Vin Scully recalls D-Day on June 6th, 2015
I had a busy week so I wasn’t able to watch Clayton Kershaw’s start against the Angels on Tuesday until Friday. I made time to watch his start (and Zack Greinke’s start), not just because he is a good pitcher but because his start was being called by the best announcer, color commentator, and play by play man in sports broadcasting.
Queen Elizabeth II recently became the longest serving British monarch but Vin Scully had already been calling Dodgers games for three seasons before Queen Elizabeth II took the throne. I watched the game on my iPad. My great-grandmother listened to Vin Scully call games for the Brooklyn Dodgers on her radio. Vin Scully spans four generations of my family and an era of technology that goes from radio to tablet. Why has Vin Scully endured?
Vin Scully is not the best storyteller in baseball. He is one of the best American storytellers of the 20th century. I would consider him comparable to Kurt Vonnegut. They shared the same folksy style that accompanied a vast field of knowledge, a willingness to change with the times, and an appreciation of the life they have lived. Vin Scully tells stories every year about two important historical events. He tells the story of a time when Jackie Robinson was receiving serious and multiple death threats. Before a game, Gene Hermanski, a fellow player, suggested the entire team wear Robinson’s number, 42, so that the shooter would not know which one of them was Robinson. The other day that Vin Scully often talks about is D-Day, “The Day of Days” for those who lived through it.
Vin Scully recounts the Gene Hermanski story on April 15th, 2014
I was reminded this year, as Scully spoke of D-Day between pitches, of how Kurt Vonnegut spoke of the firebombing of Dresden. These were men of the same generation who have, or had in Vonnegut’s case, the ability to speak to successive generations about the events that shaped them. I was not alive for D-Day or Jackie Robinson’s career or the firebombing of Dresden. I feel those experiences when I read Vonnegut’s writing or listen to Scully during a broadcast.
It has become traditional for baseball to be called by a three person booth. There is a play by play commentator and two color commentators. The play by play person is usually a journalist who narrates what precisely is happening: the count, runners on base, what inning it is. The color commentators are often past players who analyze aspects of a game: the mechanics of a player’s swing, the route a center fielder took to a fly ball, the way a pitcher throws a curve. There are some good play by play commentators and some bad ones. There are some great color commentators and some who make you want to stuff cotton in your ears.
Then there is Vin Scully. Vin Scully does the play by play and the color commentary. He is the only single person booth left in baseball. Scully narrates, interprets, and analyzes a game better than any other two booths combined. He lets the narrative of the game come to him instead of imposing a narrative on the game that may or may not fit. He has adapted to over 60 years of changes in the game and the way the game is spoken of an analyzed. He utilizes Pitch F/X as easily as he speaks of RBIs. Scully does not hesitate to criticize bad behavior or praise good behavior. He represents the Dodgers but is always willing to give credit to opposing teams, players, and managers.
As I have listened to Vin Scully during these past four seasons, I have realized that each game is an individual narrative. It can stand alone but Scully’s narrative of the game develops threads as the season goes on. His narrative of a game is linked to past games and events of the season. His narratives of each season are linked to past ones.
In many oral cultures, there are respected elders who hold much of the information and history of that culture in their heads. Vin Scully is like that. His unprecedented personal knowledge of the game and his storytelling skill allow him to narrate not just a game but The Game. He can speak of how the events of baseball, and the actions of the members of the baseball family, fit together. He shares a bit of that knowledge in every game. He links games to seasons present and seasons past. His calling of successive seasons fit together as seamlessly as puzzle pieces. There is no one in American popular culture like Vin Scully. He sits in the announcer’s booth and spins a yarn of a game, of baseball, of us.
This is why, when Scully calls his last game next year, I know that an era will end. One of the great storytellers of the modern era will set down his microphone for the last time. I wish him nothing but the best but I know my future will be poorer. I invite him into my home about 60 summer evenings every year and have never regretted a single minute. So many people can talk about baseball, Vin Scully can tell you a story of baseball.