Tributes to Vin Scully remind us of our love for the game — and the voices who became a part of our lives
If Scully ever really considered himself the greatest of all time, he never let on. He was truly a humble man with a great gift — the ability to spin a story while calling a baseball game and paint a picture that made you feel you were in the ballpark watching along with him.
The Chicago Cubs paid homage to the late Vin Scully on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, showing the video of his seventh-inning stretch performance from 1998.
That was the first season after Harry Caray’s death, when the Cubs began asking guest performers to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in honor of the legendary broadcaster. The Cubs decided to keep the tradition after ‘98, and now every celebrity who comes to town with something to promote has been asked to sing at Wrigley, some on multiple occasions.
But Scully never did it again in his many return trips before his retirement in 2016. Before a game at Dodger Stadium once, I asked him why he declined the Cubs’ invitation.
“I did it once for Harry,” Scully replied. “If I did it twice, it would be doing it for me, and that wouldn’t be right.”
That was typical of Scully, a legend who never bought into the hype surrounding him.
Like Caray, Scully was bombarded by well-wishers wanting to thank him and tell him how much a part of their lives he was. At some point you’d think that constant ego massaging by fans would make his head swell, as I’ve seen happen to other broadcasters with far less talent.
If Scully ever really considered himself the greatest of all time, he never let on. He was sincere when he said upon retirement he would miss the fans more than they would miss him. Scully was truly a humble man with a great gift — the ability to spin a story while calling a baseball game and paint a picture that made you feel you were in the ballpark watching along with him.
Baseball has a lot of talkers in TV and radio booths these days. Some of them don’t know when to shut up. But there are relatively few painters, the ones who understand the broadcast is about the game and not themselves.
We’re fortunate to have one of them in Chicago in Cubs radio voice Pat Hughes, who continues to be at the top of his game at age 67, with no signs of slowing down. Cherish the painters while you can, because they’re not easily replaced.
Scully lasted 67 years in the business, a record that likely will never be topped. Was he was as smooth in his 80s as he was as a young buck with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s? Maybe not, but he was still the best in the business and a voice that will live on years from now, like Caray and a few other immortals.
After Scully’s death Tuesday, a friend who once covered the media in Los Angeles posted a story on Facebook mentioning her editors had once asked her to write a column saying Scully was too old and making many more mistakes during games. It was sure to provoke controversy, tearing down the Dodgers legend.
But she refused because it wasn’t true — and because she felt “Vin was special.” It reminded me of Caray’s final years with the Cubs, when some writers made it a habit to point out every mistake he made during a broadcast, hoping to force him out of the booth.
In the final print interview before he died in 1998, I asked Carry how he dealt with that criticism.
“I think it’s strange, but what difference does it make?” he said. “Sure, it hurts me. ... But this ‘mispronouncing names’ stuff is such a crock. I really do it intentionally at times, just to see somebody mention it in his column.”
Scully and Caray were quite different in their approaches. But they became two of the most beloved broadcasters of all time and the game’s greatest ambassadors. The Dodgers’ celebration of Scully on Friday night and the many tributes on ESPN, MLB Network and elsewhere remind us not only of how much we loved listening to his voice but how much we love the game, despite all its faults.
We didn’t get to hear Scully in Chicago unless it was a national broadcast, but he seemed to have an affinity for our town after calling so many games at Wrigley Field. After growing up following the New York Giants in the Polo Grounds and starting out with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, it’s no surprise he always had a soft spot for Wrigley.
Scully’s ode to Wrigley during the start of the 1989 National League Championship Series between the Cubs and San Francisco Giants remains a classic that still can be viewed on YouTube.
It ends with a photo of a rainbow over Wrigley and Scully describing the pain of the Cubs 1984 playoff collapse from the ballpark’s perspective, ending with the hopeful line: “This time, this time it will be better.”
“To me there’s always been something special about Wrigley Field,” Scully once said. “I refer to the ballpark as the dowager queen of the National League. I refer to the lights as a lady in black in evening, wearing pearls. Every time I come to this ballpark, I seem to feel and see another image, and, above all, the enthusiasm of the crowd. It’s just a very special place.”
While the Wrigley video might have been scripted, Scully always spoke spontaneously during broadcasts. My colleague Dave Brown once asked him if he ever worked ahead mentally to form a phrase or have a line ready for a no-hitter or a milestone.
“Oh, no, I never do that,” Scully replied. “Ever. A lot of times, I wish I had the brains to do it in advance. No, I like to just do me. Whatever emotion I feel, whatever thought have, sometimes it comes out, sometimes there’s nothing.”
Baseball is a thrill ride of emotional swings, even during games when it seems like nothing is happening. Shortly after Friday’s showing of Scully’s seventh-inning stretch performance on the left-field video board, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras woke up the crowd with a go-ahead, two-run home run against the Miami Marlins in his return following a prolonged trade-deadline drama.
The ballpark erupted, and for one brief moment in a difficult season, there was reason to celebrate.
Those moments are why we still watch, and listen, to a struggling team woefully out of contention. The voices of the game are often as important as the players, providing a soundtrack that lives on in our memories long after we’ve forgotten that particulars of a game, or a season.
Like Caray, Scully’s contribution to the game never can be overstated. We were lucky to have them in our lives, like old friends who never let us down.
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