Vin Scully's Last Innings

The news broke quietly last month in the place that he had identified, at the end of a famous broadcast, as "The City of the Angels." After six decades of expressing the piercing drama of the national game more eloquently and movingly than anyone else ever has, he scheduled his last innings with underspoken, indirect comments to a newspaper columnist. "God willing," he would broadcast Dodger baseball for one more season, after which it "makes sense" that he would retire.

That famous game was on September 9, 1965, Sandy Koufax pitching in another Dodger-Giant pennant-race. Ninth inning, one out: "I would think that the mound at Dodger Stadium right now is the loneliest place in the world." Then two out, two balls, two strikes on Harvey Kuenn: "Swung on and missed, a perfect game!"

We all heard Vin Scully's wonderful voice, undulating in pitch as it informed, entertained and excited, on national television and radio broadcasts during the last half of the 20th century. Like so many others in the '80s and '90s, I would douse the volume of World Series telecasts and turn to the sound of Scully on the radio, when he untypically worked with another commentator. It was not the format he preferred, yet he also did that better than anyone else. I remember his asking Bob Gibson if, great fastball pitcher though he was, he might be less inclined to throw that pitch to a man known to be a fastball hitter.

"I might like ice cream," Gibson responded, "but I can't eat a gallon of it."

And I waited for the stories.

"One of the scariest things I've ever seen was in the old Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, when the late Gil Hodges was settling under a pop foul beside first base, and a fan in the lower stands suddenly flung an empty bottle toward his head." It missed, and "the Quiet Man" of the Brooklyn Dodgers lived to play in their last games and to win an impossible national championship as the manager of the New York Mets.

More than anything else, I would wait for him to tell those stories about the Brooklyn Dodgers, whom he covered for eight years in his twenties, and whose last two splendid but twilit seasons will for me always be represented by his resonant and literate sentences.

Near the end of 1956 the Dodgers brought up promising, power-hitting outfielder with the evocative name of Don Demeter. He had only three at-bats for Brooklyn, but one of them I watched on an black-and-white Olympic-TV screen, and I can still see the ball flying toward the left-field wall of Ebbets Field, and hear the words in which Scully declared a historic moment:

"And the kid has hit one!"

Demeter was 21. Scully was 28. I was seven.

It shouldn't have surprised me, then, that when, during one of those CBS Word Series broadcasts Vin mentioned Ebbets Field, paused, and parenthetically inserted "dear old Ebbets Field," I nearly began to cry - the way that a college teacher of mine once told me he "wanted to weep" each time that Holden Caulfield mentioned "old Phoebe," his little sister,

I 've been told by people who've known him that Vin Scully is a very nice and even modest man, who, for all the years spent in the fishbowl of broadcasting, has tried to guard his privacy and remained reticent about the events of his life, including his spot in the middle of the most wrenching event in the history of American sports, the Dodgers' once unimaginable abandonment of Brooklyn. This spring Curt Smith, a onetime presidential speechwriter who has fashioned a second career writing about baseball and its broadcasters, published a biography of Scully in which its subject had no participation or interest. There are things in this book, aptly titled Pull Up a Chair for Scully's characteristic first-inning suggestion, that I have learned elsewhere and written about in my own recent book: that Vin came of age in Manhattan's Washington Heights, played centerfield at Fordham, was hired by the august Red Barber to air college football, then Brooklyn baseball in a ballpark that he had never seen. But, myself the son of Irish immigrants to New York, I did not know and was intrigued to find out that his mother and father had come together out of County Cavan, that Vincent, his father, had died when the boy was five, and that Bridget, his mother, had afterward sailed with her child back to the old country. And I was reminded, self-indulgent though it may seem, how thoroughly Irish a man is Vin Scully in every feature of his ruddy face, in every word on his descriptive tongue, in every narrative and witty turn of his discourse, in his fondness for poetry and, away from the ballpark, his constant readiness to sing a song. And of course, being Irish, he is reluctant to talk about his personal past, especially the chapters darkened by deep sadness, or, God help us, by any tint of shame.

Vin Scully, if he is as decent a man as I think he is, must know that the Dodgers' flight from Brooklyn for 300 acres of central Los Angeles was a shameful maneuver. He must know this although he has basked for half a century in the western sun, embraced and been embraced by the California Southland, become, in fact, one of the most popular personalities who ever lived there. Yet I don't believe that he has ever said a public word acknowledging that shame. This is not to say that it was his. He has always said that he was glad to keep his job, albeit a continent away from all, except for that stint in Cavan, that he had ever known. I do remember once, in a conversation with the New York radio host Jonathan Schwartz, his reference to the emotional difficulty of the move. I liked that fine, but waited in vain for him to offer some further, heartfelt commentary to his New York audience.

The shame was mainly Walter O'Malley's, probably the only owner in sports ambitious, duplicitous and greedy enough to uproot the most financially successful franchise in his game. It is not for any man to deny any other man his friends, and Walter O'Malley was more than a friend to Vin Scully. He was, like his actual stepfather, like Red Barber - Scully said so -- a surrogate father to him. Vin apparently loved him, and love has its own rules. And it is not Irish, except maybe for the Playboy of the Western World, to attack your own Da. O'Malley's own father was a ruthless crook, but the son remained close to him while he lived and afterward spoke of him with affection.

Walter, for all his well-rehearsed blather, was not a full-blooded Irishman, nor was he, as he liked to call himself, "a Brooklyn man." Scully is the first but not the latter. Both had grown up in other boroughs rooting for the Giants, and, as near as I can tell, Vin never lived in Brooklyn. (O'Malley did.). He had not even visited the borough before 1950, and, sincere and gracious as the memories he expresses may be, it would not surprise me to find that his not set a foot here since 1957. To him the Brooklyn Dodgers are a lovely toy to play with in his memory, an historical artifact owned and coddled by the Dodgers of Los Angeles, not a lost and irreplaceable experience, as they are to their old devotees who may live anywhere but are rooted in Brooklyn.

Lately, to my amazement, I have found Vin Scully's voice, lovely still but flatter, more perfunctory now, on the internet. I will keep on listening, and wish that once, before he calls his last pitch, he will hear the better angels of his Irish nature, and say to Brooklyn, "I know that what the Dodgers did to you was awful, and I'm sorry for your trouble."