"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Three times in his sensational career has Sandy Koufax walked out to the mound to pitch a fateful ninth where he turned in a no-hitter. But tonight, September the 9th, nineteen hundred and 65, he made the toughest walk of his career, I’m sure, because through eight innings he has pitched a perfect game.
Vin Scully just finished his 50th season broadcasting Dodgers games. I listened in regularly for what at the time was my whole conscious life but was only a dozen or so of those years.
I grew up in Los Angeles. Lots of kids at school rooted for the Oakland A’s or the Pittsburgh Pirates, powerhouses of the day. Those teams won a lot (and had cool caps), but you couldn’t go home from school and listen to them on the radio. I was an Angeleno, and Dodger blue all the way.
I moved away from my hometown half a lifetime ago, and the one thing I miss about the place, even still, is the sound of Vin Scully’s voice, that musical Irish tenor crooning from the transistor radio hidden beneath my pillow after bedtime: Swung on, a hiiiigh drive into deeeep left field. Back goes Henderson, a-waaaay back, to the waaaaaall … she’s gone!
Musical, yes. Vin Scully has the most musical voice in baseball. He doesn’t have the clipped, old-time-radio cadence of most broadcasters who date back to the ’50s and beyond. Although his timbre is thin, everything is smooth and rounded. The words slide into each other. He has flow. The melody rises and falls on the tide of the game. You can almost hum along to Vin Scully.
He’s often referred to as baseball’s poet laureate, and those who don’t get him parody him by quoting Emerson or spouting flowery language. But even though he will occasionally toss off some verse (he’s likely to find the lyrics of an old show tune more apt) or call a cheap base hit “a humble thing, but thine own,” the real metaphor for Vin Scully isn’t poetry, or even music: It’s painting. Other radio announcers can tell you what’s happening on the field, and you can imagine it. With Vin Scully, you can see it. His command of the language and the game is so masterful that he always has just the right words to describe what’s going on. He paints you a picture. You can’t ask another baseball announcer about Scully without hearing a variation on that phrase:
“At times I’ll be listening to him and I’ll think, Oh, I wish I could call upon that expression the way he does,” Dick Enberg has said. “He paints the picture more beautifully than anyone who’s ever called a baseball game.”
I found a collection of baseball writing once in the library. One of the chapters was a transcript of Scully’s call of the ninth inning of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game against the Chicago Cubs in 1965. It read like a short story. It had tension, rising and falling drama, great turns of phrase. It was, and still is, the best piece of baseball writing I’ve ever seen. And it came off the top of his head, at a moment when, like the man whose feat he was describing, he knew he had to be at the top of his game. I’ve since heard a tape of that half inning: There’s not a single misstep. He never once fumbles for a word, makes a false start or trips over himself.
Fastball, swung on and missed, strike 2. And you can almost taste the pressure now. Koufax lifted his cap, ran his fingers through his black hair, then pulled the cap back down, fussing at the bill. Krug must feel it too as he backs out, heaves a sigh, took off his helmet, put it back on and steps back up to the plate.
It’s different now. I’ve changed my skin. Today I root for the Dodgers’ hated rivals, the San Francisco Giants. I have friends who still can’t believe it, who don’t think it’s possible to go from the Dodgers to the Giants, even though the Giants’ own manager, Dusty Baker, had his best years in a Dodgers uniform. But it’s true. The place in my fan’s heart where Jimmy Wynn and Davey Lopes and Steve Garvey and Ron Cey used to live is now occupied by Barry Bonds and J.T. Snow and Jeff Kent and Marvin Benard.
But as wonderful as the Giants’ announcers have been while I’ve rooted for them — the wry wit of Hank Greenwald and now the impish charm of Jon Miller — there’s still nobody like the redhead. Miller’s occasional Scully impersonations only help a little.
You’ve probably heard Vin Scully even if you don’t live in Los Angeles. He’s worked for the networks off and on since the late ’50s, doing baseball, football and golf, and he’s the announcer in the current baseball movie “For Love of the Game.” He’s OK on TV, but if you haven’t heard him broadcast baseball on the radio, you haven’t heard him.
For one thing, he works alone, something the Dodgers continue to allow him to do long after it’s become fashionable, even required, to have a former player serve as a “color” commentator. On network TV or radio, he always has a partner. For years on NBC’s “Game of the Week,” his partner was Joe Garagiola, and Scully’s instructions to Garagiola when they first teamed up, for an All-Star Game in the mid-’60s, are enlightening: “I said to him, ‘Joe, you played a long time, but I’ve broadcast as many games as you’ve played, and then some. So if you’re gonna talk “inside baseball,” you tell the fans the “inside baseball.” But don’t tell me.’”
Good advice, but impossible. The fact is, when two people are in the booth, they talk to each other. When it’s just Vin, he talks to you and me. It’s intimate. We’re in on it. And Scully’s vast knowledge of the game, his incredible store of anecdote both old and new, the fruits of his almost obsessive preparation, need not play second fiddle to some former backstop with strong opinions about when to employ the hit-and-run.
I grew up in a lucky time and place for a kid who liked to listen to sports on the radio. We had Scully doing the Dodgers, Enberg doing the Angels and Rams, the colorful, vocabulary-inventing Chick Hearn doing the Lakers, and Bob Miller, less famous than the others, somehow making hockey action make sense on the radio for the Kings. (All are still there except Enberg, long NBC’s plum-assignment guy.) I was spoiled.
I’ve heard others who grew up listening to Scully say that they never realized how good he was until they traveled around some and heard other announcers. But I knew. Looking back, I think now that Jerry Doggett, the Dodgers’ longtime No. 2 announcer, was a pretty fair broadcaster, but he seemed like a clod next to the mellifluous Scully. I could hear the Angels’ various broadcasters every night, and sometimes I’d tune in the San Diego Padres on KGB or even the Giants on clear-channel KNBR. Nobody like him. Nobody like the redhead.
The Dodgers defensively in this spine-tingling moment: Sandy Koufax and Jeff Torborg. The boys who will try and stop anything hit their way: Wes Parker, Dick Tracewski, Maury Wills and John Kennedy; the outfield of Lou Johnson, Willie Davis and Ron Fairly. And there’s 29,000 people in the ballpark and a million butterflies.
There’s David Copperfield stuff to get to, although talking about it means talking about Vin Scully the person, not Vin Scully the voice, something Scully and I probably agree is far less interesting to do.
He was born Vincent Edward Scully to Irish immigrant parents on Nov. 29, 1927, in the Bronx. His dad, a silk salesman, died when Vin was little and his mom remarried a man Vin liked. He’s described his family as “not poverty-stricken, just poor.” He grew up in a fifth-floor walk-up in Washington Heights, and he knew what he wanted to be almost from the beginning.
“I was about 8 years old and we had an old radio on four legs with crossed bars between the legs,” he told his friend Danny Kaye in a TV tribute in 1982, “and I would come home to listen to a football game — there weren’t other sports on — and I would get a pillow and I would crawl under the radio, so that the loudspeaker and the roar of the crowd would wash all over me, and I would just get goose bumps like you can’t believe. And I knew that of all the things in this world that I wanted, I wanted to be that fella saying, whatever, home run, or touchdown. It just really got to me.”
He was a pretty fair baseball player at Fordham Prep, and went to Fordham University on a partial baseball scholarship in 1945. He served a year in the Navy, then returned to get his degree in 1949, giving up baseball in his senior year because it interfered with his chance to do some work at a local radio station. He also was a stringer for the New York Times, wrote a column for the college paper — and sang in a barbershop quartet.
Upon graduation he got a job at WTOP, the CBS affiliate in Washington. A network executive mentioned him to Red Barber, CBS’s sports director (and lead announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers). Not long after, Barber had a sudden need for an announcer to do the Boston University-Maryland football game, part of “The Saturday CBS Football Roundup,” which had Barber in the studio in New York throwing it to whichever one of several games around the country was most exciting at the moment. Barber called Scully at home and got his mom, who was thrilled, if confused.
“What kind of mother would I have?” Scully said. “Irish, red-headed and excitable. She took the message, but she said it was from Red Skelton.”
Scully went to Boston to do the game from Fenway Park. But because of a mix-up, there was no booth for him. He ended up on the stadium roof with a long microphone cord, walking up and down to follow the game, freezing — he’d left his coat and gloves at the hotel, thinking he’d be inside. When Barber got a note from Fenway officials the next week apologizing for not having a booth for his man on Saturday, he was shocked and impressed: Scully had never mentioned his plight on the air, had never grubbed for sympathy from the audience. Although Scully was sure he’d done a lousy job and blown his big chance, Barber soon offered him the job as No. 3 man in the Dodgers booth. He was 22 years old. How can it have taken so long?
Koufax, feet together, now to his windup and the 1-2 pitch: fastball outside, ball 2. (Crowd boos.) A lot of people in the ballpark now are starting to see the pitches with their hearts. The pitch was outside, Torborg tried to pull it over the plate but Vargo, an experienced umpire, wouldn’t go for it. Two and 2 the count to Chris Krug. Sandy reading signs, into his windup, 2-2 pitch: fastball, got him swingin’!
“We just needed somebody to sort of take an inning here and there and just do little things. As I put it, carry our briefcases if necessary,” said Barber, known as the Old Redhead, who would become Scully’s mentor. “Scully was a very apt young man. And he took right over. He made the most of his opportunity.”
It used to be the other way around, but now if you listen to old tapes of Red Barber, you hear some of Vin Scully’s cadences. Barber’s call of Cookie Lavagetto’s game-winning double in Game 4 of the 1947 World Series (“Here comes the tying run, and heeeeere comes the winning run!”) sounds almost exactly like Scully.
“Red never taught me how to broadcast, he never taught me baseball, or anything like that,” Scully said in the 1982 video. “What he did teach me was among other things an attitude — get there early and do your homework and bear down. Use the crowd.”
Scully uses the crowd like nobody else. He still gets those goose bumps from the roar of a crowd, and he makes it a part of the broadcast. At the most exciting, historically significant moments, when other announcers would blather on about how exciting and historically significant the moment is, Scully shuts up. When Koufax struck out Harvey Kuenn to complete his perfect game, Scully stayed quiet for 38 seconds while the crowd roared. When Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record with his 715th in 1974, Scully said, “It’s gone!” — and then took off his headset and stood in the back of the booth so he wouldn’t be tempted to ruin the moment by talking. When the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series, in 1955, he said, simply, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world.” (He would later claim that he would have been unable to say more, for fear of bursting into tears.)
The strike 1 pitch: curveball, tapped foul, 0 and 2. And Amalfitano walks away and shakes himself a little bit, and swings the bat. And Koufax with a new ball, takes a hitch at his belt and walks behind the mound.
I would think that the mound at Dodger Stadium right now is the loneliest place in the world.
After one season, Scully was afraid he was going to be out of a job. The Dodgers were sold to Walter O’Malley, and Scully figured the new owner might want to bring in his own people. Then Vin got a call at home. It was O’Malley. Not, as Scully has often said, his secretary, or “a special assistant to,” but the man himself. O’Malley assured the young announcer that he was wanted back for 1951.
“It was an incredible thought,” Scully would say years later. “Here I’d been a year and a half out of college, and the thought that with all the things he had to do and with all the things he had on his mind, that he would call this kid in Jersey, the third announcer, and tell him, ‘You’ll be back next year.’”
It was the first indication Scully had of the O’Malley way of doing business, a way that would make him an intensely loyal employee as long as the family owned the team. He came to consider Walter O’Malley a father figure, and Walter’s son, Peter, who eventually took over the team, was like a brother. When Peter decided in late 1997 to sell the team (Fox bought it the next year), he sat Scully down and told him personally, and Scully said he felt “like I had been hit in the pit of my stomach.”
By the mid-’50s Barber had moved over to the Yankees and Scully was the No. 1 man for the Dodgers. In 1958 — the Brooklynites among you generally stop reading at this point in the story — O’Malley moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles.
“My first feeling was of tremendous relief when [O'Malley] told me I was in his plans to go to Los Angeles,” Scully told Bob Raissman of the Los Angeles Daily News in 1997. “But I was saddened because being a New Yorker, everything I had and loved in the world was back there.”
Not for long. Scully married a woman named Joan Crawford (not the actress) in 1958. The Dodgers struggled to a seventh-place finish that year, but in 1959 became the first National League team to go from seventh to first when they beat the Milwaukee Braves in a playoff. (Scully’s famous call of the clinching moment: “Big bouncer over the mound, over second base. Up with it is Mantilla, throws low and wide! Hodges scores! We go to Chicago!”) They beat the “Go-Go” White Sox in the Series, and what had taken 75 years and millions of broken hearts in Brooklyn had taken two seasons in California. The Dodgers were champions of the world.
Los Angeles fell madly in love with its new team — and with its announcer.
Sandy fussing, looks in to get his sign, 0 and 2 to Amalfitano. The strike 2 pitch to Joe: fastball, swung on and missed, strike 3! He is one out away from the promised land, and Harvey Kuenn is comin’ up.
It was a different world out West. In 1962 the Dodgers moved into a gleaming new ballpark — something that would have kept the team in Brooklyn had a deal been worked out there. They were champions again in ’63 and ’65, and then, after a Brooklyn-like four-Series losing streak (’66, ’74, ’77, ’78), again in ’81 and ’88.
The golden age of the transistor radio made Vin Scully’s voice an overarching presence at Dodger Stadium. So many fans brought radios to the game, the broadcast could be heard in every corner of the ballpark. Even the players could hear it when the crowd was quiet (which, at polite Dodger Stadium, was often).
He used that power only rarely. Once he had the crowd sing “Happy Birthday” to an umpire, Frank Secory. In 1965, on the last day of the season, with the Dodgers having clinched the pennant the night before, manager Walter Alston let Scully manage, over the radio, from the booth. A very hung over Ron Fairly drew a walk (“He didn’t trot to first base. He didn’t really walk to first base. He sloshed to first base”), and Scully thought it would be fun to have Fairly, slow-footed in the best of times, steal.
“For those of you in the ballpark with transistor radios listening,” Scully said, “watch Fairly’s face when he looks over to third and gets the steal sign.” After a double take for the ages by Fairly and a foul ball by the hitter, Scully had Fairly go again, and he made it, thanks to the catcher dropping the ball. At that, Scully retired from managing: “All right, Walter,” he said, “I got you this far. Now you’re on your own.”
One and 1 to Harvey Kuenn. Now he’s ready: fastball, high, ball 2. You can’t blame a man for pushing just a little bit now. Sandy backs off, mops his forehead, runs his left index finger along his forehead, dries it off on his left pants leg. All the while Kuenn just waiting. Now Sandy looks in. Into his windup and the 2-1 pitch to Kuenn: swung on and missed, strike 2!
It is 9:46 p.m.
Vin Scully has been behind the mike for half a century — more than two-thirds of the time that baseball has been a radio fixture. He is revered, at least by those who know of him, like few others in the game: like Joe DiMaggio was, maybe, or Willie Mays is. He’s in the Hall of Fame. In fact, the Hall of Fame did a multimedia presentation on his 50th season this year that was so popular, it’s probably going to become a regular event. In even more fact, when I called the Hall of Fame for help in researching this article, I was told there was a six-week backup for reference requests — “but since you’re writing about Vin Scully, I can do it right away.”
Criticizing him is like criticizing Shakespeare. You can do it, but you say more about your own foolishness than anything else.
He’s never changed his style. When his wife, Joan, died at 35, in 1972, leaving him with three children, Scully was the same easygoing fellow he’d always been on the air. It was just like on that rooftop at Fenway all those years before. No complaining, no talking about Vin. I listened to him every day, and I had no idea. (He also has three children with his current wife, Sandra.)
As he gets older, it seems to bother him more and more to be away from his family on road trips. He talks a lot — in interviews, never on the air — about how precious time is, and how much of it feels wasted when he’s away from home. “There are a lot of times you sit in a hotel room and you can hear the meter ticking,” he told the Dodgers’ Web site earlier this year. “And you begin to think about your own mortality. But I do love the game so much.” Retirement doesn’t seem to be on the horizon.
Two and 2 to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away. Sandy into his windup, here’s the pitch: Swung on and missed, a perfect game!
I haven’t heard him much these last couple decades. Even when I visit L.A. there’s rarely time or inclination to sit and listen to a ballgame on the radio, and anyway now that every game is on TV, Scully’s not on the radio enough anymore. He does more innings on the TV side, leaving the bulk of the radio work to others.
But I still hear him in my head, the voice of baseball for me. When I slap one through the hole in a pickup softball game, he’s right there with the call: “A humble thing, but thine own.”
DO NOT USE. use king kaufman byline and bio.More Gary Kaufman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)