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Verbal Energy

Vin Scully’s music – and his silences

The longtime voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers sometimes broadcast the game by knowing when to shut up.

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    Retiring Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully smiles as he answers questions from the media during a news conference at Dodger Stadium before a baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Colorado Rockies on Sept. 24, 2016, in Los Angeles.
    Jae C. Hong/AP
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There are occasionally people of whom one can say, “He’s been doing x since before I was born.” In the case of Vin Scully, it’s literally true.

Mr. Scully, who called his last game earlier this month, was the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers for 67 years.

When Scully started out, they were still the Brooklyn Dodgers – in reference to the “maze of trolleys” that Brooklynites were always dodging. Harry Truman was in the White House then, and the American flag had 48 stars.

Is there any more characteristically American bit of soundscape than the broadcast of a baseball game? During my southern California childhood, I spent a lot of time in the back seat of a station wagon plying the freeways, with Scully’s voice coming out of the radio. And then on return visits in later years, in later decades, that voice was still there. 

He was what baseball sounded like.

The onetime barbershop tenor has been hailed for his musicality. Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Erskine once wrote that Scully used his voice “like a horn, to serenade an antebellum sport that is too slow by half and make musical the specter of grown men mostly standing around for three hours.” 

But he could be silent, too. Unusual in having no partner in the booth with him, he sometimes broadcast a game by holding his tongue.

In an interview with David Greene of NPR a few weeks ago, Scully recalled “the most important run” he ever called – the one in 1974 with which Henry “Hank” Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record. 

“The first thing I did was shut up,” Scully said, because the crowd just “went bananas” in that stadium in Atlanta. “His family was coming out onto the field, and firecrackers were going off. So there were no words for me to express at all. And I got up from the table and went to the back of the room and let them roar.” 

Baseball Nation knew that Aaron’s homer No. 715 was likely to come sooner or later. But Scully told Mr. Greene he never scripted big moments in advance: “I have never, ever prepared to say something about an event that might occur because I might be so interested in displaying my pearls of wisdom that I might do it prematurely, and it doesn’t work.”

Instead, he let the words well up in the space formed by the moment. 

And what welled up at that moment was this: “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world ...”

As Scully suggested to Greene, “That a black man in the Deep South was being honored for breaking the record of a white icon” was a triumph for Aaron, but really for everyone else, too.

To ask about who will come after Scully is to recall Thomas Jefferson’s line about following Benjamin Franklin as American minister to France: Scully will be succeeded by a bright young comer named Joe Davis. But he will never quite be replaced.

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