An Oral Tradition: Vin Scully and the Poetics of Calling Baseball

August 7, 2022

When the Dodgers arrived in Los Angeles from Brooklyn in 1958, it was the heyday of my baseball career — the only “organized” thing I’ve ever done, in uniform, no less — so naturally I was eager to see them play. Up to then I’d been thrilled to watch the Hollywood Stars at Gilmore Field, and occasionally the Angels at Wrigley downtown, but Major League Baseball was something I’d witnessed only on black-and-white television.

The first game my dad took me to at the Coliseum — a football stadium serving as a temporary ballpark with an absurdly short (250-foot) left-field fence and disproportionately deep (440-foot) right-center to overcompensate— was against the Giants, who had just landed in San Francisco from New York. The crosstown rivals were now Northern–Southern California rivals, most-of-a-continent away from the rest of the National League.

With no strong loyalty to any particular team, I attended that first game as a mere spectator and experienced it as a revelation: Willie Mays was the most astounding baseball player I’d ever laid eyes on, and from that moment on I was an avid fan of the Giants. The sight of No. 24 smashing a rising line drive for a mere single or double off the 40-foot left-field screen that would’ve been a homerun in any other park, or running 20 yards and climbing the chain-link fence in right-center to rob some Dodger slugger of an extra-base hit, then making a superhuman throw to hold the runner turning around and trying to tag up at second, was nothing short of unbelievable.

So even then I found myself an odd boy out, rooting for the orange-and-black Giants amid an ocean of true-blue Dodger fans.

But the Dodgers had brought with them from Brooklyn a radio announcer whose voice became part of the soundtrack of my youth and, without my understanding it at the time, one of my primal influences as a writer: Vin Scully, whose style of calling a baseball game was unlike anything I’d heard before, or since. Dizzy Dean was a great “color man” on TV games I’d watched, but for play-by-play narration as well as color Scully was truly incomparable, even if he was employed by the hated Dodgers. By now I hear clearly and understand what a resonant vibration Scully set off in my ear for the American language.

There was an ease, a breeziness, a cool musicality, with anecdotal asides and literate historical riffs, a genial tone and rhythmic phrasing in everything he said, and it’s no exaggeration, as far as I’m concerned, to say that Richard Burton intoning Shakespeare on a stage had nothing on Vin Scully telling the story of what was happening on a baseball diamond. The nonchalant yet intensely focused mood he created while painting a verbal picture of the action, as well as his intelligent, witty commentary in the pauses,were mesmerizing in their hold on me as a listener. Without my being aware of it, I was absorbing the example of his relaxed, freely associative, colloquial yet lyrical style of speech, which would eventually inform my own mature poetics.

Scully raised the act of calling a ballgame to the level of art. His eloquent, low-key, understated, unsensational manner has never been equaled by anyone else in broadcasting, and he did it decade after decade after decade, for 67 years, as if eternally, in a sustained streak of self-made oral tradition worthy of Homer. And when he called a homer with his signature epithet — “It’s a way out there, and … gone!” — that was about as excited as he ever got. It didn’t matter who was winning or who had made an extraordinary play; even in his most animated, most enthusiastic moments he kept his cool, a brilliant, paradoxical example of deeply subjective objectivity.

By the time he died last week at 94, retired from the broadcast booth since 2016, Vin Scully had transcended the cliché of being a living legend. I confess that he had been eclipsed long since in my poetic pantheon by bards of many languages and traditions, most of whom had nothing to do with baseball. But death has a way of launching the truly great, of whatever creative persuasion, into the exalted realm of the immortals — where Bill Russell had soared just a few days earlier. Scully’s voice and singular style will continue to echo in the minds of millions lucky enough to have heard him turn sport into poetry.


Stephen Kessler’s most recent book of poems is Last Call (Black Widow Press). He lives in Santa Cruz where he writes a weekly op-ed column for the Santa Cruz Sentinel.


Photograph by Ken Lund.