The night Vin Scully died, most of us who are lifelong Dodger fans found out immediately—and simultaneously—a graphic of his familiar face and in progress on the screen of the 1927-2022 game, Dodgers vs. Giants. My mom was watching, missing her voice as she has done in every sport since she retired in 2016.
We’ve talked about Scully so often that his memory has deepened over the three years. Her purse, at her feet, disappears every few minutes, but Sandy Cofax’s perfect game replays as if it had happened.
My Swiss German mother learned her best English by listening to a transistor radio, because Vin Scully’s tenor voice was called Dodger Games. Now she’s 87, and while we drink tea and eat Toblerone with sports, she reminds me that Scully changed her life. When he had no car and no money, his voice led him to a new and better future.
My mother was born Gabrielle Lew in 1934 in a small village in the Swiss Alps. Her mother died when she was 9 years old, leaving my mother and two younger brothers to be cared for by a hardened nurse from a nearby valley. That nurse married his father and then they had their own child. In 1950, to escape the lack of work after World War II, the family took a boat to Canada, where my mother’s stepmother found them working on a farm. He tried to get my mother married to a local pig farmer; At the age of 15, my mother fled to the city of Oshawa.
Eventually, his family moved from Canada to California, and at age 19, my mother joined them again in Fontana. But to be alone at a boarding house in Riverside, she walked for a few days before leaving again.
It’s 1954. He got a job in Household Finance. He bought himself a transistor radio, the recently released Regency TR-1, the world’s first pocket transistor radio. And he found that Scully’s voice could keep him from being frightened.
“I had to go to work; I didn’t have a car,” he told me the day after Scully died, when the Dodgers played the Giants again. “You have to be careful, a woman is walking, a car will try to pick you up. So I turned on my radio and on my way home I listened to Vin Scully. He was doing the Dodgers in New York then.”
My mom was short – 4-feet-11, 98 pounds. At work, men tried to get her alone. At the boarding house, it was a woman out of five men, the bedroom doors had no locks, and when she was out, people stole her things: “I was scared in my room, but I had my radio ”
She wanted to lose her accent: “‘Where are you from, little lady?’ Men used to tell me all the time. No one wanted to hear the way I voiced after the war. I really learned my English from Vin. He was such a charming speaker, with smooth delivery, and he did other events , and interrupted comments about history, LA and Orange County. He kind of charmed me.”
This story must have been told countless times in Southern California by people who came here from Mexico, the Philippines, Japan, Germany.
My mother loved Scully, but in 1955, Richard Strait went to home finance for a $50 loan. He was on strike in a Boeing aircraft, sleeping in his car and leaving behind his first wife and two children. My mother took a loan for that. They married in November, and in June 1961, when I was 9 months old, he left me with a babysitter and finally went to Memorial Coliseum to watch a live game – the Dodgers lost 4-2 to the Giants. There, too, people listened to Scully on his transistor radio.
As a child, his voice was everywhere. Most men I knew carried transistor radios in their shirt pockets while they fix cars, pick oranges, swirl hot dogs on the grill. We heard Scully call the 1963 and 1965 World Series. After my father left, my mother married another man who loved baseball, and when they could, they took us to Dodger Stadium. Five kids in a 1966 Ford station wagon, an hour’s drive each way, sometimes we heard Vin from the dashboard. I parceled out a box of CrackerJack five-way from the back seat and listened to him.
The summer I was 19, I worked as a sports stringer for Riverside Press-Enterprise. I always added color to my writing, like the frost on the grass of a football field, or the way a blind swimmer told me she felt for the edge of the pool. I learned that by listening to Scully.
One night, after the Dodgers beat up the reporter, a conflict ensued, I was sent to cover the game. When another reporter took me to meet Scully, Vin shook my hand.
I said what I was practicing – that my mother had learned perfect English from him, that she always wished he could marry her. He threw his head back and laughed, full-throated, and said that he was on his second marriage and was very happy; I said that my mother also has a second marriage, but she will leave it in a heartbeat. “In a heartbeat,” he asked me to say it—such an American phrase. He laughed again and waved my hand goodbye.
My mom now watches the Dodgers at my house. She marvels at the players born in Venezuela, Mexico, Dominican Republic. Dodger catcher Austin grew up in Barnes, Riverside, and went to high school with my daughters. My mom loves that story.
She loves watching my neighbor, Mario, whose parents were born in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico, and his wife and their five children in full Dodger gear — jerseys and hats — and through their window, Guadalupe neon. The sign of the Virgin that lights up the wall next to their big-screen TV, sports on.
But she also misses out on using her imagination to “see” the fans, the players, the action. She remembers the transistor radio and the intimacy of Scully’s voice.
On the day of his last home game, in 2016, Scully asked: “Were you among the crowd that groaned over one of my puns? Or would you please laugh at one of my little jokes? Did I put you transistors under your pillow? Did you put the radio to sleep?” My mother sobbed.
To him, and to millions of others, his behavior, his stories, and the language he used were aspirational and eclectic. My mom told me, “He made you feel like you knew that baseball player, and he made every single player important. He showed you the sky, and he taught you all the right conditions for America: Fly High Ball, Grand Slam and Stolen House.
Susan Strait’s new novel is “Mecca”. Her memoir is “In the Country of Women”.