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INSIDE VIN SCULLY

Bill Plaschke is a Times sports columnist

Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good morning to you wherever you may be. It’s a beautiful morning here in Pacific Palisades, the sun shining, a soft breeze sneaking through the trees. Glad you could join us; let’s set the scene: The man voted the most memorable personality in Los Angeles Dodger history is on his knees, sleeves rolled up. This most memorable personality is giving infant Jordan Kyle Schaefer a bath.

And oh, what a marvelous time they are having. He washes behind his ears . . . rinses his hair . . . pulls him out of the tub . . . sits him up on the counter . . . and begins massaging his little back while the baby shakes his head, giggles and says something that sounds like “hee-hee-hee-hee.”

Friends, at 8:15 in the morning on this sweet spring day, you are looking at more than a baseball announcer, more than a baseball legend. You are looking at a grandfather. * Hello, this is Vin Scully . . . . When calling on the phone, even to people he has known for 25 years, the voice of our city fully identifies himself. Never presuming a familiarity that exists with millions. Never taking their admiration for granted.

“That’s all you need to know about Vin,” says close friend Dan Cathcart. “When he calls you on the phone, he always gives you his full name when, really, all he needs to do is just say hello.”

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*

Hello, this is Vin Scully . . . .

*

For 40 years in Los Angeles, have any five words been more comforting? Returning travelers turn on the car radio after arriving at LAX, hear those words, know they are home. The lonely turn on their TVs, hear those words, know that they still belong. The Dodgers have a new owner, an ever-changing stadium, increasingly distant players, and yet people throughout Southern California have turned on their radio this month, heard those words and known that it is spring. The sky may be falling, Tommy Lasorda has retired, Peter O’Malley has been bought out, but Vin Scully is talking, so it is spring.

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*

Hello, this is Vin Scully . . . .

*

That’s how he greets this longtime acquaintance on my answering machine, to talk about an interview. For once, I am glad I am not home. I now have the voice on tape, without static or organ music or applause, just Scully talking to me in that soothing tenor. “Please,” I announce to everyone within two square miles. “Do not erase this message.”

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One problem about the interview. The longtime Dodger announcer--who also happens to be the best announcer in baseball history, no question, don’t even think about it--doesn’t do these kinds of stories. He hasn’t done one in 13 years, to be exact.

After 49 seasons of sitting gracefully in the easy chairs and front porches of our homes and lives, to say nothing of the time he’s spent riding shotgun in our cars, Scully has become an intensely private man. Few people, not even 22-year partner and friend Ross Porter, have been to his home. He is almost invisible with the ballclub on the road, preferring to spend his spare moments reading--most recently “The Perfect Storm,” by Sebastian Junger, and Tom Dyja’s “Play for the Kingdom,” a novel about a sandlot baseball game between two Civil War regiments. “Call me in the hotel,” he’ll tell friends from home. “I’ll just be sitting there, killing time.”

Scully talks about the Dodgers and baseball and life with such elegance that it sounds like a concerto with words. Yet he is wary of talking about himself. “I know myself to be a very ordinary man, really I do,” he says. “I would just as soon go quietly.”

That is the worrisome thing, that “go” part. He turned 70 in November. Even though last season was arguably his best ever--when the Dodgers collapse, their lead announcer only gets stronger--he increasingly worries about the time spent away from home. He says he still gets “goose bumps” when he hears the crowd; he is inspired enough to broadcast games for the next 20 years. But while he still does all the TV games--88 this year--he is giving more of the radio innings to Porter and Rick Monday. While he says he is excited about working for the new Fox Group owners--whew, admit it, his premature departure was everyone’s biggest fear--there is a sense that these are his final years.

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Next season will be his 50th. The year 2000 would mark the beginning of his sixth decade as a Dodger play-by-play man. Maybe he will retire then. Maybe he will wait until some later moment that he deems, with his impeccable sense of timing, to be dramatically correct. No matter. When Vin Scully retires, it will not be quietly. After listening to him for all these summers, this town will finally put down its foot and say, “Listen to us.” There will be tributes, parties, retrospectives, and no matter what Scully says, he will be too darn polite to turn any of it down.

Before that happens, though, it would be nice to collect some snapshots. Nothing big or deep or pretentious, just a few pictures of a legend silhouetted against the late afternoon.

*

Hello, this is Vin Scully . . . .

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*

When you come right down to it, it’s not really a voice. It’s a monument. It’s a landscape. Like the Hollywood sign, only bigger. Like Griffith Park, only safer. Like a 70-degree January day in Pasadena, only more believable.

Yes, that’s it. That’s the platitude we’re looking for. It would come so easily for him, he would figure it out in 10 seconds. It’s taken me 18 paragraphs.

I tell Vin Scully over lunch. I tell him we want to do this story because he has become the most trusted person in Los Angeles, period.

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“Who,” he says. “Me?”

*

Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant Christmas Eve to you wherever you may be. It’s warm and cozy here around the Scully family tree. Glad you could join us, let’s set the scene:

Sandi Scully, the lovely wife of the Dodger announcer, is crying; tears are dotting her cheeks like so many raindrops. She has just unwrapped a cassette tape from her husband, and she cannot, for the life of her, believe what is on that tape. Vin Scully’s greatest Dodger hits? Nooo. Famous home run calls of the 20th century? Nooo again.

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The tape causing so much emotion is of Vin Scully serenading his wife with the song “Wind Beneath My Wings.” And what do you know about that? He sang it and recorded it--on a homemade karaoke machine with help from his daughter--while his wife wasn’t looking.

Merry Christmas, Mrs. Scully. Merry Christmas indeed.

*

Perhaps the most important thing to recognize about Vin Scully is that, for all these years, there have been two of him.

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There is the Scully whose voice wafts through our town for a couple of hours every summer night like a delightful aroma, the Scully who turns pitchers into bullfighters, outfielders into mountain climbers, managers into scientists, baseball into theater.

This is Scully the bard.

“He gives you the imagery you need to paint the picture,” says David Hunt, Scully’s brother-in-law, who is blind. “Try closing your eyes and listening to other announcers. They leave a void. Vin leaves no void.”

The other Scully is the one who goes home to a wife, five children and five grandchildren. That Scully has dealt with the death of his first wife, his mother, his father and stepfather and, most recently, his 33-year-old son. From home, he has made the decision to move forward bravely and without regret. At home, one can hear him sing. “Sings all the time,” says Sandi. “Singing when he wakes up. Sings before lunch.” Then he gets into the car on the drive to work and really sings.

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You wonder, to what radio station does this town’s foremost radio personality listen on his way to work? He doesn’t. He plays compact discs that contain Broadway tunes and movie scores. Some days “Ragtime.” Other days “The Music Man.” And yes, as he plays them, he sings.

“That way, when I get out of the car at the stadium, I’m feeling good,” he says.

He also has stereo speakers hooked up throughout his house so, at the touch of a button, the place is filled with music. When some of his children or grandchildren come over, it is also filled with laughter. “Pee-paw,” as one grandchild calls him, will be chasing the kids around on the floor. The music will be from a recent Tony Award winner. The TV will be tuned to a classic movie.

This town’s most famous TV sportscaster does not usually watch sports on TV. It’s not that he doesn’t love sports, he says, shrugging. He says he just loves his family more. This is also why he rarely does personal appearances, or TV talk shows, or anything that would give us another little bit of him that he feels his family deserves. If you feel like he disappears once the baseball season ends, you are right. That is exactly how he plans it.

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“I have realized the most precious thing in the world you have is time,” Scully says. “I should be utilizing the time I have with the ones I love.”

How does this happen? In an age when many famous announcers have started acting like famous athletes, making millions and behaving like children, the Marv Alberts of the world, how does this trend miss the best one of all? The era of arrogance and entitlement has somehow blown by Scully while he stands around in his perfectly pressed blazer and sheepish smile, signing all autographs, sending thank-you notes to those who say nice things about him, refusing to write a book because he doesn’t understand why he’s a big deal, working on a one-year contract year after year.

“The game is the thing, not me,” Scully says. “I am just a conduit for the game. I am the guy between the expert and the fan. I am not the expert.”

How does this happen? How does such a rags-to-riches story end up with the rich guy being so nice?

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Scully was born in the Bronx, the son of a silk salesman. His father died of pneumonia when Scully was 7, and his mother moved the family to Brooklyn, where the red-haired boy grew up playing stickball in the streets. Later, he made the baseball team at Fordham University and worked for the school paper and radio station.

Scully tells a story about what followed. Actually, as with all of his stories, he doesn’t tell it--he paints it. It is Brooklyn, 1950, his first season, just one year out of Fordham. As he is leaving Ebbets Field after a rainout, there are hundreds of autograph-seeking children standing across the street behind a barrier, waiting for the players. About the time he steps into the street, the barriers break and the children rush toward the stadium door, surrounding him. Someone sticks a pen and piece of paper in front of his face. He signs it. From the back, there booms a voice, “Hey, who’s that!” The kid who has just gotten the autograph looks carefully at his paper and replies, “It’s . . . it’s . . . it’s Vin Scully.”

“Hell,” shouts the guy in the back. “He’s nobody.”

Scully finishes the story and shrugs.

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“I heard the guy and thought to myself, ‘You got that right.’ ”

*

Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you wherever you may be. It is a stressful night in Los Angeles, about 35 years ago, and let’s set the scene:

The Dodger announcer has just read the surgeon general’s report that smoking is bad for your health, so he has decided to quit. But he needs help. So he turns to the one place of stability in his life. He turns to his family.

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In his shirt pocket, where he used to keep his cigarettes, he places a family photo. Whenever he feels like he needs a smoke, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the photo. He says it reminds him of why he is quitting. For eight months, struggling constantly to break his habit, he reaches into his pocket and touches that photo. It frays and fades, but it never leaves that shirt pocket, never leaves his reach. And after eight months, wouldn’t you know it, it works. It really works. Vincent Edward Scully, bless him, never smokes again.

*

Snapshot: Vin Scully’s youngest daughter, Catherine, is learning how to swim. Under one condition. She will not jump into the pool unless he announces her name as if she were a baseball player. So every afternoon, before leaving for the stadium, he stands in the shallow end, raises his arms and makes his first call of the day: “Ladies and gentleman, now presenting the infamous ‘Catherine Anne Whale.’ ” Giggling, she leaps into his arms. Twenty years later, she still remembers the laugh, can still feel the splash.

*

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Snapshot: it is daughter Catherine’s wedding day. like all brides, she is nervous about how she looks in her wedding dress. Walking her down the aisle, Scully leans into her ear and begins singing, “Here comes the bride, all fat and wide . . . .” She spends the rest of the procession biting her tongue to keep from laughing. At the altar, when her father gently pulls away her veil and gives her a kiss, his face changes. “He turns away. I look close, and I can see his eyes filled with tears,” she says. “The range of emotions he showed that day, that totally describes my father. He is not some myth. He is real.”

*

Snapshot: nearly 25 years ago, Scully ran into actress Florence Henderson at Dodger Stadium.

“Miss Henderson,” he told her, “I have my own Brady Bunch. And I have news for you. Our problems cannot be solved in 28 minutes.”

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*

In 1972, Scully’s first wife, Joan, died suddenly. the coroner’s report said it was an accidental overdose of cold and bronchitis medication. Joan left him with three young children.

Two years later, he met Sandi, a secretary for the Rams, who had two young children from a previous marriage. Before their first date, one of her children was sick, and she could not reach Scully. When she did not show up at their designated meeting place, he thought he had been stood up. He promptly sent her a photo of him standing forlornly in the otherwise deserted parking lot. She agreed to a second date, beginning what may have been the most respectful courtship in history. “It was three months before he even kissed me,” she says.

Less than a year later, they married. They cut short their honeymoon because they were worried about the children; later they took another honeymoon, with all their kids in tow. Scully recently gave his wife a medal for a running a family that, with Catherine’s birth in January 1975, had grown to six children. A real medal--diamonds and everything. “Everyone says their wife deserves a medal. Well, I figured, why not just get her one?” he says.

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It is during these times, during the early years of Tommy Lasorda, that the town began to truly trust Scully, to realize that while he was paid by the Dodgers, he really worked for the fans. During Lasorda’s turbulent early reign, Scully remained unafraid to criticize a bad play, point out a manager’s unused options or praise an opponent. Guess it’s impossible to be phony at work when everything else in your life is so real, when you change diapers before leaving for the park, talk to teachers from hotel rooms, hurry home from airports to play catch.

“Vinny is the class of the Dodgers, the head of the list,” says former owner Peter O’Malley, a longtime Scully confidant. “His honesty and integrity come through every day. He wants the Dodgers to win as much as I do, but he tells it like it is, even if it means criticizing the owner.”

Says Scully: “Red Barber instilled in me that you always go down the middle. I like to think that if I say that somebody made a good catch, the fans will believe me, because I will also say so if he butchered the play. . . . I don’t want to see things with my heart, I want to see them with my eyes.”

You can hear that even today. Next time you’re at Dodger Stadium, in the late innings of a close game, and a Dodger hits a ball into the air, listen to Scully. The crowd starts screaming the moment the ball is hit, hoping that it will be a home run. Scully’s voice will not change until the moment it is.

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*

Hi, everybody, and a pleasant good afternoon to you wherever you may be. It’s a wondrous afternoon in a West L.A. hospital, glad you could join us; let’s set the scene:

Catherine, daughter of the Dodger announcer, is having her first baby, and, oh my, it is coming quickly. At the same time, poor granddad is in Palm Springs beginning a golf telecast. The family telephones the granddad on the course. The start of the telecast is delayed for a few seconds while he whispers encouragement into his daughter’s ear. Then, as you might guess, the family brings a TV into the delivery room. Sure enough, while the baby is crowning, the Dodger announcer’s face coincidentally comes on the screen. With every push, his daughter leans up and sees his smile, and is comforted.

Ah, but there is a problem. The announcer is so good that the doctor is also paying close attention to him. Too close, actually. The doctor is watching the golf and not the delivery, and, finally, some family members say, “Uh, doctor? The baby?”

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And out she comes, bright, bubbly MacKenzie Jean Luderer. That’s one round the proud grandfather will never forget.

*

Unfortunately for Scully, four years ago there was another round he’ll never forget. He was on the 11th hole of the Bel-Air Country Club when he got the message. Michael Scully, the son who shared his father’s blue eyes, whose engineering career at Arco had been bolstered by his father’s advice, had been killed at the age of 33. He and a pilot were inspecting pipe damage in central California after the Northridge earthquake when their helicopter hit unmarked power lines.

It was the afternoon of Jan. 20, 1994. Several hours later, Michael Scully’s wife, Cathy, gave birth to a son. For once, Scully was visibly devastated, yet he and Sandi were at the hospital the morning after, feeding the baby before going to the funeral home to pick out a casket. That spring, he was back on the radio. He hurt, but we could not tell. At home, it was impossible for him to sing, but we never knew. It was like that when his first wife died. It was like that when, last December, his mother died. Vin Scully is the most trusted man in Los Angeles, because, when he comes into our homes, he never tracks anything inside. His only baggage is that afternoon’s scorecard.

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“To lose a son, there is no way you can ever imagine . . . even to this day, it is so overwhelming you can’t get a grip on it,” Scully says. “But that is where your work will help you. For a couple of hours a day, you can work through it.”

His voice is not only landscape, it is armor. He thinks we all have our problems and don’t want to hear about his. That is fine. That is enough.

The voice is enough, as it was many years ago, on a Sunday afternoon when the Scully family was sitting by their pool with a Dodger game beginning and Vin on the radio. “Hi everybody, and a pleasant good afternoon to you wherever you may be,” he said, like he always says. “Pull up a chair and stick around a while.”

Catherine, then age 4, walked over to the radio and said, “OK, Daddy, I think I will.”

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For as long as he’s inviting, we all will.


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