Baseball had nothing really to do with Vin Scully’s drive to become a sports announcer. At first, this seems incomprehensible because 2014 is the living legend’s sixty-fifth straight year at the microphone for the Dodgers. But if you grew up with the sound of Vin Scully’s voice through all of your childhood summers, as did I, you might come to realize that his motivation was probably never really about baseball, per se. It couldn’t have been. Something far larger and deeper is at the root of such devotion.
Scully has spoken of his celebrated career in numerous speeches, interviews, and tributes. A few of the more recent and comprehensive are his amazing speech at the Reagan Forum last month, his radio interview with Hugh Hewitt on the eve of the Fourth of July, 2012, and an extensive feature in SB Nation last month by baseball writer Cee Angi. In all of these he enchants us with vintage Vin stories.
But to try to uncover exactly what this great esteem and wonder for Vin Scully represents for us, I think we have to try to understand what we mean to him as well. It’s a relationship both ordinary and extraordinary. It’s about long-term loyalty, a sense of family and, above all, a sense of community. He may be a celebrity, but it seems he has always wanted to be a part of us, a part of the “roar of the crowd.”
Love at First Sound
Scully often tells the story of what triggered his desire to become a sports announcer. It goes something like this: An eight-year-old boy at home on a Saturday in a New York City apartment would get some snacks—in the 1930s that meant plain saltine crackers and a glass of milk—and listen to college football on the radio. The radio was built into a large cabinet standing on four legs with cross beams underneath for support. He would take a pillow and crawl underneath so that the speaker was right above his face.
The interesting part is that little Vin wasn’t really all that interested in the football games. It was the “roar of the crowd” from the radio that captured his imagination forever. As Scully recently explained in an interview with Dan Patrick, it “absolutely intoxicated” him. It was through his sense of intrigue with the roar of the crowd that the epiphany of his career path came to him. Scully often uses rushing water imagery, somewhat akin to baptism, to describe it. In an interview with Michael Kay, he said effusively: “the crowd noise would come out of there like water from a showerhead. . . . and I would suddenly be covered with goose bumps . . . oh, how I wish I were there.”In every interview Scully seems to describe in some way how the roar would “wash” over him, like an awesome energy enveloping him.
We might call what happened to Scully “love at first sound.” From the moment he heard it, he knew somehow he would spend his life pursuing it, listening for it, absorbing it, respecting it, and always shutting up for it. Scully’s story-punctuated narrations of Dodger games and the roar of the crowd has been an ongoing conversation for generations. He explained it this way in his speech at the Reagan Library:
. . . if I have a trademark, it would be to call the play as quickly and as accurately as I possibly can, and then shut up—and listen to the roar of the crowd. And even to this day, when that crowd roars, I’m that little 8-year-old kid curled underneath the radio back in New York City.
I think what happened to Scully in childhood happens to all of us, but many of us lose this sense of wonder and discovery over time. It’s a sudden inspiration—often with a numinous quality—that fuels the yearning to create, to connect, and to share with others. C.S. Lewis described it as being “surprised by joy.” And Lewis’s essay “The Weight of Glory,” seems to express it as a universal human longing to “bathe” in a glory we can hardly put into words. Wordsworth may have identified it when he defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
A Feeling of Family
I confess I’m pretty much a bystander to baseball. I feel tied to the Dodgers in spirit, and from birth, even though I can’t tell you anything about the team today—or even yesterday—in terms of their records or statistics. Nevertheless, the voice of Vin Scully is in my blood. It came through a virtual transfusion from my father. From childhood I’ve retained an auditory collage of memories of Scully’s voice on the radio: narrating the game, doing ads for the sponsors, and filling the quieter moments with stories, mostly about the players.
These impressionistic sound bites go something like this: “Koufax, on the mound . . . the wind up . . . and the pitch . . . The Spirit of 76 lives at Union Oil . . . he was born in a small town . . . . line drive to center field . . . Farmer John bacon is ‘Easternmost in Quality. Westernmost in Flavor’ . . . Drysdale . . . . sliding into home, and he’s . . . SAFE!” [crowd then roars and my father joins them]
But to get to the heart of what Scully’s conversation with the crowd means, I must describe a bit of the life of my father. I’ll do it as Vin Scully might tell it, without the play by play punctuation.
In my imagination, Scully says: “Dominic Morabito was born in Brooklyn in nineteen hundred and four, firstborn son of immigrants from Calabria, Italy. Dominic got to be wild crazy about baseball in Brooklyn. His godfather took him to Ebbetts Field. Dominic could even remember the team being called the ‘Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers,’ so he goes waaayyy back in Dodger baseball history.
“In those days, children of immigrants often left school to go to work. From the age of 12 Dominic labored in suitcase and garment factories. He’d later come down with tuberculosis, and spend years curing in sanatoriums of the Adirondack Mountains. Then, in the 1940’s he moved to Los Angeles where he worked in the kitchen at the City of Hope, and later sold real estate.
“Dominic said he had given up on his lifelong dream of marriage and family until he was 46 years old and met his soon-to-be wife, Mary. Well, it was a whirlwind romance and they wed in March 1951, just before the baseball season. So Mary wasn’t prepared at all for the extent of her husband’s love of Dodger baseball. She could not comprehend just how heartbreaking it was for Dominic – well, for ALL of us — when the Dodgers lost the pennant to the Giants later that year. So when the Dodgers moved to L.A. in nineteen hundred and fifty-eight Mary said they actually ‘followed’ Dominic there! So, how’s that for a whole new ballgame?”
I heard Scully’s voice so many hundreds of times as a kid that the sound of it never fails to bring to mind my hard-working father in his stolen moments of relaxation. He rarely got to go to Dodger Stadium. But, as with so many other listeners, Scully’s announcing gave him a lot of joy as well as solace from some hard times and the ongoing disappointments in life. When my Dad listened with transistor radio to his ear, it sometimes looked like he was on the phone with Scully who was informing him personally of exactly what was going on at the ballpark.
It’s largely through relating stories that Scully has shown us his natural curiosity and appreciation for the lives of others. I imagine that’s one indicator why the roar of the crowd has so captivated him. He doesn’t hear it as just a “mass” of humanity, but he has the ability to feel it as a rich and complex multitude of unique individuals.
It’s amazing how seemingly ordinary people can leave deep impressions that create billions of tiny ripple effects across both time and space.
The Extraordinary in the Ordinary
Lots of books and movies and even college courses are about baseball as a metaphor for life, even as a religion. Maybe I wouldn’t go quite that far. But at some level it’s tied into a quest for harmonious connection with others, fair play, and wishing to feel part of something greater than ourselves.
I think my father’s love for the Dodgers and for baseball was tied into those things that the game represents and that the team played out for him. He had big dreams, always with little means. And as a boy wishing he could read books by Dumas instead of work in a factory, he developed a larger-than-life love for opera and Shakespeare and all things grand and beautiful. But despite his hardships, he remained drawn to the glory of those things and he loved to spread good cheer.
Life goes on, play by play, until we get to those glory moments we live for, as in the roar of the crowd. And yet there’s so much to live for within each play. Ordinary memories can embed themselves in extraordinary ways. For example, I associate Vin Scully’s voice with my first sip of beer, when I was maybe five or six years old. I begged my father for a taste of what he had just opened (probably Lucky Lager) on a blistering hot day. He held it out tentatively and it was so cold and frothy—and curiously unsweet—that I went for more and more, and he had to pull the can away from me.
But everything was a copacetic blur with Scully narrating those games in the background: the perfect modulation, the silvery cadences, kindly, and confidential. It was always a piece of contentment—whether by black and white TV, 1960s clock radio, transistor radio, or in the car.
Longevity and Loyalty
The illusion of transcending time always feels reassuring to mortals, so longevity is an obvious part of the Scully mystique. But I think it’s more Scully’s True Blue loyalty to the Dodgers over all those years that made him an inspiration to sports fans of all stripes. He’s loyal to the ideal of loyalty itself. For example, during the sign off to the interview with Hugh Hewitt on the eve of the Fourth of July 2012, Scully made a point of saying this: “I join you and all of us in saying a prayer on the Fourth of July that we’ll continue to have our independence—so many died for it—and our prayers that the United States of America will remain and not change dramatically, which I fear.”
Hearing him unabashedly speak for those who fought and died for our freedom—then express a fear of losing it—well, that’s a beam of light in a world that seems to be dimming.
It starts, of course, with being true to oneself and not imitating others. That’s one lesson given to Scully by his mentor, Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber. Scully explained in his recent interview with Dan Patrick:
Red said to me: ‘You know young man, you bring something into the booth that no one else in the world can bring. . . . Yourself. There’s no one else in the world quite like you.’ . . . The hardest advice you can give to a young fellow at the beginning is to say: ‘be yourself.’ And of course, the greatest lesson in life is to know thyself.
A Sense of True Community
Vin Scully has another difficult-to-describe quality that makes him so appealing and iconic. His fascination with the “roar of the crowd” represents something I think we all want and which is unattainable on earth: the chance to converse with all of humanity at the same time. It represents a desire to be in community—or in communion—with others. It’s like being in a grand conversation in which no one can predict what will happen next. A community like that is held together through mutual respect and the anticipation of joy.
Whether we know it or not, I think Scully’s relationship with the Dodgers and fans is a reflection of what true community should feel like. It means reaching out to all in good will. Being honorable, loyal, and dependable. Playing by one set of rules, rules that everyone agrees upon in advance and in good faith. Recognizing that everybody brings something of value to the community. Giving our best to one another and respecting the dignity of each and every human being. It means speaking truth, in love. And, of course, it means listening.
But this community, this crowd, is not simply about living in harmony together, but living at the same time autonomously as unique individuals. This is the real goal of community for which our countrymen died. Individuality must trump the community, and not the other way around.
Today a different idea of community is being hawked in some political circles. It’s the notion that the collective trumps the individual. That kind of “community” always ends up being dominated by a power elite with no respect for individuality. This elite, time and again throughout history, ends up making the rules as they go along. It’s not what baseball or freedom is about, and I’m sure it’s not the spirit Scully felt in the energy of the crowd’s roar.
Scully captured a sense of the uniqueness of the individuals within the crowd when he reminisced with Hugh Hewitt about the intimacy of Ebbets Field. He identified a Brooklyn Dodger fan by the name of Hilda Chester, who engaged Scully directly:
Ebbets Field was intimate. . . . I remember, bless her heart, there was a woman in Brooklyn named Hilda Chester. And anyone old enough to remember Hilda knows exactly what I’m talking about. She carried a big cowbell, believe it or not, and she moved sometimes from the bleachers to the grandstand .. . . And one quiet afternoon, there must have been about five or six thousand people in the ballpark, and I was sitting rather primly alongside Red Barber, and he was doing the game. And all of a sudden, I heard this deep, almost basso profundo voice coming out of a woman, and she said ‘Vin Scully, I love you.’ And the crowd roared, and I got red-faced and dropped my head. And when the crowd roar stopped, she said, ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you.’ And that broke everybody up. So that was Ebbets Field, the individuals as opposed to the large stadium.
Indeed, it is the relationships Scully says he will miss most when he retires. He explains in the interview in SB Nation what his bond with the crowd has meant to him: “. . . it will be very difficult for me to just suddenly walk away. It’s the human relationships I will miss when the time comes. Like everyone in life, I’ve had my tragic moments, and the crowd has always got me through those moments. That’s why I’ve said ‘I needed you far more than you needed me.’”
To paraphrase Hilda Chester: Vin Scully, we love you. And we know you’re listening when we talk to you.