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WHEN I was a little boy, we lived in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in New York, and we had a big old radio on four legs, and there was a crosspiece to hold the legs together, and I was about eight or nine, and I would crawl under there with a pillow ... � The memory is worn smooth in the retelling, wrought perfect after all this time. How much time, 75 years? A little less.... and my head would be directly underneath the loudspeaker, and it didn't make any difference, the sporting event. In those days there was only football really, no baseball, but I could be listening to Georgia-- North Carolina, Texas-Alabama, and here's this kid in New York curled under a radio and somebody would score a touchdown ...
The delivery is run-on, of course, the broadcaster's trick for building drama, capturing the immediacy of the event. Punctuation is avoided, as if the slightest pause would give the listener enough excuse to tune away.... and the crowd would go bananas and the roar would come down and it would just engulf me. It was like water out of a showerhead."
The timbre remains refreshingly thin, though not fragile, the syrupy tenor as rich as ever, the cadences doing as much of the work as the actual vocabulary. How many generations have gone to sleep to that sugary soundtrack? Almost 60 years in a Dodgers radio booth, the last 50 in Los Angeles, starting in the Coliseum, but mostly in Chavez Ravine. Speaking of the Coliseum: Back in '58, when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and had to play in that converted football stadium, anyone sitting 80, maybe 90 rows from the field couldn't tell the difference between a squeeze bunt and a grand slam. The transistor radio had just been invented, so fans could summon that soothing voice, and it would issue from thousands of little speakers, aisle to aisle, foul pole to foul pole, an odd and reverberating ambience that became a given. Just part of living in the Southland, echoing here and there, from the valleys to the beach even, like the sound of surf, or something.
In a city that is predicated on transience, that celebrates change so famously, there is little room for local institutions. Who would want to do something, the same one thing, for half a century? Somebody without ambition, that's who. Or without the talent to skip town altogether and go national. There is no patience for the parochial, the small-time, the stay-in-place, not in Los Angeles. If the Brown Derby had really meant to last, it would have franchised.
But here's Vin Scully, age 80, at least one more year on his contract, as suspiciously carrot-topped as the day in 1949 that Red Barber discovered him ("Red Skelton just called," Vin's somewhat excitable Irish mom told him), still calling games (most of them, anyway), not just a comforting presence or a relic but a professional reassurance, always finding the lyric to the singsong music of the night. It's gotten to the point, the man having stitched together all those seasons, all by himself, that when you say Dodgers, you really mean Vin Scully. Who else? Gary Sheffield? Not even Sandy Koufax.
How do you explain this endurance, this identification? He can't, won't. "I haven't done anything," he says, drawing the distinction (which many of his colleagues ignore) between the principals and himself. "I'm just sitting there." He's gotten this far without so much as a catchphrase; often he has disappeared from the action entirely. His first big call was Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, lefty Johnny Podres beating the New York Yankees. "Reese throwing to Hodges," he intoned. "Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world." A long silence followed, lest he break down crying on air. (He was young then, and these boys were his boys.) Subsequent silences, for which he has become well-known, have been more purposeful, less emotional. "To this day," he says, "what I've always tried to do is call the play as quickly as I can, and then shut up, not only for the benefit of the listener but for my own joy of hearing the crowd roar." After Hank Aaron's historic blast in '74, he said, "It is gone," and simply let that roar wash, coast to coast, an aural vacuum other announcers would have found unforgivable. The moment didn't require comment.
SOMEONE WAS smart enough to transcribe Scully's ninth-inning call of Koufax's perfect game in 1965—just an example—in all its press-box poetry. Every paragraph is seeded with drama ("A lot of people in the ballpark are starting to see the pitches with their hearts"), bringing you to the edge of your seat ("He is one out away from the promised land, and Harvey Kuenn is coming up"). It was literature, all right, miraculously appropriate to the moment. ("Swung on and missed, strike two! It is 9:46 p.m.") Someone clocked him, too; he remained silent for 38 seconds after Kuenn fanned for the final out.
Of course, that wasn't the only humdinger. There was Kirk Gibson's shambling pinch-hit appearance in the opener of the 1988 World Series, set up when Scully ordered the NBC cameras to pan the Dodgers' dugout before the bottom of the ninth. ("Well, the man who's been there for the Dodgers all season, Kirk Gibson, is not in the dugout and will not be there for them tonight.") Gibson, iced up in the clubhouse, suddenly inflamed, and you know what happens next. After the game, Scully went down to then owner Peter O'Malley's box and realized all he could do was pace, goose-bumped.
But baseball being what it is, there have been astonishing stretches of tedium between humdingers, and this is the time that Scully, no color man for him, reveals his genius. He has been mocked, playfully, for his on-air erudition, lobbing some show-tune verse, a bit of Shakespeare, a fact so hopelessly irrelevant that you can almost see the fans in Dodger Stadium, earbuds in place, craning to look up into his booth: What the hell?
Seeing a rather remarkable hairdo, recently, he welcomed the player into the game like this: "What, ho! What, ho! What men are these, who wear their sideburns like parentheses?" That, like the Koufax call, off the top of his head. Occasionally, though, you can hear the clunk of the ol' Internet search engine—he has always been an early adopter when it comes to technology, going back to his college days, when he had a personal telegrapher as a stringer for The New York Times —explaining that a 6'11" reliever is not actually the tallest man who ever lived, but that Robert Wadlow, at 8'11", was, and that he died of an infection and his coffin was pretty damn big. He's just filling time, amusing himself. "Two balls, two strikes, two outs, bottom of the ninth."