The Los Angeles Dodgers, their fans in southern California and beyond, and the national media made a big deal of Vin Scully’s retirement after 67 years as the team’s broadcaster—bigger than he wanted or expected. The reactions—from the tributes that have poured in to the tears that flowed during ceremonies at Dodger Stadium—might have seemed excessive for a baseball broadcaster. But Scully is unique in the history of broadcasting, and in the history of baseball.
Although he broadcast other sports, Scully concentrated on baseball. No other major sport’s season is day in and day out in the same way, with the season expanding during Scully’s career from 154 to 162 games and those games taking longer to play. Among those other sports, basketball and hockey have almost continuous action, while football has less action but, like the other two, is on the clock. Baseball games last until they are finished, and the action is limited at best.
Scully became legendary for how he filled all of that time, with details about the players, a historical perspective, and a love for trivia that extended to discussions of the historical significance of D-Day each June 6 and a recent discourse on the proliferation of beards among major league players. Commentators invariably pointed out that he did this by himself: he was the last broadcaster in major sports who worked without sharing the microphone. As Scully said, “You are trying to sell people to come to the ballpark. Let me put it to you this way: if I want to sell you a car, is it better for me to talk directly to you about the merits of the car, or do I talk to somebody else about how good the car is and you listen to that conversation?”
That conversation was new when the Dodgers and Scully arrived in Los Angeles from Brooklyn for the 1958 season. At the time, most Los Angeles-area sportscasters rooted for local teams, often vociferously. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley asked Scully and his broadcast partner, Jerry Doggett, whether they should do the same.
Scully and Doggett discussed it and returned to O’Malley. Scully said they pointed out that they and the Dodgers, like many Los Angelenos, were transplants. Some of their listeners would be from the home cities of teams the Dodgers were playing and would be offended if the Dodgers announcers were insulting their team. O’Malley agreed, and Scully’s broadcasts thus were different from the start.
Two other factors, beyond his own abilities, contributed to Scully’s popularity. One was the invention of the transistor radio, which happened only a few years before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. Fans brought their new-fangled radios to the ballpark so that they could listen to Scully describe what they were seeing on the field. So many of them did so, in fact, that broadcast engineers had to position the microphones to avoid feedback from the stands, and players said they could hear Scully from the field. The other factor that gained Scully fans was that the Dodgers played for their first four seasons in the Memorial Coliseum, built for the 1932 Olympics and long used for college and professional football. It seated more than 90,000 fans. As Scully said, “some of those fans were 79 rows up, a half-mile from the action. It made sense to bring a radio.”
But Scully was not just in the right place at the right time. His style—which he once described as “no style”—also appealed to fans. He was (and is) a voracious reader and lover of Broadway musicals. His mentor as a broadcaster, Red Barber, the Dodger announcer who engineered his hiring in 1950, had wanted to be an English professor and his broadcasts sounded like it. Scully had a similar literary bent. He described a second baseman as “going down like a folding chair.” A catcher not knowing how far behind the plate he had to run for a foul ball prompted a reference to the theme of The Music Man’s opening number, “you gotta know the territory.” A ground ball between a shortstop’s legs one night inspired, “What ho, what ho, what men are these, who use their legs as parentheses?”
Amid all of the deserved tributes to his story-telling ability, what sometimes became lost in the discussion was his brilliance and reflexes at describing what was happening on the field. Broadcasting mainly on television for the past few years, he had less of a need to set the defense or explain what players and ballparks looked like. But he remained descriptive when something was beyond camera range or if he felt the need to talk about it.
One story serves to explain his abilities. On September 9, 1965, Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs. Scully asked the radio station to record the ninth inning—as he said, as a keepsake for Koufax. But he realized that since Koufax already had pitched three no-hitters, he should try to do something special. So, in a game in which the clock doesn’t matter, he mentioned the time. His description conveyed the nervousness associated with the moment: “Koufax lifted his cap, ran his fingers through his black hair, then pulled the cap back down, fussing at the bill.”
Later, The Fireside Book of Baseball, a literary collection, published the transcript of the inning. The editor reported receiving the only critical mail the book ever inspired, accusing him of editing Scully because no one could ad-lib that brilliantly. But he had, complete with an opening (“Three times in his sensational career has Sandy Koufax walked out to the mound to pitch a fateful ninth where he turned in a no-hitter”) and a coda (“And Sandy Koufax, whose name will always remind you of strikeouts, did it with a flourish. He struck out the last six consecutive batters. So when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that ‘K’ stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X”).
What also has been crucial to Scully’s popularity, and a contributing factor to the reaction his retirement has inspired, has been that he was always there. He became part of our lives. Broadcasting for a record-setting two-thirds of a century is astounding enough, but his tenure has been truly Herculean. The National League has existed since 1876; Scully has broadcast for just less than half of the existence of the oldest major sports league in America. Winston Churchill was a member of Parliament for 64 years—three fewer years than Scully broadcast. The longest-serving member of Congress, John Conyers of Michigan, took office 16 years after Scully began his career.
The careers of his colleagues further reveal just how impressive his longevity is. Scully’s longest-tenured partner, Doggett, worked with him for just over 31 years, followed by Ross Porter for 28 years—in both cases, less than half of Scully’s time with the Dodgers. Jaime Jarrín, the Spanish-language broadcaster for the Dodgers, has been with the team since 1959—and, at age 80, he still refers to Scully as his “mentor.”
He has spent a truly astonishing amount of time on the air. In his later years, Scully was on a reduced schedule and before that would miss games to do network assignments. But if he had broadcast every Dodger game each season, he would have been on the air three hours a game for 162 games a year, or just under 500 hours a season. Walter Cronkite couldn’t come close. When Cronkite retired as anchorman of the CBS Evening News on March 6, 1981, he had spent 19 years anchoring a regular evening newscast as well as Apollo launches, political conventions, and election nights. If Cronkite had never taken a vacation in that period, the time he would have been on the air for the 30-minute evening news for those two decades would have equaled five seasons of Scully’s broadcasts.
And Johnny Carson? When he retired from NBC’s Tonight Show on May 22, 1992, he had been on the air for 30 years. But his appearances gradually declined from five nights a week for an hour and 45 minutes when he started on the show to three nights a week for an hour. If Carson had done every episode of The Tonight Show for his entire 30 years, his time on the air would have amounted to 24 of Scully’s baseball seasons.
Scully has modestly said that baseball broadcasters come and go, and someone will replace him. He also told the fans, in a letter distributed to them at Dodger Stadium before his retirement ceremony on September 23, “I needed you more than you needed me.” He may have meant that broadcasting helped take his mind off of his own problems—the death of his first wife and oldest son, and family illnesses. But as his listeners made clear, they did need him. For 67 years, it has been a mutual admiration society, indeed.