Vin Scully: The last of the great radio voices

It became my postgame ritual. I’d head home after a Braves’ game, and I’d listen to another game on Sirius XM. I became a fan of the Giants’ crew – Jon Miller, Duane Kiper, Mike Krukow and Dave Flemming – but I’d always check the Dodgers’ broadcast first. If my drive time coincided with a Vin Scully radio inning, that’s where I stayed.

I’m among those ancient folks who came to know baseball not via TV – in olden days, we were lucky if there were two televised games a week – but through the gentler sounds of AM radio. If we were going somewhere in the car, we’d listen to the Reds. If they were playing a night game, I’d listen until bedtime. Sometimes I’d lie in the dark and make use of a device called an earphone.

Not massive headphones. Not Bluetooth-y earbuds. One skinny white cord, one tiny bud you popped in an ear.

The earphone was great for the World Series, which until 1971 included only day games. You’d wear a sweater to school. You’d wear a shirt with a breast pocket to accommodate your transistor radio. You’d work the cord down your left sleeve. You’d lean on your left hand to hide the earphone. Your right hand was free to hold a pencil and feign taking notes.

It wasn’t as if I grew up listening to Vin Scully. He’d migrated from Brooklyn to L.A. by then. But Maysville, Ky., was 64 miles from Cincinnati, which meant we had the Reds. Waite Hoyt – a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig – was their play-by-play man, but his best moments came during rain delays. Hoyt could spin tales about the Yankees of yore until the cows came home.

The day Hank Aaron got his 3,000th hit at Crosley Field, we were listening in the car during a Sunday excursion. The night before my dad died, I drove home while Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall called a game from the West Coast. My father-in-law listened to Marty and Joe every night on his screened porch. Every novel set in New England includes a mention of a Red Sox game playing on the radio.

My rides home with Vin held resonance because radio, once the staticky engine of our national pastime, has been TV’ed into the narrowest of niches. With the advent of the iPod – now itself defunct – we could listen to anything we wanted, and now every song ever made is available through streaming. Sports was the same, kind of. With every ballgame televised, it became too easy to flop on the couch and pick up the remote.

As a breed, radio people were different. We weren’t seeing what was happening. We were relying on them to tell us what they were seeing. They didn’t just do play-by-play. They painted a picture. (That’s how the great Larry Munson began every Georgia game: “Get the picture.”) They told stories. We trusted them. We needed them.

Toward the end of Scully’s career, he worked radio innings without a color commentator. Everything that needed saying, he could say by himself. When the Dodgers alit in California, he’d become the guy who taught Los Angeles about baseball. He never made it seem like a tutorial. He was having fun, and so were those folks stuck in traffic on the 405.

The Braves’ wondrous crew – Ernie Johnson Sr., Pete Van Wieren and Skip Caray – all had radio backgrounds. They did for the South what Scully did for SoCal. AJC colleague George Cunningham had the best description of Ernie Sr. – “as comfortable as an old shoe.” Pete was the Professor, Skip the scamp. You could tell those three liked each other.

The world has changed, as worlds do. The radio legends of our youth have taken up residency in their Valhalla. I made it a point to listen to Vin Scully in his later days because I knew there’d never be another. He died this week at 94.