The Voice Under the Pillow

What was it? The essence, the spirit, the twinkle? If you didn’t appreciate Vin Scully, I have nothing to say to you. If you did, please listen up.

For generations of L.A. baseball fans, he was the voice under the pillow. Mom and Dad would say goodnight, and kids would finish the day listening to the Dodger game called by Scully on a transistor radio under their hot summer pillow. He painted word pictures. The tones? Pure pudding. Pillow talk meets evening prayers.

Full of swing, moxie, and sonic opulence, he used his voice like a horn.

From San Marino to Burbank, across the valleys, across this baseball-crazed state, Scully was the voice on the car stereo, in the convertibles while you cruised with dad, at backyard cookouts.

His email was Red@ladodgers.com. When he wrote to you, it was in ALL-CAPS. Simple. Plus it saved time, so he could handle all the requests. And somehow, he always responded. Two weeks ago, I checked in with him and didn’t hear back. I knew then. I knew then that this ace of hearts didn’t have anything left.

He’d hate this fuss, by the way, all the accolades, all the “greatest ever” gushing.  I’m convinced that he put off retirement for so long because he dreaded all the ceremonies, the tributes.

To some degree, he was a big ham, sure – all announcers are. Mostly, he just wanted to show up at the press box and go about his work, in that way men value routine. In the later years, his wife Sandi hired him a car service, to get him to the games from his home in the west valley. Dozens of fans waited outside the press box for him to appear. He wasn’t Elvis. It was more meaningful than that.

Indeed, no mayor, no celebrity, no athlete ever captured the hearts of this whacky city the way this humble man did. He represented all that was good about LA. The class. The professionalism. He thrived, for gawd’s sakes, in a town where people put makeup in their hair and paint their Cadillacs pink.  

Baseball anoints only so many folk heroes. No committee decides it. Just happens. Mickey Mantle. Willie Mays. Sandy Koufax. And finally Scully. Vincent Edward Scully, the most unlikely folk hero of them all.

A few years ago, while still a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, I penned a piece on the musical qualities of Vinny’s voice. A couple of USC music professors helped me break it down.

“The cords compress the air in a very natural fashion,” professor Jeffrey Allen explained. “There’s no muscling of the instrument. It’s just organic. It just flows through him.

“You’re dealing with a virtuoso instrument.”

His colleague Chris Sampson found a waltz-like rhythm to Scully’s broadcasts.

“It’s swinging,” Sampson said. “In every instance that I’ve heard, he’s always had swing to it.”

I wrote then that Scully’s lyricism can be traced to the big-band era of his youth. Scully says he always loved the greats he grew up with: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and, of course, Frank Sinatra.

“I also love Broadway musicals to this day,” he told me.

While at Fordham, Scully was his college’s center fielder. He was also a member of the Shaving Mugs, a barbershop quartet. But Scully scoffed at the idea that he had much in the way of musical gifts.

“Good grief, I must be the only [person] who is off key while speaking,” he said with typical self-deprecation.

The music professors disagreed.

“It’s just amazing how he stays in cadence,” said Sampson, who studied several of Scully’s calls for rhythm, key signatures, tonality.

Sampson’s analysis included a clip of a game-winning home run that preserved a Fernando Valenzuela victory during the height of Fernandomania.

“It’s gone, Fernando, it’s gone,” Scully says as the crowd roars, a phrasing Sampson says came in three-quarter time … 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3.

“He’s not only giving color analysis, he’s giving a concert,” added Allen.

Know how you can recognize Paul McCartney after one note? Same with Elton John or Joni Mitchell. Same with Scully. It’s a claw hook. An aural fingerprint.

Don Larsen’s perfect game. Gibby’s homer. Aaron’s record. Clayton Kershaw’s no-hitter in 2016. The emotional inflection was always spot on. The volume rose to match the moment.

On Kershaw’s no-no:  “One out to go. One miserable, measly out.”

On Dodger Stadium at dusk: “A cotton-candy sky with a canopy of blue…looks good enough to eat.”

Tonally, he was an Irish tenor. Spiritually, he was baseball’s Frank Sinatra.

Like Sinatra, he tapped into something that can be so unfashionable in a giant, metallic city like Los Angeles. He tapped his heart.

RIP, dear friend.

For columns, monthly newsletters gin tips, please go to ChrisErskineLA.com

16 thoughts on “The Voice Under the Pillow

  1. Beautiful and spot on. One of the few unifying elements in a crazy world and a gift to all of us. He would be equal parts embarrassed and delighted.

  2. My son who lives in Westlake Village had a few encounters with Vin. Seems they had red hair and a DIY mentality in common. They met by chance several times and held memorable conversations (mostly about home repairs and LAFD of which my son is a member) at the local hardware store. So casual, so insignificant, so charming.

    1. Right on! Me too, Andy! “It’s a high bouncer over the mound, over second base, Mantilla up with it. . . ” (I bet you have it seared into your memory word for word, just like I do. I have a feeling there are hundreds or thousands of us LA kids of a certain age (!) who have that brilliant call down word for word). And we went to Chicago and proved ourselves to the world. And we’re all tearing up over it today. You said it all in seven words. Thanks.

      1. Thanx, Randy. I knew I couldn’t be the only geezer out here! Also, although not about Vinnie, remember “Angel Town” and the “Miller, Hiller, Haller Hallelujah Twist.” Hope to meet you at a hike or something.

  3. Complete and perfect, just like the subject. If Scully was a musician of the heart, the writer is a musician of the soul of the theater that is L.A.; L.A.’s Sondheim. Here is yet another tone poem of perfect pitch. Scully could musically describe such a pitch. Chris can deliver it, three quarters overhand and coming from somewhere in deep left center, and with that lyrically delicate whoosh that tells you a master has just put another one over the outside corner of the plate. The Don of Domestica strikes again, and one can only sit along the third base line and obliquely wonder at how he made the metaphysical laws of language his own, and did it. As did Scully.

  4. It is a crime of sorts, in this criminally obsessed time of cultural cancellation, that this piece is not on the front page of The L.A. Times, where it belongs.

  5. Such a great column, Chris. Reading it, I see a big resemblance between what you wrote about Vinny and how you wrote it. You paint such lovely words every day. I have read everything written about Vin wherever I can find it. I will always have his voice!

  6. I remember that article. I didn’t know you wrote it.
    I also remember walking home from Brookhurst Jr High, a transistor radio to my ear – and heard, “We’re going to Chicago!”
    By the way, I turned 40 on October 15, 1988. I Watched tv that night with my 18 month old son lying on my chest. It was a good night.

  7. I didn’t like baseball until I heard Vin Scully. He converted me. Sitting in the cheap seats with my huge family and my boyfriend (now my husband for 41 years), way up high, with everyone listening to Vin Scully on their transistor radios is one of my favorite summer memories.

  8. Chris: Thank you for this wonderful appreciation of Vin Scully. I am one of those kids who put my turquoise transistor radio under my pillow in the summer on my bunk bed. I got to see the Dodgers play in the Coliseum when they first came to Los Angeles, and have no idea how many Dodger games I’ve been fortunate enough to attend in my lifetime. My friend even caught a foul ball hit by Johnny Bench which flew over the backstop once when I was at the game with him. Vin set the standard which few can match. His voice rings through my memory bank so richly. He is much beloved by many, especially by me.

Leave a Reply to Spike Beck Cancel reply