Vin Scully Gets His Start on WTOP

Vin Scully postcard (Photo source: Official Vin Scully website)
Vin Scully is widely recognized as the best baseball announcer the game has ever known. (Photo source: Official Vin Scully website.)

If you are a baseball fan, you know Vin Scully. Heck, even if you aren’t a baseball fan you probably know Vin Scully. He’s been broadcasting Dodgers games since 1950 – first in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles. His smooth delivery and anecdotes have captivated listeners for decades. That's why he’s been called the “best of all time” and “a national treasure” amongst other lauds.

But had it not been for a summer job in Washington, who knows how Scully’s career would have turned out?

The year was 1949. Scully was finishing up at Fordham University in his native New York City. He had worked for the school’s radio station, WFUV, and hoped to pursue a career in radio. (He also played on the school’s baseball team and sang in a barbershop quartet amongst other extracurriculars.)

As Scully tells the story, “Marguerite Clark, a girl in our station volunteered to type letters, so we go through a guide picking out small stations, where I’d have a better chance,” of getting hired.[1]

 “When we saw the listing for ‘WTOP AM and FM, 50,000 watts, Washington D.C.’, I dismissed it. ‘That station’s much too big; it would never hire me. I’m just a college kid,’ I told her.

“But Marguerite said, ‘Why not? It’s only another three-cent stamp.’”[2]

Scully splurged and sent the letter. In fact, he sent out over 125 letters to radio outlets up and down the east coast, mostly low power stations. Only one wrote back: WTOP.

The Washington station asked him to send a sample of his work, which back then meant recording onto a 33 1/3. The station manager must’ve liked what he heard because the station invited Scully down to D.C. for an audition. Shortly thereafter he was hired as a summer fill-in announcer, which meant doing a little bit of everything – news, commercials, weather, sports, etc. – while the regular hosts were on vacation.

As he told the New York Post years later, “My first professional on-air words were a commercial for WTOP’s FM station…. I was supposed to say ‘summer thunderstorms.’ I said, ‘thummer sunderstorms.’”[3]

Beyond the verbal gymnastics, there was one small catch with the new gig: Scully hadn’t actually finished his exams. So, in order to graduate from Fordham, he had to balance school studies with his responsibilities at the station. That meant working some very odd hours – sometimes opening the station at 5:30am and signing off at 1am.

Not that Scully was complaining. “It was a 50,000-watt station, so I went from not even the minors—from amateur—to the major leagues in broadcasting.”[4]

While in Washington, Scully lived in a group house in Georgetown and later took a house-sitting gig at a home near 29th and O St., NW, across the street from Secretary of State Dean Acheson.[5] His "office" was the Warner building at 12th and E St., where WTOP’s studios were located at the time. (Side note: WTOP has a very interesting history of its own.)

Though brief, Scully’s summer on the Washington airwaves proved formative for his career. He impressed his bosses enough to be offered a full time job that was to start in February 1950. More importantly, he caught the ear of network big-wigs.

“Being hired at WTOP was a huge break. That was a big CBS station; Arthur Godfrey and Edward R. Murrow worked there. That’s where I met Red Barber.”[6]

Red Barber was CBS Radio’s sports director and the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After meeting Scully through WTOP, Barber hired the young broadcaster to do play-by-play of some college football games in the fall of 1949. Scully shined and Barber hired him as a backup announcer for Dodgers games after then-partner Ernie Harwell left the team to work for the New York Giants.

The rest, as they say, is history. Scully got comfortable in his new chair and stayed… for 66 seasons and counting.

Of course, it could’ve easily turned out differently. As Scully recalled in 2008, “I later learned that I was the one hired among 54 candidates. If I’d known that the odds were so great, I never would have even bothered to travel to Washington for the audition.”[7]

Thank goodness for youthful ignorance.

For more on Vin Scully’s time in Washington, check out this 2005 interview that Scully gave to Washington Nationals play-by-play man Charlie Slowes.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Smith, Curt, Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story, Potomac Books, Inc.: Washington, D.C.: 2010, 26.
  2. ^ Mushnick, Phil, “Voice of Praise,” New York Post, 27 Apr 2008.
  3. ^ Mushnick.
  4. ^ Feinberg, Scott, “Dodgers Announcer Vin Scully Remains the Gold Standard, But is Retirement on his Mind?” The Hollywood Reporter, 16 July 2014.
  5. ^ Smith, 26.
  6. ^ Mushnick.
  7. ^ Mushnick.