As World Series season concludes and we baseball fans go into winter hibernation, what might we better take with us into our caves than a good book about a baseball broadcast legend?
Last New Year’s night, the love of my life (a fellow radio reporter and baseball junkie) and I watched as Major League Baseball’s MLB Network debuted by airing the long-lost kinescope of Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game, called on NBC Television by the Yankees’ Mel Allen and the Dodgers’ Vin Scully.
Recommended reading for baseball/broadcast fans left in the cold by the end of another season. Hearing Allen call the first part of the game, solo, was a treat. But as Scully called the second part, also on his own, she and I sat there, mouths open, thinking the same thing at the same time: “My God. He sounds exactly the same as he does today!”
Call it comfort food for the ear; but whenever I hear Vin Scully, it’s like listening to an old friend tell you “Hey, come on over. Pull up a chair. Let me tell you a story.”
Hence the title of Curt Smith’s 2009 book, “Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story.”
Smith’s been writing about baseball and broadcasting for decades; for Scully fans, his book may be a dream come true.
Disclaimer: Smith is a friend of mine, and two of my stories about Scully appear in this book.
First, let me tell you about what this book isn’t.
We learn about Scully’s upbringing and how he grew into baseball broadcasting, but Smith glosses over many personal details of the Dodger years, for example, barely mentioning that Scully was widowed at age 35 and was left to raise three young children, or that his son later died in a helicopter crash. Both are mentioned more as asides rather than as central to the man’s life. We learn that Scully decided after his wife’s death to cut back on his exhaustive workload, but we have no insight into whether he agonized about having been away from home so much before, or how the death of his son affected him.
I was disappointed but not surprised to come away with little feeling for Scully, human being. It’s not that kind of book.
But if you’re looking for a detailed account of Scully’s professional life and achievements, especially his nearly 60 years with the Dodgers, this is it.
Every time I find myself watching or listening to a Dodger game, I ask a simple question: Does he ever make a mistake? The man is smooth. I think I could count the number of mistakes I’ve heard on, perhaps, half a hand. Of course, he is human, and Smith recounts Scully bloopers from very early in his career. They may be the last mistakes he made.
Scully works alone. Some of his innings are simulcast on Dodgers radio and TV. If you’re watching the TV side, you can tell which innings are and aren’t simulcast by the amount of detail he provides. Except for network gigs, he’s insisted on working alone because he feels it gives him a better bond with his audience. I believe he is the last baseball announcer to fly solo in the majors.
Vin Scully paints a word picture like no other broadcaster. The consummate radio guy.
But his style is more than that. He weaves through multiple plot lines during a Dodger game, telling stories without ever detracting from what happens on the field. When I think of master radio storytellers, I think of Jean Shepherd, Paul Harvey and Vin Scully — all tied for first. Engaging, interesting, eloquent, funny, clever. And their specialty? Speak to the listener, one to one.
Others have imitated Scully, literally, like Jon Miller of ESPN and the Giants, and figuratively, by following his example.
Seattle Mariners Hall of Fame broadcaster Dave Niehaus tells Smith that he learned to adopt Scully’s “posture of don’t cheerlead (for a good team) or make excuses (for a bad one).” Wow, what a concept. Scully knows his audience is the Dodger fan but he always seems to tell the story, straight.
Dodgers fans might be shocked to know that Scully, a native New Yorker, grew up a Giants fan.
It’s widely known that Hall of Famer Red Barber hired Scully for CBS Radio and later the Brooklyn Dodgers. Barber didn’t necessarily teach him how to broadcast, writes Smith in Scully’s voice, but did teach him about work ethic and attitude.
What you may not know is that Scully was hired in 1950 to replace another Hall of Famer, Ernie Harwell, who went to the New York Giants, Baltimore Orioles and later, most famously, the Detroit Tigers. Harwell mentored him through his early baseball years.
In a 1952 game, Scully called a home run by a childhood friend from the Bronx. Larry Miggins and Scully had told each other of their ambitions, respectively, to play and broadcast major league baseball, wondering about the odds of either of them realizing the dream. Scully broadcast one of Miggins two big-league homers.
During the late 1950s and early ’60s in Los Angeles, Scully probably had more to do with the boom in transistor radio sales than anyone else in the business (younger readers, ask mom and dad about transistor radios).
Dodgers fans brought radios to the game at the old Coliseum, because the seats were far from the action and they needed to know what was going on. When Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, they still brought their radios to the game.
Smith says he worked on this book, in some ways, for decades. He’d written about Scully in previous books, including “Voices of Summer,” in which he ranks Scully as the best baseball play-by-play broadcaster of all time. Few would disagree.
The author says he called Scully several years ago to tell him about this book; he says that his subject was “polite and graceful” but insisted he’d never write his own biography or cooperate with publishing an “authorized” version of his life. Smith says he didn’t ask for new interviews — “I assumed the answer would be ‘no.’ I took him at his word” — but Smith has interviewed Scully many times over the years and while some of the material here has appeared in previous Smith books, “Pull Up A Chair” is not a rehash of published material.
Author Curt Smith Most of the book is celebratory, but there are some black marks, particularly Scully’s dismay at having to share the World Series microphones with NBC’s Curt Gowdy in the 1966 classic.
Previously, a “voice” from each participating team had worked the booth, but starting in ’66, NBC reserved the right to showcase its own announcer, and the home team voices would do only half the play by play on TV (providing color for the rest of the game), while the visiting team’s announcer would work NBC Radio.
Scully hated the new rules, gave Gowdy the cold shoulder and didn’t broadcast another Series until 1974, the next time the Dodgers made it. When ABC and NBC split the baseball contract starting with the 1977 World Series, they completely shut out the home-team announcers from Series broadcasts.
Scully would have the last laugh, in a way, returning to the network scene, but teamed with partners all the way: Joe Garagiola on NBC’s “Game of the Week” from 1983–89 (three World Series) and Sparky Anderson and others on 14 CBS Radio World Series ‘casts during the ’70s through the ’90s.
There were also non-baseball activities, mostly TV; game shows (“It Takes Two” on NBC), a talk show on CBS, golf and the NFL (on CBS, where he lost out to Pat Summerall on doing the Super Bowl) as well as an almost-offer to do ABC’s Monday Night Football at a time when he’d decided he was spending too much time away from home.
For the most part, it’s always been about baseball.
The book, published by Potomac Books, retails for $29.95 and was available online at press time for around $19.
Compared to Curt Smith’s earlier book “The Voice: Mel Allen’s Untold Story,” this is an easier read. Smith is as literary in his written style as is Scully with the spoken word, though in the Allen book he got lost in his own prose and multiple metaphors that only confused some readers.
This time he hasn’t tried to outdo himself, and he hit’s a home run.
As much as I wish this has been a more personal book, it’s Smith’s book, not mine, and he has clearly accomplished what he set out to do. Pull up a chair and enjoy some great off-season reading.
Peter King is a staff correspondent for CBS News Radio based in Orlando and the Kennedy Space Center. He’s a lifetime Met fan. Contact him at[email protected].