Scully and Twain: Unaccountable Freaks

Two anniversaries: one a few days ago, one today, both recognizing the magnetic power of words. The first, this past Sunday, the 60th anniversary of Vin Scully’s first broadcast of a Dodgers game. Baseball might be meaningless to you, but if words are the current that galvanizes your soul, you should know his artistry. Scully is a painter, a light-footed boxer, a moralist, a clarifier, someone who opens the picnic basket on a Sunday and lights up when he sees that the potato salad is perfect—and then invites you to share. Most of all he is a storyteller. Baseball is stitched with stories.

How did Vin Scully recognize his 60th anniversary? He broadcast a Sunday ballgame, between the Dodgers and the Giants. One of the things I miss since moving to Northern California is that I only hear Vin on rare occasions. Since I’ve been listening to him since the early 1960s, I’m familiar with his phrasings, his pauses, his mulling aloud, the ease with which he inserts a fact or anecdote about the current batter or pitcher without missing the electric ebb and flow of the game. Watching baseball for many is a total bore, filled with dead spots, flatness and languor; Scully walks you up the small hills you don’t even see, extends his hand to point out a subtle feature, reads the clouds and when a thrashing squall strikes, invites you to feel the heat of the lightning.

The point I want to emphasize is that he has been doing this for 60 years. Sixty. And he never phones it in. Always the same high level of engagement, always the understated appreciation for the game’s subtleties, always the regard for the audience’s intelligence, always the celebration of language and forever the reflexes to rise to the moment. That is sustained fire, that is mastery; in no uncertain terms, it is love. Any writer would do well to study and savor the arc of such a career, and to try to work with the same attention, the same quality of applied effort, the same sidestepping of the easy or the mediocre.

Who’s That Hanging on Halley’s Comet’s Tail?
The other anniversary of note is today’s: Mark Twain died 100 years ago today. The sad part of that is that there’s no Mark Twain to come up with a quote about his 100th anniversary. Instead, here’s Twain on his own comings and goings:

I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.”

Indeed, he was prescient: he went out the day after Halley’s whipped its cosmic tail over his head. His only surviving child, Clara, placed next to his grave a monument that was 12 feet long, or two fathoms deep—the depth at which it’s safe for an average steamboat to pass. Many folks already know that “Mark Twain” is a riverboat expression for that depth sounding, Samuel Clemens chose his famed pen name. Of course, the man was much deeper than 12 feet. Twain had that long, meteoric career that too embodied prodigious output over extended time. At 16, he was contributing articles and humorous sketches to his brother’s newspaper, where he was a typesetter. He then set about scribbling for more than 50 years, putting together an astonishing body of work as remarkable for its eclecticism as for the razor of its wit. To call the man a mere humorist is to say that Einstein was rather clever.

So, Scully and Twain, giants both. But the unimaginable reach of their careers, their legacies, couldn’t have even been suggested to them as a feeble joke back when they began their first stumbling efforts at shaping sound around a microphone, or trying to liven up a story with an errant turn of phrase. They didn’t begin with a legacy in mind, but just with the notion of doing the work, putting in the hard time, seeing which words worked and which died aborning—a solid lesson for writers of every stripe.

Vin Scully, Mark Twain, unaccountable freaks: Happy anniversary!

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4 thoughts on “Scully and Twain: Unaccountable Freaks

  1. Two Twain quotes, one dark, one lighter:

    “There isn’t any way to libel the human race.”
    – Mark Twain in Eruption

    “There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.”
    – More Maxims of Mark, Johnson, 1927

  2. Rick, thank the heavens that with my curmudgeonly turn of mind, I’ll never be accused of being an old optimist. (Isn’t there a joke about old optometrists in there somewhere?)

    You do remind me that we need to spruce up all of our declarations, so that when they are tallied up, we can find at least a handful of good quotes. Twain kind of busted the bank in that area…

  3. Twain and Shakespeare; c’mon, all those guys did was string a bunch of famous quotes together . . .

    I haven’t heard Vin Scully’s voice in, what, 20 years? But I could hear it as I read this.

    Anyone who finds baseball boring probably doesn’t understand vanilla or pencil sketches, either. Or maybe they think it’s a sport, rather than realising it’s an artful grace performed to the scent of newly mowed grass.

  4. Joel: vanilla, pencil sketches, new-mown grass—why, why, you’re a SENSUALIST! Or a poet. Or some other kind of criminal. I’m glad that you see the poetry in baseball, and I’m very much with you on those new-mown vanilla pencils.

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