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Vin Scully Was Part of the Baseball Fan’s Family

The former Dodgers broadcaster died Tuesday at 94 years old. But in 67 years of calling games, his voice became a staple for generations of fans, and countless memorable moments.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Three generations ago, back when baseball was the biggest sport in the country and radio and TV broadcasts were a staple of American life, local announcers became part of the family. They were there at the dinner table, on the porch, in your car, in your living room, on the headphones of your wireless set while you tried to catch the end of a West Coast game past your bedtime.

And because of baseball’s quotidian, almost tedious nature, it was the same voice six days a week, six months out of the year. That’s the voice that taught children the game, rocked tired adults to sleep after a hard day of work, narrated the imagined fantasy of grade schoolers throwing tennis balls at the shed, pretending to close out Game 7 of the World Series.

The most common and beloved embodiment of that voice died Tuesday. Vin Scully was 94 years old, and he spent 67 of those years calling games for the Brooklyn, and later Los Angeles, Dodgers, and nationally for CBS and NBC. He was the dean of a generation of broadcasters who shepherded baseball into the age of mass media and nationwide expansion—the ones who created the vocabulary, the tone, the tableau for millions and millions of fans across decades.

Scully’s work in national broadcasting, and the Dodgers’ massive popularity, brought him into more homes than any other baseball broadcaster of his kind, and his unique longevity kept him there for longer. Scully, working alone late into his 80s in contravention of the contemporary two- or three-person broadcast booth, became not just the voice of baseball for Dodgers fans, but MLB’s folklorist-in-residence, a one-man history museum, and the man who told night owls with that it was time to shut off the computer and go to bed.

That Scully, who cut his teeth calling Jackie Robinson’s and Duke Snider’s glory years, would work well into the age of streaming media defies imagination. But it turned him into an almost godlike figure, a man who’d flit from era to era before our very eyes.

My favorite Scully call came at one of the lowest-stakes moments of his career, a spring training game in 2008, when a 19-year-old Clayton Kershaw snapped off a curveball and transmogrified Sean Casey into pudding.

“Awww, what a curveball,” Scully said, fighting through laughter. “Holy mackerel! He just broke off public enemy no. 1.”

It was a perfect Scully narration, inventive but parsimonious, and delivered with the joy of a man who somehow still cared enough to bring his A-game to spring training almost 60 years into his career. More than that, it anointed Kershaw, who’d go on to become the best pitcher of his era, as something special. Scully had seen everything by this point; I wasn’t a Dodgers fan, but I’d nonetheless committed his calls of the 1955 World Series and Sandy Koufax’s perfect game to memory as articles of baseball scripture. And yet he still had the capacity not only to recognize Kershaw’s greatness from the start, but to be amazed by it long after most announcers became jaded. Ultimately, Kershaw would become the last Dodgers great whose career would be defined by Scully’s narration.

Because that’s what Scully did—defined players, icons, Hall of Famers in their own right, by the dozens. He was the sound of Don Drysdale’s record-setting scoreless innings streak, and of when Orel Hershiser broke the record 20 years later. He could link Kershaw to Koufax, and Fernandomania to Hideo Nomo. When you imagine Kirk Gibson taking Dennis Eckersley deep, the accompanying audio is Scully’s voice.

That’s the voice that, like a family heirloom, gets passed from parent to child as the sound of baseball. These events, and Scully’s accounts of them, are precious to Dodger fans in particular, and I concede that as an outsider I don’t know their particular sorrow right now.

But each MLB city has or had its own beloved local announcer, and losing that voice can be a moment of profound shared trauma. I remember vividly the piercing sadness and warm nostalgia that followed the sudden death of Phillies announcer Harry Kalas—the voice of baseball in my childhood—in 2009. It felt like the loss of a family member, because it was. Back before the internet thrust the word “parasocial” into common use, announcers became equal parts friendly neighbor, stepfather, imaginary best friend. Ask a Tigers fan about Ernie Harwell or a Mariners fan about Dave Niehaus, and they’ll tell you the same story.

Multiply that feeling of loss by Scully’s immense stature and popularity, and it makes sense that every MLB broadcast Tuesday night immediately turned into an impromptu wake. Few figures in baseball history have touched or inspired so many inside and outside the game directly. And the immediate sadness of Scully’s death is leavened by the sheer volume of good times to remember.

One of Scully’s greatest moments didn’t involve the Dodgers at all; he was on the mic for NBC during the famous and preposterous bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series—the Bill Buckner game.

His call of Mookie Wilson’s grounder was beautifully idiosyncratic—“little roller up along first”—and then came the sudden crescendo of “behind the bag!” as Scully realized the ball, and perhaps the championship, had squirmed between Buckner’s legs. Shock and excitement twisted the “a” sound in “bag” into something more like an “e”; these are the quirks that made Scully and his generation so memorable and human—quirks that, nowadays, are sanded off of aspiring broadcasters at Syracuse or Northwestern or wherever they’re manufactured.

After Ray Knight skipped home—“here comes Knight, and the Mets win it!”—the legendary announcer said absolutely nothing for a minute and 47 seconds. There was nothing he could have said that would have added to the shock and wonder of the moment. Not even an “I don’t believe it!” or some other exhortation, the absence of which feels conspicuous on repeated listening. He added what he could, and let the viewer fill in the blanks.

When Scully finally piped back up, he expressed a sentiment that’s ironic for someone who’d broken into the sports world as a radio announcer: “If one picture is worth a thousand words, you have seen about a million words.”

Nowadays, we take the pictures for granted. But no one who loved Scully would say the same about the words.