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Where Have You Gone, Vin Scully?

For those who grew up in Southern California, Vin Scully is a link to the mist of our collective past.

Editor’s note: To honor the memory of Los Angeles Dodgers broadcasting legend Vin Scully, who passed away on Aug. 2 at the age of 94, we republish this Jewish Journal profile from 2016.

It was a hot August afternoon, and I sat nestled in the corner of a tent at Camp Ramah, in Ojai, California.  Distant sounds of rock music wafted across the boys’ shetach (area), mingled with the laughing voices of kids horsing around.  The rhythmic, satisfying “whoop” of baseballs hitting soft leather. One boy wrote a letter, another read, and a couple more of us listened to a transistor radio.  It was lazy, it was innocent, and it was 1974.

“His name is spelled L-O-P-E-S,” sang the lead lyrical soundtrack to that tranquil memory.  “He pronounces it “Lopes, not Lopez.  So welcome to the big time, Davey!”  And thus did Vin Scully introduce Davey Lopes to thousands of Dodger baseball fans throughout Southern California.  Just one of thousands of introductory moments that would be repeated for generations in this part of the country.

Vin Scully has since been recognized as the greatest broadcaster in baseball, if not sports, history.  In his final home game this past Sunday, after 67 years as the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he went out in dramatic fashion.  His final call at Chavez Ravine was a division winning, walk off tenth inning home run by little known infielder Charlie Culberson.   He coined one more classic line as his golden voice soared above the roar of the crowd:  “Would you believe a home run?” he teased, as the Dodgers celebrated with wild abandon.

For those who grew up in Southern California, Vin Scully is a link to the mist of our collective past.  He bore witness to the groundbreaking physical and moral genius of Jackie Robinson.  He introduced us to a young, flamethrowing lefthander who would soon teach us all what it meant to feel pride in being Jewish at mid-century, not even 20 years following the Holocaust.  When the Dodgers brought baseball to Los Angeles, it was Vin Scully who gently showed us the ropes.

But his appeal, and the iconic veneration we have witnessed over the past couple weeks, go well beyond that.

We celebrate, in a word, his decency.

Scully once described an opposing player’s nagging injury: “Andre Dawson has a bruised knee, and is listed as day to day,” he told us one summer afternoon in 1991.  “Aren’t we all?”  Sandy Koufax described last week how Scully was unfailingly kind to players from both dugouts, and how his decency overshadowed even the technical lyricism of his narration.  Scully delighted in the diverse world he witnessed around him—the “Wild Horse” from Cuba, the astounding Mexican pitcher, the polite yet fiercely competitive future Hall of Fame pitcher from Texas, the professor of kinesiology who would win a Cy Young Award, a baby in the crowd.  Anyone.  Vin Scully delighted in the miracle of the human spirit.  In interviews, even now, he regularly remarks how blessed he has been by God.

It is no wonder that Vin Scully’s retirement hits us so hard.  To appreciate Scully’s decency is to also recognize the medium through which his values are transmitted: the languid pace of a baseball game.  And in 2016, paradoxically, we have a diminished appreciation for baseball and its slower pace—we need the more brutal and faster paced options of football and basketball.  We will genuinely miss Vin Scully, yet we as a community are losing patience for the lyrical stories that were his stock in trade, or the focused time and attention they demand.  We have no patience for extended rumination—we live our lives in short bursts of texts and tweets. We have no interest in narration devoid of edge, irony, slickness, or meanness.  We have no patience, in other words, for the breeding grounds of decency.

The High Holy Days recognize the complexity of what it means to be human — our positive and negative inclinations; our yetzer tov and yetzer hara. Both as individuals and as a society, we struggle between the twin poles of these inclinations.  How is it, we wonder, that we can long for the simple decency of a figure like Vin Scully, yet so consistently deny ourselves the conditions upon which that decency can thrive?  And how do find ourselves in the situation we do on the eve of this unprecedented election?

We have managed to anoint as one of the two principal nominees for president a man who demonstrates virtually no shred of this basic American decency.  We fear living in a world without the voice of Vin Scully because we rightly perceive ourselves slipping into a portal of unprecedented ugliness.  We have managed to nominate a man who delights in mocking the movements of a physically disabled reporter, whose reputation is based, in part, upon attacking the physical appearance of women, as the next president of the United States.  Imagine that.  We are about to lose a man who showed us each night what it means to regard each person as having been created in the image of God, and we may gain a leader who appears to believe that he alone was created in that image.

This is not a partisan issue at all. Barack Obama speaks with intelligence and vision.  John McCain and Bob Dole were genuine American heroes, who sacrificed in ways most of us can only imagine.  Al Gore and the Bushes came from families that devoted decades of life to public service.  Ronald Reagan brought style, grace, and the force of focused political principles to the office. Even the Clintons have devoted their entire lives to charity and public service; the criticisms of their behavior are of an entirely different magnitude from the sadistic meanness we see dripping from the character of the Republican nominee. Choosing our leaders has never before meant a wholesale abandonment of principles of simple decency.

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” we once asked ourselves. “Our nation turns its lonely heart to you.”  In the twilight of 2016, we say farewell to a man who has soothed our souls for 67 years, and we may very well ask him that same question.  We enter these High Holy Days and this crucial election struggling with the maddening mystery of our collective time:  How can we, as a society, so venerate the simple decency of Vin Scully, yet simultaneously indulge our worst inclinations to embrace cruelty, bigotry and bullying as the desired traits of our leaders?  It is 2016, and we have sinned indeed.

It was precisely this issue that brought down the last great American demagogue.  “Have you no decency, sir?  At long last, have you no sense of decency?” we finally asked the senatorial inquisitor Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954.  We thankfully emerged from that collective stupor, and realized then that decency was indeed a necessary condition for American democracy.  Will we do the same in 2016?

In September 2015, my then 13 year old son caught an A.J. Ellis home run hit over the mid-left field wall.  As my son joyfully reacted with jubilation, and with the cameras trained on him, Vin Scully paused, and with a twinkle in his voice, remarked, “And that youngster is thrilled!  I think he’s also a little shocked he caught the ball— combination.”  That was Vin Scully’s gift to my family.  It was Vin Scully’s gift to all of us to create space in time, to capture the essence of the human condition through the prism of a baseball game.  It is our challenge to recover that spirit, to live by the credo of simple decency, and to demand it from our leaders– even in the face of a culture that demands our ever-increasing slavishness to an unrelenting harshness.


Stuart Tochner is an employment attorney in Los Angeles, and a member of the boards of trustees of Temple Beth Am and Camp Ramah in California.

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