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THE SATURDAY READ

Book review: 'Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story' by Curt Smith

The voice is familiar, but the man behind it proves ever elusive.

June 06, 2009|Josh Getlin

In the summer of 1974, Eric Neel was a 6-year-old kid going through hard times: His parents were divorcing, and he was living with his grandfather in Los Angeles. The only thing that gave him solace was sitting on a small kitchen stool, listening to Vin Scully announcing Dodgers games.

"He'd say 'Hi again, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be,' and my life would come back on line," said Neel, now a senior writer for ESPN. "I swear the way [his] smooth, round Irish lilt wrapped itself around me, it promised, almost every summer night, to keep me safe."

Such is the primordial bond that Scully has forged with millions of listeners during his nearly 60-year career behind the microphone, and it is one of many poignant anecdotes in Curt Smith's "Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story." Smith, who wrote "Voices of the Game," a well-received history of baseball broadcasters, shows how Scully's legacy goes well beyond calling balls and strikes, and amounts to a special relationship with fans who can't imagine the game without him.

But those seeking deeper insights into the redheaded announcer will be disappointed. Scully, now 81, is a humble man and has long said he does not want a biography written about him. He did not cooperate with Smith, and the result is an engaging yet uneven book. The author relies on earlier interviews given by Scully as well as other sources to tell the story of a 22-year-old Bronx kid who made his debut in the Brooklyn Dodgers broadcasting booth alongside Red Barber in 1950. Smith recounts Scully's early years in Los Angeles, his rise in the radio and TV business, and his growth as an announcer whom many consider baseball's best.

Unfortunately, the human being behind the microphone gets lost in a maze of statistics and a writing style plagued by a bewildering shorthand. "In 1978," Smith writes, "the past year's plot reran: pennant, Classic loss, Porter on CBS, and Vin's Series MIA." (Translation: The Dodgers won the 1978 pennant, lost the World Series to the Yankees, Ross Porter called the games on CBS radio, but Scully did not broadcast them on ABC television.)

More important, there are only fleeting references to the wrenching tragedies in Scully's life, including the death of his first wife, Joan, in 1972, and the 1994 death of his eldest son, Michael, in a helicopter crash. The tantalizing question that millions of Los Angeles Dodgers fans have posed over the years -- Who is Vin Scully, really? -- remains unanswered.

In fairness, however, there is only so much a Scully biography can deliver. Words on a page could never fully describe the announcer's magical hold on fans, because it is an audio experience. Those who tune in to Dodgers broadcasts can savor this now, in the twilight of Scully's career. But for those aficionados who want to enjoy the full history of his 51 years in the City of Angels, the task is not easy.

There is no formal archive of Scully's broadcasts, an oversight that verges on a broadcasting felony. Though some fans have private recordings, there is only a handful of material publicly available. Listeners can find some of Scully's great moments -- Sandy Koufax's 1965 perfect game, Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series and other highlights -- on the Dodgers' and Major League Baseball's websites, on YouTube and in private collections. Yet much of this history has vanished into the ether.

It's not just a loss for baseball fans. Scully's uncanny ability to make a slow-moving, often arcane game come alive has become an art form unto itself and a source of pride for Angelenos. The art was apparent from the very beginning, when the Dodgers first took the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Fifty years ago, they improbably won the pennant and the World Series after a seventh-place finish the year before. Luckily, the radio highlights of that amazing season were preserved in "Dodgers '59," a special-edition LP that still pops up on EBay. This record, more than any words, can show future generations what the excitement was all about when Scully invited listeners before each game to "Pull up a chair."

"Koufax is going for all the marbles!" Scully marveled, as the young left-hander struck out 18 San Francisco Giants, tying Bob Feller's major league record. In another game -- when umpires initially ruled a Willie Mays drive down the left-field line a foul ball, then a home run and finally a ground-rule double -- Scully delivered a masterful, blow-by-blow account of an 18-minute rhubarb between the Dodgers and the Giants. "Alston is walking away like a Philadelphia lawyer who's just won his case!" he said when Mays was ordered to return to second base. "Boy, don't we have fun!" gushed Scully in yet another contest, as a primitive telephone hookup allowed him to announce a game at the Coliseum and simultaneously tell Dodgers fans that the Giants had just lost a crucial game in San Francisco.

These are priceless moments. But printed words may have to suffice when it comes to vintage Scully, given the limited audio record. Indeed, some fans regard the transcript of his comments during the ninth inning of Koufax's perfect game as a short story. So why stop there? Here's his electrifying call as the Los Angeles Dodgers won the 1959 pennant:

Big bouncer

Over the mound,

Over second base.

Up with it is Mantilla,

Throws low and wild!

Hodges scores -- we go to Chicago!

If that's not poetry, what is?

--

Getlin, a former Times staff writer, has been aching for a chance to work alongside Vin Scully since 1958.

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