With a Little Help from His Friends: The Story Behind Baseball Announcer Vin Scully's Stories
Where does Dodgers announcer Vin Scully find all his great stories? It starts with preparation—and with the help of two longtime partners in the booth.
Courtesy Los Angeles Dodgers
In the bottom of the fifth inning of Sunday's game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, radio announcer Vin Scully told a story. This particular story was about the Beatles—a band that remains a little modern and edgy for Scully's own musical tastes. Sunday marked the fiftieth anniversary of their 1966 performance at Dodger Stadium, and Scully started with the basics: 45,000 fans in attendance. The Beatles came on stage at 9:30 PM and performed 11 songs in 27 minutes.
Then things got interesting. If you've watched or listened to a broadcast featuring Scully over the past 67 years, that won't surprise you. Scully likes to present an ordinary-seeming piece of information, then unwrap it to reveal a small gift of unexpected wisdom. There is no hyperbole left with which to freshly describe him as a broadcaster—no corny phrase has been spared. So indulge me for a bit.
Scully is the voice of baseball. If the sport could have an omniscient narrator, a single person to read the book-on-tape version of its long, fascinating, and often frustrating history, he would be it. I'm 30 years old. I've been listening to Scully my entire life, and that's not even half of his career with the Dodgers. His voice has molded how I watch baseball. Even with the sound off, or other announcers coming through my television, his cadences mark the beats in between pitches. And I'm not alone. The game, for so many Dodgers fans, is played in Scully's rhythm.
OK. Now that I've said all that, let's get back to the Beatles story—and to Scully's stories more broadly. Sometimes, the stories he tells are offhand memories. A play sparks something deep in his brain, synapses fire, and suddenly you're hearing about the time Scully and his wife went ice skating with Jackie and Rachel Robinson. But many of the tales Scully weaves into his broadcasts are meticulously researched beforehand, and ready to be deployed when the game provides an opportunity.
So: the Beatles. After their concert, Scully explained, the group was supposed to exit the ballpark in a Lincoln Continental. Only they couldn't, because the car was swarmed by fans beyond the outfield pavilions. "They were frenzied," Scully said as Yasmani Grandal dug in against Jon Lester. "They pulled off the car's hood ornaments, side mirrors. The car was stuck in a virtual sea of humanity." Solution? The Beatles were driven onto the field. They descended through the dugout into the Dodgers clubhouse, where they could devise a new means of escape.
It is unlikely that Dodger fans will go to such great lengths to prevent Scully from leaving when the regular season comes to a close. In any case, his final scheduled game this year comes on the road in San Francisco. As Scully prepares to say goodbye to the people of Los Angeles—at least those with Time Warner Cable—I decided to learn how these stories, facts, anecdotes, and little bits of unconventional wisdom find their way from wherever they are, floating out in the universe, into Scully's head, and from there into our ears.
The answer begins with Red Barber, Scully's mentor when he was coming up as a young announcer in Brooklyn. Barber taught Scully the value of preparation. He also instilled in Scully the importance of the one-man booth. The reason it feels like Vin Scully is talking to you when he's calling a game is because he is.
Instead of an on-air partner, Scully relies on two silent men in the booth beside him: stage manager Boyd Robertson, and camera operator Rob Menschel, who also occasionally directs. Robertson and Menschel have worked with Scully on Dodger broadcasts since 1989. When the three of them are together, the booth has the feel of a family business—respect and professionalism underlined with nonverbal communication and easy humor. Facing home plate in the Dodger Stadium press box, Scully sits on the left side of the booth, Robertson beside him in the middle, and Menschel behind the camera to the right.
"His job description and my job description have nothing to do with what we actually do," Menschel told VICE Sports before a recent home game. Rather, he and Robertson have evolved into a single organ devoted to supporting Scully through his broadcasts. They arrive at the park before he does and prepare the booth for his arrival. They are his research team, his partners, and his stand-ins for the listeners he is addressing at home. They are also his friends.
Robertson and Menschel are middle-aged men with long TV careers behind them. They aren't glamorous —and that's especially apparent when Scully enters the room wearing a fine suit, his sleeves bearing big gold cuff links, and a World Series ring on his finger. And they aren't professional researchers, either.
Robertson, who sports a mop of graying hair, is from a small town in Oklahoma. He came to Los Angeles in 1979 and began his television career as a gopher on ABC's Wide World of Sports. Before getting the gig as Vin Scully's stage manager, he worked for legendary Los Angeles Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn. Menschel, who is chattier, is from New York. He learned how to operate a TV camera in high school and has been shooting World Series games since the early 1990s.
Scully, Robertson, and Menschel all do research before every game and bring it to the ballpark. So does statistician Brian Hagan, who sits in the booth behind Menschel. Scully—who uses a computer and tablet at home, but only a scorebook at the ballpark—also keeps notes in a series of black three-ring binders. Each ballclub has a binder, sorted by player.
The Beatles story was Menschel's doing. He's a big music fan, and when Scully drops any kind of reference to rock n' roll, it usually came from him. But the trick is finding a story that works in Scully's voice—and appeals to his sense of wonder and optimism about the world. In this particular case, that was easy, because the story didn't stop in the Dodgers dugout. The band next attempted to leave the stadium in an armored car—but found that somebody had deflated all of its tires. So they decided on something more elaborate: they would hide under blankets in an ambulance and ride it out to the 76 station in the Dodger Stadium parking lot (yep, there is a gas station in the Dodger Stadium parking lot). Then they'd switch to the armored car, and depart from there.
"And again something went wrong," Scully said. "The driver had navigated through the fans, hit the gas, and the ambulance ran over a speed bump, and would you believe the radiator fell out of the ambulance? I mean, could you imagine? The Beatles stranded in Dodger Stadium."
"He comes prepared," Robertson said. "He wants to be prepared. That's the way he learned. And even though he's in his last year, he still comes prepared. And if there's some things that he didn't have time —the little things—to look at, Rob will look it up, I'll look it up, or Brian Hagan will look it up.
"If he uses it on the air, great. If he doesn't, there's so much flowing of information, it doesn't hurt our feelings because we know we're going to give him more things down the road, the next game, the next inning or whatever the case may be."
The trick is incorporating the story into the flow of the game. There's a printer in the booth, and sometimes Scully's team will print out a story between innings and hand it to him. Other times, they will jot notes down on index cards.
In one recent game, Robertson, the Oklahoma native, observed that Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer came from an Oklahoma town called Tuloga, of just 299 people, more than a hundred miles from Oklahoma City. He passed his wonderment along in a note, and Scully worked it into the broadcast. In the same series, Scully brought his own research in on the history of Pirates.
"It's like the origin of a river," Menschel said. "You don't really know where it's going to go—and he doesn't know where it's going to go. He may bring, for lack of a better number, thirty stories and three make it on the air. He would like to have gotten them in but they just didn't fit."
The one-man booth allows Scully to interact with the game in a way that a conversation between two or three announcers doesn't. He told VICE Sports last year that he sees each broadcast as essentially a sales job: "You are trying to sell people to come to the ballpark. Let me put it to you this way: if I want to sell you a car, is it better for me to talk directly to you about the merits of the car, or do I talk to somebody else about how good the car is and you listen to that conversation?"
In that sense, Robertson and Menschel also serve as stand-ins for the viewer at home. While they contribute to the broadcast as stage manager and camera operator, they are also responding to it with whispers, notes, and gestures. Scully likes to make them laugh. And he appreciates the fact that they have the confidence to push back, or make suggestions that he might not initially take to. For example, earlier this season, Scully was reticent to speak on air about Muhammad Ali's passing, but they talked him into to addressing it.
"These guys are the best in the business," Scully said, popping into my meeting with the two. "They really are. They think the right way, they're just the top." He sounded like a father gushing over his kids, saying more with his tone than with his actual words. In three decades, Scully's relationship with Robertson and Menschel has transcended the professional. In the booth, they are a single entity working on unspoken understanding built up over years. Outside of it, they are family friends. They all see each other in the offseason. When most announcers go on the road, they use a stage manager and cameraman provided by the local ballclub. When Scully still traveled regularly, he brought Robertson and Menschel with him.
Before I left, I asked Robertson and Menschel if there was anything they did behind the scenes to take advantage of Scully's talents as a broadcaster—what they thought the broadcast would be like without them. They laughed. It was a silly question. Vin Scully, they pointed out, was a great announcer long before they ever met him.
"He was in the Hall of fame in '82 without us," Menschel said. "It would still be great. It would be different, that's all."
Without them, Scully almost certainly would not have told his story about the Beatles—a story with an unexpectedly delightful payoff, the kind of story that baseball fans will miss in the years to come. Not just because Scully himself is leaving, but because his departure marks the end of the one-man booth, the end of "one man, one voice," and the end of a certain kind of storytelling intimacy between speaker and listener.
Speaking of storytelling: there's still more to the Beatles tale. After the radiator fell out of the ambulance in which the band was hiding, the armored car—its tires now re-inflated—came to meet it in the parking lot and take the Beatles the rest of the way down the hill. But by the time they were able to transfer into the armored car, the fans had gotten wind of what was going on. And once again, the band was surrounded by thousands of screaming teenagers, unable to move. "But suddenly, the Beatles caught a break," Scully said. "From out of nowhere, the Hell's Angels showed up, and circled the armored car, and led the Beatles out of the parking lot and on out into the night."
After Grandal lined out to Kris Bryant in left field, Scully picked up the Beatles thread for a couple more notes before crediting Menschel for the research. He offered an update on the Giants-Braves game. Charlie Culberson lifted a lazy flyball for the second out.
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