Some of the more fortunate among us were born and raised in Southern California. But the truly lucky did all that while also being Americanized by the voices of Vin Scully and Chick Hearn. The former moved from Brooklyn with the Dodgers and he’s been calling their games ever since. Now in his mid-seventies he’s without a doubt the greatest baseball announcer there ever was and ever will be, an artist and craftsman as great and democratic in his way as any combination of Caruso, Pavarotti, Rembrandt, Monet, Homer, Shakespeare, Sandy Koufax, Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron. He is, for starters, gentlemanly, cultivated, well-spoken, engaging, charming — and consummately professional. In his telling, each game is a unique event in a season that will prove unique, and so on and on year after year, decade after decade, and he’s been there to capture the flow of each phase and recapitulate its turning points, or squandered opportunities, or heroic or sometimes fluke recoveries. Better than anyone he captured the rhythm of baseball and its natural place in American daily life — at least when it was still a game and thus a way of life.
Early on L.A. fans understood that the worst thing about going to a Dodger game was not being able to listen to Scully describe it. So they began to bring transistor radios to the Coliseum, even before the move to Dodger Stadium, so as not to miss an inning in his company.
This isn’t really the time to write about Scully, but he’s been in the news since the death Monday of his longtime L.A. Laker counterpart, Chick Hearn. His tribute to Hearn was characteristically gracious — if a reflection of everything that could be said about him as well:
“Though we have lost a dear friend and a true broadcasting legend today, I would like to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for having been able to enjoy his work for all these years. Chick had immense talent that was driven by a tremendous work ethic and an insurmountable passion for the game and his trade. His personality, character and professionalism will be greatly missed, yet his spirit, importance and impact will live forever.”
And no doubt it wasn’t for Scully to note that Hearn was never really thought to be in his class — Scully has never been one to draw attention to himself, the very thing Hearn thrived on. In retrospect, though, it’s easy to see how the two complemented one another. Scully arrived in Southern California as a representative of the national pastime. Hearn joined the Lakers a few years later when professional basketball was still a secondary sport; without the huckster element he provided it might never have taken root in the nation’s entertainment capital. But in a day when most games were never televised, his brilliance over the radio captured imaginations in a way no highlight reel of Michael Jordan ever will.
It all began with a rat-a-tat delivery that could keep pace with a fast moving game, and a clear, confident seeing-eye voice that didn’t miss a thing. His spontaneous imagination created a vivid lexicon for a rising sport. Tuesday’s obits mentioned some, and others come to mind. Dribbling the basketball he called “yo-yoing the ball” — though I seem to recall his use of “tattooing the ball to the floor” to describe Oscar Robertson’s style of dribbling, which perhaps only Magic Johnson has emulated since. He invented the term “air ball” for a shot that didn’t draw iron. Wilt Chamberlain’s awkward reachout shot was a “finger-roll.” A pass to the low post was “in deep.” A pass to a streaking dunker was an “alley-oop.” “Slam dunk” was an early Hearnism. “In-and-out, heartbreak shot,” spoke for itself. So did “it’s good if it goes” apropos a would-be buzzer beater, Jerry West was, who else, “Mr. Clutch.”
Eventually Hearn invented the “simulcast,” broadcasting at once for radio and television. Here he clearly outdid Scully, who knows better than to waste his descriptive gifts on a camera-dominated setting. To his credit as well, Hearn’s language was all his own. You’d never hear him say, “he eyes it, flies it.” But you would hear him repeat, however nonsensically, “The Lakers are going left to right across your radio dial.” My best friend recalls the time Wilt Chamberlain and gangly 7-footer Mel Counts collided and fell to hardwood. “There’s 14 feet of basketball players on the floor,” he quickly remarked. When someone quipped that the high-jumping Chamberlain could grab a quarter from the top of the backboard, he added, “Yeah, and leave 16 cents change.”
Where Scully has gotten along famously with sidekicks, it took the longest time for Hearn to accept anyone as a junior partner. He was showtime in Laker Los Angeles long before Jack Nicholson, Dyan Cannon and the Laker girls LaLa-ed the franchise. My friend recalls how Hearn would interview someone on TV by thrusting a mike in front of him, ask the question, and roll his eyes around the arena while the fellow tried to answer. He liked to tease in a not always charming way — but woe to the anyone who teased back. Hot Rod Hundley lasted maybe one season with him as color man, before moving on to become lead announcer for the now Utah Jazz. On air he’d always call Hearn “Chickie Babe.” No one has since.
In a performance Silent Cal Ripken could not have pulled off even if his mouth had been his bat and glove, Iron Man Hearn broadcast 3,338 consecutive games for the Lakers into last season. It was an unthinkable achievement, by a man who at age 85 was not about to retire. He was smart to know he had no other life.