Monday, September 26, 2016

The Timbre of a Banjo's Bottom String

I’m a great one for torturing myself. In 1974, I was delighted to discover that my first major live-together girlfriend enjoyed baseball, which I’d loved more than life itself as a boy, and we spent many a sublimely happy evening at Dodger stadium, washing down smuggled-in (the Dodgers wanted you to buy from them) Burrito King chiles rellenos with smuggled-in bottles of Heineken. She left me, with ample good reason, early in the off-season. I attended Opening Day in 1975 just to see how awful I could make myself feel being there without her. I felt very awful indeed. But in the seventh inning, Ken Griffey came up to bat for the Reds, against a Dodgers relief pitcher.. Noting that Griffey had an absurdly high batting average against the Dodger pitcher, broadcaster Vin Scully, to hear whom no one attended a Dodgers game without a transistor radio, mused that Griffey might well carry a photo of the pitcher in his wallet. I guffawed, alarming fellow inhabitants of nosebleed seats a mile above home plate, and then kept giggling at the memory of Scully’s quip for the balance of the game. Which is to say that,  on a day on which I was indescribably miserable, Vin Scully put a smile on my face.

He was wry, and sharp, erudite, and clearly had an intellectual life away from the ball park, and knew the game inside out. I’d dared to imagine I understood the game intimately, but his between-batters meditations on the various choices available to the offensive team’s managers made my mouth drop open. For many years, I thought the Dodgers ought to fire him as their broadcaster, and hire him instead as their manager. What a thing to wish on someone I admired so fervently, given how high percentage of ballplayers are arrogant, petulant, sanctimonious numbskulls!

When I was one myself, boys wanted to be Mickey Mantle or, if they were Jewish, Sandy Koufax. When I admitted to myself my own ineptitude on the field of play, I secretly wanted to be Vin Scully, as I suspect a great, great many other boys did too. At 11, I wrote him a letter asking for instructions on how I might follow in his footsteps, and he answered it — generously, thoughtfully, encouragingly. (Go to college, said he.) It was like receiving a letter from God. Years later, as an insufferable 25-year-old smartass, I wrote him again, asking how he could bear to share the broadcasting booth with his palpably stupid, perpetually tonguetied longtime partner, Jerry Doggett. He didn’t answer that one, and yes, I’m ashamed of myself for having written it. 

Once having realised how many ballplayers were arrogant, petulant, sanctimonious numbskulls, I went off baseball around the time free agency began to make teams unrecognisable from one season to the next. I moved far from the reach of Scully’s voice, and the Dodgers became strangers to me. But then, 28 years after quitting it, I returned to LA, and was beside myself with pleasure to discover that Scully, at around 150 years old, was still broadcasting their games. He’d lost several miles per hour on his fastball, so to speak — he mused no more about strategy, and invoked Shakespeare only once in a great while — but his voice retained the pleasing timbre of a banjo’s bottom string, and he continued to refer to opposing players warmly, by their first names, as he’d always done, as though they were no less…ours than the Dodgers. Decades before, when I stopped eating mammals, I’d come to be a little appalled by how fondly he spoke of sponsor Farmer John pork products. I was horrified one evening to hear him describea group of servicepersons in Dodger Stadium, newly returned from Afghanistan, as having been Defending Our Freedom. 

Microscopic quibbles. I’m aware of no one else in the world who’s done his or her job as brilliantly as Vin Scully has done his — I was only two when he began broadcasting Dodgers games, back in Brooklyn, and am now a decrepit old embarrassment — for even half as long.

Vin Scully has put thousands of smiles on my face.


  1. John, this is charming - but I had hoped to read your thoughts on Trump. As a Brit this French Cricket stuff all passes right over my head...

    1. What thoughts can one have about Trump, Schmoozy? The prospect of his restoring America's great, great greatness fills one with elation. Once more we shall be the greatest country in the history of geography!

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