Los Angeles Dodgers and who, for eight seasons before that, did the play-by-play of Dodger games back in Brooklyn. This year, at 36, he is in his 15th season of broadcasting major league games, a statistic that is bound to startle anyone who ever heard Red Barber turn the mike over to Scully in the old Ebbets Field days with a cheery, "O.K., young fella. It's all yours."
In the six years that he has been in California, Scully has become as much a part of the Los Angeles scene as the freeways and the smog. His voice reporting the play-by-play action of the 162 games the Dodgers play during the regular season, plus the few dozen extra in spring training, plus playoff games (the Dodgers have been in two postseason playoffs in six years), plus World Series games, floods southern California from March until October. He is seen as well as heard on television a few times a year (the Dodgers usually telecast only the nine games the team plays against the Giants in San Francisco). "Everybody" probably is not a mathematically precise description of the number of people who listen to Scully's broadcasts, but it is close enough. When a game is on the air the physical presence of his voice is overwhelming. His pleasantly nasal baritone comes out of radios on the back counters of orange juice stands, from transistors held by people sitting under trees, in barber shops and bars, and from cars everywhere—parked cars, cars waiting for red lights to turn green, cars passing you at 65 on the freeways, cars edging along next to you in rush-hour traffic jams.
Even during the off season, when baseball is wrapped up and put away until spring, Scully's personality infiltrates Los Angeles. He does a 15-minute afternoon sport show five days a week, and he is a frequent guest on television. This past winter he was a regular irregular on a TV panel show called First Impression; he was on for a couple of weeks, off for a couple of weeks. Because of his appearances on First Impression he is becoming a familiar TV face and personality as well as a radio voice, and several people have approached him with ideas for new TV programs that would use him as master of ceremonies.
Vin Scully's voice is better known to most Los Angelenos than their next-door neighbor's is. He has become a celebrity. He is stared at in the street. Kids hound him for autographs. Out-of-town visitors at ball games in Dodger Stadium have Scully pointed out to them—as though he were the Empire State Building—as he sits in his broadcasting booth describing a game, his left hand lightly touching his temple in a characteristic pose that his followers dote on and which, for them, has come to be his trademark.
Baseball broadcasts are popular in all major league cities, but in Los Angeles they are as vital as orange juice. For one thing, the Dodgers have been an eminently successful and colorful club in their six seasons in Los Angeles (two pennants and a tie for a third, two world championships, a Maury Wills stealing 104 bases, a Sandy Koufax winning 25 games). For a second, the Los Angeles metropolitan area is huge (6 million people in the 1960 census, the biggest in the country after New York). For a third, because of a minimum of efficient public transportation, practically everybody drives to and from work and, for that matter, to and from everywhere, and in almost every car there is a radio and every radio is always on. When a home-rushing driver bogs down in a classic freeway traffic jam, he finds that nothing else is as soothing as Vin Scully's voice describing the opening innings of a Dodger night game just getting under way a few thousand miles and three time zones to the east. This time difference has been a key factor in the growth of Scully's audience. A man who drives home from work listening to an exciting game is not about to abandon it when he reaches his house. As a result, millions of southern Californians have Vin Scully with their supper.
But it is not just the happy timing of road games that endears Scully to his audience. He appeals to them when the Dodgers are home, too. In fact, he holds his listeners when they come to the ball park to see games with their own eyes. When the Dodgers are playing at home and Dodger Stadium is packed to the top row of the fifth tier with spectators, it seems sometimes as though every member of the crowd is carrying a transistor radio and is listening to Scully tell him about the game he is watching. Taking radios to ball parks to listen to the game as you watch it is a fairly common practice, but nowhere is it so pronounced a characteristic as it is in Los Angeles, and has been since 1958, the year the Dodgers left Ebbets Field and moved west. Los Angeles was hungry for major league ball, and though the Dodgers had a dreadful season that first year (they finished seventh), the crowds jammed into Memorial Coliseum, where the team played until Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine opened in 1962. Perhaps their unfamiliarity with major leaguers prompted so many fans to bring transistors along at first in order to establish instant identification of the players. But a large percentage brought radios not just to identify players but to learn what they were doing. Scully was talking to an audience that had not been watching baseball. The old minor league teams that Los Angeles and Hollywood had in the Pacific Coast League seldom drew more than a few hundred thousand spectators in their best years. Now a million and a half, two million, two million and a half were pouring into the ball parks. Through Vin Scully they learned the fine points, the subtleties, the In language of the game.
Scully was an instant success, and his hold on his near and remote audiences became extraordinary. The thousands of transistor radios in the stadium add up to substantial volume, and Scully, sitting in the broadcasting booth, can hear his voice coming back at him from the crowd around him. The engineers have to keep close watch on field microphones (the ones designed to pick up the background noise of the crowd) to screen out the feedback. Scully says, "I tell you one thing, it keeps you on your toes. When you know that just about everybody in that ball park is listening to you describe a play that they're watching, you'd better call it right. You can't get lazy and catch up with a pitch that you've missed. You can't fake a play that you've called wrong. I guess the thing I'm proudest of is the fact that in six seasons I have never gotten a letter from a fan who had seen a game at the ball park and listened to it at the same time on a transistor telling me that I'd been wrong on a play. I've gotten a few letters telling me to go soak my head, but none that said I described a play inaccurately."
One day in 1960 Scully did something on the spur of the moment that provided extraordinary evidence of his impact on his audience. It was a fairly drab game, and Scully, as is his habit, was filling in the duller moments with stories and anecdotes and revealing flashes of information. He began talking about the umpiring team, one of whom was Frank Secory. Vin leafed through the record books and cited a few bits and things about Secory. He mentioned his age and then did a double take when he noticed the date of Secory's birth. Over the microphone he said, "Well, what do you know about that? Today is Frank Secory's birthday." And because it was a dull game and because he was acutely aware, as always, that most of the people at the game were listening to him on transistors, he said, "Let's have some fun. As soon as the inning is over I'll count to three, and on three everybody yell, 'Happy birthday, Frank!' "