Several decades into the baseball broadcasting career that would define him as an American treasure, Vin Scully served as the voice for many other events.
A master of urbane observation — he could describe a beer-pong contest and grace the competition with a veneer of nobility — Scully was not above schlock. He served as emcee of the deservedly forgotten NBC game show “It Takes Two” for a couple of seasons and later took on the yeoman task of keeping a straight face while hosting CBS’ “Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes.”
Scully might be more proud of his work covering the PGA Tour and the NFL. He was considered for the role as first play-by-play announcer on Monday Night Fooball — it would go to Keith Jackson — but when 49ers quarterback Joe Montana threw the touchdown pass to Dwight Clark that beat the Cowboys in the epic 1982 NFC title game, Scully was behind the microphone.
“Looking … looking, throwing it into the end zone … Clark caught it!” Scully shouted over the din of screaming San Francisco fans. “It’s a madhouse at Candlestick!”
Scully was a very good NFL play-by-play man — of course he was, he’s Vin Scully — but the frenetic pace of a football telecast, six-second bursts of action often followed by replays requiring the analysis of a color commentator, was at odds with his gift for storytelling.
Baseball’s origins from the early 19th century remain vague and likely never will be traced to anything beyond a myth. But this we know: The confrontation between pitcher and batter, which can be as plodding as a chess match, wasn’t established with the idea that Vin Scully would give a voice to those confrontations for 67 seasons.
It just turned out that way.
Baseball is called a “thinking person’s sport,” and though the game involves more thinking than, say, “Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes,” a more accurate term is “talking person’s sport.”
There’s a casual flow to baseball, a lull between every pitch, so conversations are natural. Scully got it. Since 1950, he’s been talking with Dodgers fans the same way Dave Niehaus once talked with Mariners fans. No matter if there were 10,000 or 100,000 or 1 million others in the audience, Scully (and Niehaus, rest his soul) connected with you and me as if we were at a table for three for lunch.
The connection is steeped in a kind of antiquated premise that while this crazy, mixed-up world is going full speed, there’s still time for reflection. What poses a better opportunity to reflect than a three-hour baseball game?
Last season, during a July 4 broadcast, Scully provided a history lesson on the American flag. He did this in leisurely increments: some facts about Francis Scott Key’s inspiration to write the lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner” one inning, and Betsy Ross’ disputed legend as the first flag’s seamstress the next. (Betsy Ross is to American flag, apparently, what Abner Doubleday is to baseball).
Scully pointed out that when Alaska and Hawaii gained statehood status in 1959, president Dwight Eisenhower opened what amounted to a national competition over new design for a 50-star flag. An entry that won was submitted by a 17-year-old student in Ohio, who had drawn it for a high school class project.
His teacher gave him a B-minus.
The fun of listening to Scully veer off into “where-is-this-going?” territory is how he seamlessly weaves thoughts unrelated to baseball into the actual baseball game.
Telling a story about Satchel Paige winning an accuracy-throw bet with Whitey Herzog when they were minor league teammates in Miami, or how well-traveled outfielder Johnny Gomes once was attacked by a wolf, Scully acknowledges there’s a game being played in real time.
“Another foul ball, the count stays at 2-2,” he’d say. “So anyway, there’s this wolf on top of Gomes …”
Scully will call his last home game Sunday, and though the Dodgers are playoff bound, he’s retiring at the conclusion of their regular season, next weekend, in San Francisco.
He leaves baseball as the last of his kind, the broadcaster who deemed fastball velocity and breaking-ball location as details insignificant in the big picture.
Johnny Gomes’ solution to surviving the wolf intent on devouring him? He played dead. The wolf lost interest.
Low and a bit outside, ball three.