The advent of the Mets’ annual visit to Dodger Stadium always reminds me of one of the greatest baseball stories nobody tells.
Let’s correct that.
A decade ago, when I was still working full-time in sports and in Los Angeles, it was the Yankees coming to town for an exhibition game, and, with them, my friend Michael Kay, at that time still a member of their radio team. Michael is usually pretty direct, but on the field before the game, he was hemming and hawing something awful until I finally blurted “out with it!” He explained he was just too nervous to introduce himself to the legendary Vin Scully, even though both were not only major league broadcasters, but also alums of Fordham University in New York.
Mike was still repeating his apology when I explained I knew exactly how he felt. When I had first worked in Los Angeles as a local sportscaster in the ’80s, it had taken me two years to screw up the courage to introduce myself to this nonpareil of my business. As I reassured Michael, Vin was easily the nicest famous person in the sport, maybe in the country. And he always had a story that in some way related to you.
Little did I know.
As Michael began to hyperventilate, I made the introductions. Vin asked about Fordham, about Mike’s youth, about his newspaper career, about the Yankees. And then came the story: “Michael, did you know; Keith, I don’t even think I told you this — I nearly became the Voice of the Yankees?”
Absolute silence for two or three beats, and then, from Kay and Olbermann, a joint “whaaaat?”
“When the Yankees let Mel Allen go in 1964, I got a phone call from the man who they had brought in to run their broadcasting operation, Craig Smith,” Vin began. “He had been in charge of the World Series broadcasts forever, so I’d known him about ten years by then. And he asked me if I’d like to come home to New York and become the lead announcer. He offered a very handsome salary, and a long contract.
“Well, I was amazed, as you can imagine. I’d found a wonderful home here in Los Angeles, but remember, this was only seven years after the Dodgers left Brooklyn. I was still a New Yorker through and through. Plus, here was a chance to work again with Red Barber. And recall, too, that this was just before the Yankee dynasty collapsed. As much as Mr. O’Malley had done here and in Brooklyn, the Yankees were still the marquee name in sports. If it had been 1958 or 1959, when I still missed New York so, I would’ve said yes before he hung up the phone.”
“So, I thought long and hard about that one. But I had a young family, and I think we had all just truly adjusted to living here – takes just about seven years, I think – and in the end I turned it down.”
Michael and I each sputtered various observations about how changed the baseball world might have been. Vin Scully doing the Yankee games? Would the franchise still have ebbed with such a benign but effective salesman at the microphone? Would the Dodgers’ roots, still growing in 1964-1965, have gone in as deeply as they did? Would CBS’s failed experiment in corporate ownership have succeeded, and George Steinbrenner never have bought the Yankees? What would have happened to the man to whom the Yankees gave the job Scully turned down? Would Joe Garagiola have ever wound up on The Game Of The Week, or The Today Show?
Vin laughed. “Oh, to tell the truth, I don’t think it’d made that much difference. It’s not very important.” He excused himself to go back to preparing for his broadcast, and, as usual, made it seem like I had done him a great favor by introducing Michael to him. After Vin had left, Michael and I sat there on the Dodger bench for a few moments in silence. Then he said “If he had been the Yankee announcer when I was growing up, I never would have dreamed of applying for a job as his gopher, let alone as his partner.” I told him that once again I knew how he felt – it was very tough knowing that my sportscasts often preceded Vin’s play-by-play on cable. It seemed somehow a sacrilege to pretend to deserve to be on the same channel.
Still, think of it: 45 years of “Hi again everybody, it’s time for Yankee Baseball!” Or maybe Steinbrenner would’ve quarreled with Vin and eased him out. Or, likeliest of all the alternate-galaxy theories: working in New York, where in the ’60s all the network and advertising executives were still located, Vin Scully would’ve gone on to the Game Of The Week, or something even higher up on the tv food chain, a lot earlier than he actually did.
Who knows – maybe he’d still be doing it – and doing it on NBC.