Vin Scully and the Measure of 67 Years

As I begin writing, it’s Sunday, Sept. 26, 2016, and Vin Scully is calling his last game at Dodger Stadium. It’s been a long goodbye between Vin and MLB all season long as the Dodgers go from city to city around the country, and this is finally goodbye for the home fans. Although the Dodgers are headed to the post-season, Vin has announced that his retirement will be effective at the end of the regular season, no matter what.

He won’t be calling any post-season games.

Baseball is as much about tradition and legacy as it is about the on-field action, so even though Vin Scully never played or coached an inning of organized ball himself, he is a baseball institution.

Hot weather is baseball weather. Appropriately enough, it is over 90 degrees on this late September afternoon in the Bay Area–the hottest day of 2016, and it is about 100 degrees down at Dodger Stadium as the ballpark fills with former Dodgers from generations ago there to pay their respects to Scully.  Every Dodger in the starting lineup took a moment before stepping into the batter’s box to turn and wave at the press box, giving Vin Scully one final salute.

That’s baseball.

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Vin Scully college yearbook photo.

Vin Scully has been the Dodger play-by-play announcer for 67 years. 67 years! 2/3 of a century. There probably isn’t a coach, umpire, or groundskeeper on the field in all of Major League Baseball today who was born* when Scully began calling games for the 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers, a team that featured youngsters like Duke Snider, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, and Jackie Robinson.

*(Actually, there is at least one. Former Dodger and current Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker was born in 1949.)

 

Every year since 1950, Vin Scully has taken his seat in the Dodgers press box and called the play-by-play action, starting with the legendary Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 1950s, and following the team on their historic move out west to Los Angeles in 1958.

 

Everything about the Los Angeles Dodgers was so brand spanking new then–especially their stadium that opened its gates in 1962 and was a showcase of modernity for baseball in the age of Sun Belt suburbia, in the heart of the freeway metropolis of Los Angeles, California. By many measures, the Dodgers were the most successful, trend-setting and photogenic organization in Major League Baseball in the decades following their move out west. In part that was due to the voice of the Dodgers, Vin Scully himself, who by the 1970s was widely regarded as the best announcer in all of sports.

 

Today, that once brand new Dodger Stadium is the oldest ballpark in the Major League consortium outside of the iconic century-old Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, and Vin Scully still calls the games from the same utilitarian press box that all the announcers use. The only nod to Vin Scully’s senior status is that he has his own private dining room located just down the hall from the press box. And why shouldn’t he, when you think about it?

 

Dodger Stadium is basically Vin’s house. He outlasted both O’Malleys (the father and son owners of the Dodgers who brought the team out west), and every other executive who was with the team when the stadium was built. In effect, if not deed, Scully owns that building. That’s what 67 years with an organization will do.

 

To be fair, other than a few stints when he was traded away as a player to another team, Tommy Lasorda has been part of the Dodger organization since coming up as a young pitcher in the late 1940s, but Scully is a part of Dodger Stadium itself, part of the infrastructure.

The announcer may work for the team, like the coaches do, but he watches and comments on the game from up in the stands; he is one of us, the fans.

 

He is a fan who has occupied the same seat for 67 years, as small children have turned into grandparents in the seats all around him.

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Scully started with the organization in 1950, but that fact alone does not seem to adequately convey just how long 67 years truly is. This is partly because baseball is such a traditionalistic, ancestor-venerating culture that the 1950s are still considered the modern era in baseball. Players like Mays, Mantle, Berra, and Aaron are still included in the modern pantheon, as are the legendary World Series games they played in back in the early ‘50s.

The other part of what makes 67 years seem not all that long ago is that baseball games were already being televised in 1950, and television is the single best avatar of the modern era. People watched sports on TV in the Fifties, and that makes them a lot like us.

 

One way of putting that 67-year run into perspective is to consider that the Brooklyn Dodgers began playing way back in 1884, and Vin Scully has been announcing for over half of their games.

 

Another way to gauge the feel of just how long 67 years really stretches is to consider the tenure of baseball’s other 67-year man, longtime owner/manager Connie Mack, whose last year in major league baseball happened to be Vin Scully’s first year in major league baseball, 1950.

If you count the minor leagues, Mack’s professional baseball career began in 1884, the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers franchise started. Mack’s major league career began in 1886, the year the Statue of Liberty was completed and the year Ty Cobb was born.

 

Connie Mack came up in baseball so long ago that the rules of baseball weren’t even set yet. A catcher himself, in Mack’s time, catchers generally stood much further away from home plate than they do now, usually just in front of the backstop.

Unlike his peers, Mack, described as “a light hitting catcher with a reputation as a smart player,” would stand just behind the plate so he could reach out and interfere with the hitters during their swing. It is probably thanks to Mack himself that the rule of “catcher’s interference” was established, as well as the “foul-tip” rule.

As baseball fans know, a foul tip caught by the catcher is not considered an out unless it is the third strike. In all likelihood, Connie Mack played a part in that rule change by becoming so good at imitating the sound of a ball glancing off the bat that he could fool the home plate umpire into thinking a swinging strike by the batter was actually a foul tip, which would lead to the batter being called out on what was really just strike one or two.

 

By the end of the 19th Century, Mack’s playing days were over. He became manager and 25% owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, a charter team of the brand new American League when the league was established in 1901. The Athletics were one of the top teams in the new American League, and Mack was considered one of the top managers in baseball.

In 1913, Mack acquired another 25% of the Athletics, which meant he was now a full partner with Ben Shibe, who owned the other 50%. When Shibe died, he bequeathed his ownership shares to his two sons. And when his two sons died in the 1930s, Mack bought them out and became the majority owner.

 

In 1934, Mack was already 72 years old, and his once great team was now one of the worst. People wondered if Mack might indeed sell the team to someone with deeper pockets, or turn over the coaching reigns to a younger person with newer ideas. But being the majority owner of the Philadelphia Athletics meant no one but Mack could fire himself as the team’s manager, and he had no intention of doing so. Incredibly, Mack would hang on another 17 seasons as the Athletics’ manager before finally being forced out by his sons, with the implicit backing of Major League Baseball.

 

By the 1940s, Mack’s Shibe Field was increasingly seen as an eyesore in its Philadelphia neighborhood, and hardly any fans were coming to the games anymore. Visiting teams actually lost money by going to Philadelphia to play the Athletics, and Mack’s obstinance was increasingly at odds with a league that, along with the rest of America, was quickly modernizing after World War II.

 

According to people who worked around him, Mack’s mind began “rapidly deteriorating” once he was in his 80s, as he continued to manage the Athletics. Mack could remember the old timers who had played for him 40 years earlier, but he had trouble keeping track of the players on his current roster. Mack would spend much of the time during games asleep in the dugout, leaving the play-by-play coaching to his assistants. When he was awake, the calls that he made (such as ordering players who had retired 20 years earlier to grab a bat and pinch hit) were often erratic and usually ignored.

 

Mack continued to wear his trademark suit, tie, starched collar, and hat in the dugout right up until the very end, even though all the other managers had switched to wearing team uniforms a generation earlier. This no doubt added to Mack’s appeal, and he was treated with awe and respect by the players, as a living relic of a completely vanished era of baseball (which as we know reveres its history and legends like no other sport) and of America as a whole.

 

Nowadays, there are strict rules prohibiting major league owners from simultaneously managing their teams to keep something like the Connie Mack situation from happening again. Mack managed the Athletics for an unparalleled 50 years. It is a record that will never be matched.

 

At the age of 87, Connie Mack had to be forced out by the league and his own sons, for the good of the team and of the game. Mack’s own verdict on his retirement was, “I’m not quitting because I’m getting old; I’m quitting because I think people want me to.”

 

The season that turned out to be Connie Mack’s last on the baseball diamond was also Vin Scully’s first. When Connie Mack retired from baseball, there was no one who could come close to his tenure. Mack’s career was as old as baseball itself. But when Mack did finally retire, he was an anachronism and had been for some time.

 

Yet, Vin Scully, who is also finishing up his 67th year, and will turn 89 next month, is the opposite of anachronistic. Scully is as evergreen on his last day as Mack was obsolescent. Scully is retiring of his own volition, in possession of all his marbles, having never worn out his welcome anywhere in the Major League Baseball consortium. Vin cuts such evergreen and timeless figure, and 1950s baseball seems so congruent with 2016 baseball, that it can be hard to appreciate just how lengthy his 67-year tenure really is, except by paralleling it with Connie Mack’s identical run.

 

If I could ask Vin Scully anything, I would ask him what memories he had of Connie Mack from the one season that their careers overlapped in 1950. Whatever Scully remembers of Mack represents an unbroken lineage of 130 seasons reaching all the way back to the cradle of professional baseball itself.

Scully, who grew up a NY Giants fan, does a commercial with Willie Mays.

Scully, who grew up a NY Giants fan, does a commercial with Willie Mays back in the day.

Mays and Scully, who called Willie his favorite player, reminiscing once again this weekend in San Francisco

Mays and Scully, who called Willie his favorite player, reminiscing once again this weekend in San Francisco

 

Today, as I put the finishing touches on this article and hit publish, it’s October 2, 2016 in San Francisco, the day a by now legendary and unrepeatable chapter of sports history comes to an end as Vin Scully calls his last inning of baseball.

As they did in Dodger Stadium one week ago, we doff our caps, turn to the press box and salute you one last time, Mr. Scully, for the lifetime of great baseball memories.

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1 comment for “Vin Scully and the Measure of 67 Years

  1. Tom
    October 24, 2016 at 4:30 am

    Interesting essay, thanks. I always wondered about Connie Mack. Some guy who stuck around forever. I think he has the record for most wins ever as a manager.
    As for Scully, didn’t you post a picture once somewhere of him in the ’70s, looking hip in that middle-aged ’70s kind of way (when the Greatest Generation realized it had arrived too early for the sexual revolution and decided to make up for lost time)? It surprised me, because Skully always looks the same to me. Whether on his final broadcast, or in the ’60s with Jerry Doggit. Kind of L.A. and artificial in the stereotypical sense, the teeth too white. During that last broadcast, you could hear the radio-man rhythm. Telling stories for people who had to use their imagination.

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