Oh, that voice! It comes out of the TV, it comes out of the radio, it comes out of the man sitting across from me in the cafe behind the press box at Dodger Stadium. Courtly and indefatigable, Vin Scully has been calling Dodger games since Harry Truman was president and the Dodgers were suiting up in Brooklyn; he’s in his 63rd season of sounding every shade of Dodger Blue. As the team passes midseason, it’s time for the voice of Dodger baseball, the man who actually does talk a very good game.
After all the Dodgers’ upheaval, does the team seem different?
I think there is a spirit of optimism; the fans feel the team will get better because of new ownership. The players are like I am, and I’ve said this before: It’s as if we’re working on a ship, and I’m down in the boiler room shoveling coal, and up on top where the captain is, that’s the ownership. By and large, ownership doesn’t have anything to do with me shoveling coal.
What are their prospects, as we speak just before the All-Star break?
The one thing no one ever knows is the unseen enemy, the injury, and that’s happened with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier and Mark Ellis, Ted Lilly. They [are] starting to get back. The team will definitely be better than it is today.
All the games you’ve called — is there anything you haven’t seen?
The charm of baseball is just when you think you’ve seen everything, something else pops up that you couldn’t possibly imagine. I guarantee you.
I saw the pope at Dodger Stadium in 1987 — but you didn’t get to.
We were on the road. I missed the papal visit. I missed the three tenors [Dodger Stadium concert], although I play the CD all the time. Even the Olympics — they timed it to make sure we were out on the road.
Peter O’Malley’s office has extraordinary memorabilia, like a movie studio model of the stadium, and a letter from Babe Ruth. What’s on your walls?
I was never a collector. If I was, I would have had to build another house! If you walked into the house, you wouldn’t see anything; it’s in files or drawers or in the garage, stacked in boxes.
You must be as mobbed as the players are when fans see you.
People want an autograph — I don’t know if they want to keep it or want to sell it on EBay!
You played center field at Fordham University. Could you have been a professional ball player?
No. I could run, I could throw, I could catch the ball. But I wasn’t anywhere close to being a hitter who would ever seriously consider moving on in professional ball. No way. And no one has to tell you that, after you’ve broken a couple of bats. But that’s one of the reasons I love the game so much: I really tried to play it seriously. Today I watch them and I still marvel — they make the most difficult play look easy.
When the Dodgers played in the Coliseum, fans watched the game but listened to you on transistor radios.
In the Coliseum you could have been 70-odd rows away from the action. Also, [back then] the fans knew Stan Musial and Willie Mays. I don’t think they knew the rank-and-file player. It was fortunate for me, the combination of the Coliseum and the transistor radio, and you had a marriage. Whoever the announcer would have been, they would have listened. It was a great break for me to bring me closer to the fans and to bring the fans closer to the ball club.
You began in radio; do you think the power to evoke images with words has made you able to do this as long as you have? In TV, people often rely on the pictures to do the work.
When you’re on television, it’s a good idea to rely on the picture. For the last 10 years at least, we do a simulcast: the first three innings I’m doing radio and television. I worried about that, but the late Chick Hearn, God rest his soul, did simulcasts. People understand, yeah, he’s talking too much — because he’s on radio! I try to find the happy medium.
Sometimes it seems that if you don’t say it, it hasn’t happened.
I know what you mean, but I don’t look at it that way. The first thing I had to prove in Southern California was that I was fair; that I wasn’t rooting for the Dodgers on the air. I hope after all these years people realize, he’s accurate. If he says it was a great play, it must have been a great play, not because a Dodger made the play.
Did you ever see a call and think, that’s not right?
Oh I have, and I’ve tried very hard — I admire the umpires; it’s such a difficult job. We have a million dollars [in equipment] just to show you somebody being safe or out at first base. And 99% of the time the umpire’s right. But if they make a mistake, I just try to gloss over it. Just as I hope somebody would gloss over my mistakes too.
There’s a big discussion in baseball: We can see whether the play was called properly and correct it if necessary. The fear is that it would take too much time. But eventually, maybe they’ll do like football, and have a man upstairs to say yes or no quickly.
Maybe we’ll have bases fitted with electronic sensors to determine when someone’s safe?
I can’t imagine it coming to that, but I never imagined domed stadiums and AstroTurf! But I hope not. An honest disagreement, where the manager comes out and argues — I think the fan really likes that, especially if they’re with the manager. They would love to run down on the field and argue, but they leave it in his hands.
You sometimes let the stadium noise tell the story — like the minute-plus when you didn’t say a word after Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record.
When I was very young I fell in love with the roar of the crowd. [Listening to] college football, I’d crawl under the big radio. Somebody on either team would do something and the crowd would be thrilled. Once I got into the business, I realized there’s nothing better than the roar of the crowd, so I tried to call the play as quickly and as accurately as possible and then get out of the way and let the crowd roar. What could you say that would be better?
Do you have a different voice for radio, for TV, for every day?
It might be a little different when I have a headset on and [with] the crowd [sounds]. I did learn that when you’re going to talk almost nonstop for three hours, you try to keep your voice more from the diaphragm than maybe your ordinary at-the-breakfast-table voice.
Baseball has had the White Sox scandal, the strike, steroids; how does it survive?
The game is greater than the people who play it. There’s a difference between baseball and other sports. Everyone has played a little bit of ball, but not many people have played football, not many people are tall enough to play basketball. But baseball touches everybody. In springtime, you see pictures of nuns playing catch. Everybody plays it.
Another thing is, the baseball fan knows in his heart and soul that he knows as much as any manager alive today. That’s why they come; that’s why they second-guess. You’re not going to have a football fan second-guess the complicated maneuvers — they try, but they can’t, and they know they can’t. But baseball — oh, yes.
You’re not on the road with the team anymore. Was it hard to make that break?
In the beginning it was a strange feeling to watch the bus pull away. But at this stage of my life, realistically, I treasure the time that I’m off as well as the time that I’m doing the game.
Do you listen or watch when they’re playing out of town?
Oh no, I like to get away from it. I also don’t want to lock my wife into it, that I’m going to sit there and watch the game. What I do is, in the morning, when I’m checking the papers, I’ll make notes, so I’ll know what they’ve done.
You’ve worked with a partner, with two partners on the air. How different is it from working solo?
When I did football for CBS, I [worked with] Jim Brown, the player, and the coach, George Allen. I had one on each side of me, and I’d be doing the play by play but also trying to remember, who did I ask the last question of, so I could balance everything? I did the game of the week in baseball with Joe Garagiola, and we had a lot of fun. We were just two characters sitting watching the game and making remarks.
It’s easier to be alone in some ways because you’re not doing mental bookkeeping, thinking, what did I ask him the last time? And if you have an idea, if you’re alone you can develop the idea. It goes back to Red Barber [his mentor and sports broadcast pioneer]. Red Barber’s basic philosophy was, one man, one voice.
The local broadcasts, they’ve gone network. There’s a big difference between doing a local game and doing a network game. A network game, you don’t care about paid attendance. You move on, like the circus; you go somewhere else next Saturday. When you’re doing a team’s game, you’re trying to get people to come to the ballpark, and that’s where the announcer is able to talk directly to the listener: Gee, you should have been out here, what a play, hope you’ll be here tomorrow night. The networks couldn’t care less.
You’re always smartly dressed. Did you dress like this for radio too?
Always. When I’m going to play golf, I put on a golf shirt. When I’m going to work, I put on a shirt and tie. I’m not going to the baseball game like a fan would go, so it’s all part of getting ready to do the game. Part of that I learned from Red Barber.
Does Los Angeles have a different relationship with the Dodgers than other cities have with their teams?
When we were in Brooklyn, it was a tight-knit community, as you imagine. When we came out here, I started to wonder — 480 square miles, where’s the heart of the city? It seems to me that Dodger Stadium has brought the city together. Gertrude Stein wrote about Oakland, there’s no there there, and actually that’s what I felt when I first arrived in Los Angeles. Now it’s the ball park.
Should the team move downtown?
This is home. Someday maybe we all have to leave home, but right now, it’s the heart and soul of the ball team, and I can’t imagine them leaving; but who knows? They should be right where they are now.
How do you approach calling a game, knowing the players?
I spend a lot of time talking about the visitors because [fans] don’t really know a lot about them. Let’s say the catcher of the Mets comes up to hit. I’ve already said how old he is, where he lives, and then if I can say he has a dog and the dog was totally deaf, but he didn’t get rid of the dog, he taught the dog sign language — to sit, to stay, to fetch — what marvelous patience he must have, and here he’s catching the knuckleball pitch. I love that, and I hope the listener will say, “Wow.” You have to dig and find the story. During the winter I might pick up a magazine and there’s a story about someone, and I’ll cut it out, put it in a file of that team, and I’ve got it just in case.
Do you mind hearing people talk about your potential successor?
I know people talk about it, sure. I don’t know whether people think, like Old Man River, I just keep going on. People are forever saying don’t retire, and that’s nice to hear, but there will be a day, without a doubt. But I’d rather live in the moment and just enjoy it.
You get a cold and L.A. reaches for a Kleenex.
I’ve been pretty fortunate. I missed Opening Day, I had a cold, but otherwise, God’s been good.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript.