Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story
By Curt Smith
(Potomac Books, 263 pages, $29.95)
It was a close thing recommending Pull Up a Chair to TAS readers. I’m finally doing so because of the book’s subject, not because of its execution (which, several times while reading the book, I was in favor of). Vin Scully deserves a better biography, and we can hope one day he’ll get one.
First, the most startling thing was to learn that Curt Smith’s Pull Up a Chair is the first book written about Vin Scully, who is, by nearly universal agreement, the best baseball announcer to draw breath. And one of the most pleasing storytellers in the history of the world. The luxurious pace of baseball requires a storyteller to bring the game to full life, and Scully is the best.
Few who’ve had the pleasure of listening to Scully draw a word-picture of a baseball game on a summer night will argue with this summation. He can be eloquent and elegant, poetic but accessible, conversational but erudite. He has the sense of timing and drama and humor to give listeners the full import of the moment without yelling at them or hyping.
Scully’s is a soothing sound. He always talks directly to the listener, not to a beefy guy wearing a tie in the booth with him (at least partly because Scully usually works alone — he’s his own color man — but even when he has someone with him he talks to the person listening to the radio or TV). He’s the listener’s mature and gentlemanly friend, sharing the accounts of a ballgame, as well as the occasional musing on the nature of things.
Almost invariably it’s, “Hi again, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be.” And then the magic begins. And the magic is there whether the Dodgers are in first place or in last, whether they’re prevailing that evening or getting hammered.
Smith relates perhaps the most dramatic testimonial to how Scully can make baseball into music. In the early nineties, Ray Charles told Bob Costas that Scully was the man Charles would most like to meet. Why Scully?
“You’ve got to remember that to me the picture doesn’t mean anything,” said Charles, blind since age seven. “It’s all about the sound.”
Costas arranged the meet at Dodger Stadium and the two got on famously. “Vin was, of course, very gracious, and certainly had an appreciation of who Ray Charles was,” Costas said. “Ray was like a little kid taken to see Santa Claus. He was just beside himself, clapping his hands, and throwing his head back.”
Two great stylists, enjoying each other’s company.
In one of his dopey movies, Woody Allen’s character says, “The only cultural advantage to Los Angeles is that you can turn right on red.” Wrong again, Woody. The only cultural advantage to LaLa Land is Vin Scully on the summer airwaves. He’s one of the few adults in the entire L.A. Basin, and perhaps the only one there who’s consistently listened to. If Los Angeles has a heaven (there are diverse opinions on this), Scully is its constant star.
For a few seasons in the eighties and nineties Scully announced baseball’s Saturday “Game of the Week” in addition to Dodger games during the week. He’s done the World Series a few times. He’s even taken a few turns doing NFL games and some golf tournaments. But Scully is essentially a baseball man, and the bulk of his long career has been as an announcer for the Dodgers, beginning in Brooklyn, and for the team’s entire history in Los Angeles. He took over as top Dodger banana after Red Barber and the Dodgers parted company in a somewhat scratchy divorce in 1953. Scully was a talented 25 year-old with some game then, but still with lots to learn. Now he’s an 81 year-old master, still at the height of his considerable powers. (No job-hopper is our Vin.)
Scully’s contributions to his sport, to his community, and to the language (which he uses and treats with great respect) have not gone unnoticed. He’s won every award for announcing there is to win. When sportswriters or broadcasters rank play-by-play announcers, Scully is always where he belongs, at the very top. He was elected to the announcers’ branch of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. He’s been awarded at least one honorary doctorate of humane letters (from Fordham — his alma mater). Small groups of college students, from Fordham and Pepperdine, have been fortunate enough to hear commencement speeches from Scully instead of from the honored drudges, politicians, or show-biz airheads who so often pull these assignments.
In Pull Up a Chair readers will learn the history I’ve lightly brushed above, as well as about the Bronx youngster you used to sit by the family radio listening to the crowd roaring at sports events and who decided in grade school that he wanted to be a sports announcer. Also about the good-field, not-much-hit center-fielder for the Fordham baseball team who learned it was a good thing he wanted to be an announcer because he wasn’t going to make The Show as a player. There are also the tragedies in Scully’s life, the death of his first wife, and later of a 33 year-old son.
Chair also outlines the developments as well as the clashes and conflicts in baseball during Scully’s long career. There were the franchise moves, including baseball’s Manifest Destiny, the dramatic expansion of baseball to the West Coast. There were strikes and rumors of strikes. Drugs and skyrocketing player salaries. The marketing struggles between baseball and other sports. There were the personalities, great and not so great, on the field and in the booth. They’re all in Chair.
Unfortunately, Smith gives us a wealth of good information in a pedestrian writing style, clipped and choppy and occasionally incoherent. He sometimes changes subject in the middle of a paragraph. There are quotes where it’s hard to tell who is being quoted. Smith often uses a quirky kind of shorthand, full of words followed by colons, so that the book sometimes has the feel of a Power Point presentation rather than a coherent, flowing narrative. The reader has to work harder than he should have to in order to get the sense of Smith’s presentation. Just the opposite of listening to Scully.
Another weakness of the book is that it doesn’t include much directly from Scully himself. Smith states in his introduction that he talked to Scully for previous books. But there’s little evidence in Chair that Smith spent much or any time with Scully on this project. As a result the book is thin on Scully’s thoughts on or feelings about the history Smith relates.
But the book has its strengths, including quotes from players, sports writers, and other announcers about Scully and his manifold skills and virtues. There are also a few direct transcriptions of Scully’s calls, including two of his best: the final inning of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game at Dodger Stadium in 1965, and Kirk Gibson’s dramatic, pinch-hit, walk-off home run to win the first game of the 1988 World Series.
Here’s what Salon.com’s Gary Kaufman said after reading a transcript of Scully’ call of Koufax’s perfect ninth:
It read like a short story. It had tension, rising and falling drama, great turns of phrase. It was, and still is, the best piece of baseball writing I’ve even seen. And it came off the top of his head, at a moment, when, like the man whose feat he was describing, he knew he had to be at the top of his game. I’ve since heard a tape of that half-inning. There’s not a single misstep.
There have been very few missteps in the almost 60-year career (don’t adjust your computer — that’s correct — almost 60 years) of Vincent Edward Scully. That’s probably why when fans or writers have been polled over the years on who their favorite Dodger is, the answer come up not Koufax, or Snider, or Wills, or Drysdale, or (heaven forefend) Ramirez. The answer almost always is Scully. That’s the kind of bond Scully has created with his millions of listeners over more than half a century. (And the gentlemanly Scully, it’s universally reported, is always polite and accommodating to his many fans who approach him in public for autographs, to be photographed with him, or to just share a moment with him.)
For those not familiar with Scully’s work, who might wonder if anyone could possibly be as good as everyone says Scully is, I invite you to visit You Tube and listen to the Red Head in action. Googling Vin Scully turns up other audio, including the call of Koufax’s perfect ninth. You listen. You decide.
Keep on talking, Red Head. It will be a long time before we’re ready to quit listening.