Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Silence Can Be Eloquent

It's a mere moment in a man's life between the All-Star Game to an old timer's game.~ Vin Scully

John Madden retired the other day, which was the basis for a lot of nostalgia, both about Mr. Madden and about announcers in general. Mr. Madden, in my very humble opinion, picked a good time to go. In recent years, he could be accused justifiably of getting to be a cliche, falling back on standard catch phrases, and often seeming to lose interest in games. He did do, however, an excellent job in the most recent Super Bowl, which was a rare barn-burner in that often dull series. Mr. Madden was "on", which is a good way to go out. Better to be remembered for a good final performance than a bad one.

On Mike and Mike the morning after Mr. Madden's announcement, the discussion turned to who one might carve into a Mt. Rushmore of sportscasters. That's a tough one because there have been a lot of very, very good sportscasters over the years. The first name that popped into my head and one both guys on the show put up there was Vin Scully. I'll come to why that should be in a moment. Mike Greenberg brought up a list voted on by the American Sportscasters Association of the top 50 announcers of all time. Who is at the top of the list? Why, Vin Scully, of course.

So, I thought I'd look up the entire list, but when I searched, this one came up first. Who should be first on this list but Howard Cosell? Lord help us.

Now the ASA list also lists Mr. Cosell in the top 10 (number 5 to be exact), and I'm at a loss to understand why. For some reason, Howard Cosell is given a huge amount of credit for the success of Monday Night Football, which is beyond me. MNF had some of the worst people in the booth in the history of broadcasting. Alex Karras, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, and Dennis Miller all were there and yet ratings did just fine, thank you. It was the product, not Howard Cosell, that made MNF.

For one horrible period, Frank Gifford was doing play-by-play for the games. Mr. Gifford couldn't keep track of what teams were on the field. In one game, both quarterbacks wore number 12. Gifford couldn't get the names straight all night.

But back to that list. It was compiled by someone calling himself David Halberstam, who is obviously not the late Pulitzer Prize author. He is also not much of a judge of sportscasting. For example, Vin Scully is at number 16, while a non-entity like Brent Musberger is third. Musberger doesn't even make the top 40 from the ASA. Other gems on Mr. Halberstam's list include legendary announcers like Phyllis George, Joe Morgan, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Garagiola, none of whom even made the ASA list. Meanwhile he leaves off quite possible the best boxing announcer of all time, Don Dunphy and Red Barber. Red Barber, for crying out loud!

Let me talk about Vin Scully before I burst a blood vessel.

Vin Scully can bring drama and poetry to watching caulk dry. Many sports broadcasters try to wax eloquent, but it's a lost art, primarily, I think, because they don't have the journalistic models people like Mr. Scully had. He would have grown up reading Grantland Rice or Ring Lardner, and I know he read Jim Murray's work in the LA Times. He obviously read of lot of wonderful literature, because it comes out in his ability to put into words what we are all thinking in a given moment.

He also has a gift that has always been rare in announcers: He knows when to shut up. Two moments come to mind. In 1964, Ken Venturi was making a comeback from an autombile accident three years before. That year, the US Open was in at the Congressional Country Club, where it gets hot in the summertime. That summer it was brutal, and the last day of the Open, players had to play 36 holes. Venturi was dehydrated and near collapse but he soldiered on and had a lead as he slowly walked up the 18th fairway. Scully described the scene, the pain, the effort vividly, and then he stopped talking and let the video and the roar of the crowd at the 18th hole tell the story. It was beautiful.

In 1988, the Dodgers were playing Oakland in the World Series. In game 1, Kirk Gibson limped up to the plate to pinch hit. Gibson had been a solid performer for the Dodgers, but he was so gimpy after a series of injuries, it was doubtful that he could have beaten out a single hit hard to the outfield. He didn't have to; he hit a home run. Scully's call was perfect.

"All year long they looked to him to light the fire and all year long he answered the demands. High fly ball into right field. She is gone!" And then he said nothing while the crowd went nuts. I think Gibson had dragged himself all the way around the bases before Scully spoke again.

"In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened."

But if you want a wonderfully example of what sportscasting should be, check out his call of Sandy Koufax's perfect game. It's here, about a third of the way down the page. Just reading it, you can feel the moment. I won't quote it all here, but I will call your attention to something right near the end: 38 seconds of cheering by the crowd.

I cannot even conceive of Howard Cosell doing that.

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