First published in the Aug. 6 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
What was it? The essence, the spirit, the twinkle? If you didn’t appreciate Vin Scully, I have nothing to say to you. If you did, please listen up.
For generations of L.A. baseball fans, he was the voice under the pillow. Mom and Dad would say goodnight, and kids would finish the day listening to the Dodger game called by Scully on a transistor radio under their hot pillow. He painted word pictures. The tones? Pure pudding. Pillow talk meets prayers.
From San Marino to Burbank, across the valleys, across the state, Scully was the voice on the car stereo all over Southern California, in the convertibles while you cruised with dad, at backyard cookouts.
His email was Red@ladodgers.com. When he wrote to you, it was in ALL CAPS. Simple. Plus it saved time, so he could address all the requests. And somehow, he always responded. Two weeks ago, I checked in with him and didn’t hear back. I knew then. I knew then that he didn’t have anything left.
He’d hate this fuss, by the way, all the accolades, all the “greatest ever” gushing. I’m convinced that he put off retirement for so long because he dreaded all the ceremonies, the tributes.
To some degree, he was a big ham, sure — all announcers are. Mostly, he just wanted to show up at the press box and do his work. In the later years, his wife, Sandi, hired him a car service, to get him to the games from his home in the Valley. Dozens of fans waited outside the press box for him to appear. He wasn’t Elvis. It was more meaningful than that.
Indeed, no mayor, no celebrity, no athlete ever captured the hearts of this whacky city the way this humble man did. He represented all that was good about it. The class. The professionalism. He thrived, for gawd’s sakes, in a town where people put makeup in their hair and paint their Cadillacs pink.
Baseball anoints only so many folk heroes. No committee decides it. Just happens. Mickey Mantle. Willie Mays. Sandy Koufax. And finally Scully. Vincent Edward Scully, the most unlikely folk hero of all.
A few years ago, while still a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, I penned a piece on the musical qualities of Vinny’s voice. A couple of USC music professors helped me break it down.
“The cords compress the air in a very natural fashion,” professor Jeffrey Allen explained. “There’s no muscling of the instrument. It’s just organic. It just flows through him.
“You’re dealing with a virtuoso instrument.”
His colleague Chris Sampson found a waltz-like rhythm to Scully’s broadcasts.
“It’s swinging,” Sampson said. “In every instance that I’ve heard, he’s always had swing to it.”
I wrote then that Scully’s lyricism can probably be traced to the big-band era of his youth. Scully says he always loved the greats he grew up with: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and, of course, Frank Sinatra.
“I also love Broadway musicals to this day,” he told me.
While in college at Fordham, Scully was the school’s center fielder. He was also a member of the Shaving Mugs, a barbershop quartet. But Scully scoffed at the idea that he had much in the way of musical gifts.
“Good grief, I must be the only [person] who is off-key while speaking,” he said with typical self-deprecation.
The music professors disagreed.
“It’s just amazing how he stays in cadence,” said Sampson, who studied several of Scully’s calls for rhythm, key signatures, tonality.
Sampson’s analysis included a clip of a game-winning home run that preserved a Fernando Valenzuela victory during the height of Fernandomania.
“It’s gone, Fernando, it’s gone,” Scully says as the crowd roars, a phrasing Sampson says came in three-quarter time, like a waltz … 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3.
“He’s not only giving color analysis, he’s giving a concert,” said Allen.
Know how you can recognize Paul McCartney after one note? Same with Elton John or Joni Mitchell. Same with Scully. It’s a claw hook. A chord.
Don Larsen’s perfect game. Kirk Gibson’s homer. Clayton Kershaw’s no-hitter in 2016. The emotional inflection was spot on. The volume rose to match the moment.
“One out to go,” Scully said of Kershaw’s no-hitter. “One miserable, measly out.”
“A cotton-candy sky with a canopy of blue … looks good enough to eat,” he said once while setting the stage for a game.
Tonally, he was an Irish tenor. Spiritually, he was baseball’s Frank Sinatra.
Full of swing, moxie, and sonic opulence, he used his voice like a horn.
He also used something that can be so unfashionable in a giant, jangly city like Los Angeles. He used his heart.
R.I.P., dear friend.
Erskine’s columns appear here weekly. Email him at Letters@ChrisErskineLA.com.