The Grim Reaper comes for all
I know, that's a morbid, depressing headline. But it's true, and as one gets older—and as I personally can no longer pretend I'm not firmly within middle age—the people in the world who leave us are more and more often people we have a personal connection with in some fashion. At 53, I'm not in the stage where I'm scanning the obits for people I know or anything, but I am in the stage wherein the public figures that reach their ends are a kind of contemporary.
Recently there have been a couple of those for me, and, naturally, my friend Erik beat me to the punch in writing up reflective memorials for them and I can't improve on his remarks. But I will say a little bit anyway.
For the great Vin Scully, longtime broadcaster for the Los Angeles (and before that the Brooklyn) Dodgers, who passed away on August 2nd at age 94, Erik noted the achievement of sheer longevity Scully accomplished thusly:
One of the first games he broadcast for the Dodgers, when he was a mere stripling of 23 in 1950, was an exhibition game against the Philadelphia A's, managed, in his final year, by Connie Mack, who had been born in 1862, just after the Battle of Fredericksburg. So just those two men connected the U.S. Civil War to the present. Remarkable. If you want to put it in baseball terms: Connie Mack began playing professional baseball in 1886, and managed professional baseball from 1894 to 1950, at which point, at that exhibition game, you can imagine him tagging off to Vin Scully, who broadcast professional baseball games another 66 years. So it's 1886 to 2016. That's the entirety of the sport, really.
Vin was my introduction to baseball entertainment. I grew up in a minor-league town, where there was a Triple-A team affiliated with the Astros (and Rangers before that) and where the local TV station occasionally ran Padres games, but the local radio ran Dodger games. Nearly every night (or afternoon) in the spring and summer I could tune in to AM 1400 and hear the almost musical phrase, "It's time for Dodger baseball" in the dulcet tones of Vin Scully, followed by "a very pleasant good afternoon to you wherever you may be."
I never was a Dodger fan, but I was always, always a Vin Scully fan. There are/have been other good baseball play-by-play pros—your Jon Millers, your Gary Thornes, your Dave Niehauses—but there has ever only been one Vin Scully; no one has ever been as good at that job. Vin not only narrated the game for you, he made it art. He (and presumably his staff of minions) prepared so meticulously for every broadcast that he had stories about even the most no-name of journeyman callups to relate during breaks in the action. He famously lip-read arguments on the field between managers and umpires, substituting creative metaphors for the swear words when he interpreted for the radio audience. (My favorite of Vin's substitutions was “'that's fertilizer,' Lasorda yelled, ‘100% fertilizer.’”) He made the most inconsequential blowout game between teams long eliminated from the pennant chase entertaining.
Vin was also the regular TV guy on the NBC Game of the Week for much of my growing-up years, setting my standard for televised games as well as radio. He had a decent repartee with color commentator Joe Garagiola on NBC, but he was always best as a solo act, just chatting with the listener one on one. Or, as he put it himself, "I tried to make believe I was in the ballpark [grandstands], sitting next to somebody and just talking." In modern times, when thanks to the Internet and MLB.TV one had a choice in such things, when I had the option of watching a game with the Dodgers' broadcast feed or the opposition's, I would always choose the Dodger feed because of Vin. Heck, sometimes I would tune in Dodger games as background noise while doing something else, just for Vin.
Scully was the best for a lot of reasons, but one key element was a sense to know when to stop talking and let the moment speak for itself. He described his approach to the gig this way: "The game is just one long conversation, and I'm anticipating that, and I will say things like 'Did you know that?' or 'You're probably wondering why.' I'm really just conversing rather than just doing play-by-play. I never thought of myself as having a style. I don't use key words. And the best thing I do? I shut up."
Erik lists some favorite Scullyisms—“Bob Gibson pitches like he's double-parked”—but there have been so many that I both heard myself and read quoted by others that I couldn't pick favorites. But there is one that resonates more and more in my middle-age, from a game Vin did between the Dodgers and the Cubs in the late '80s and regarding the Cubs' slugging outfielder: "Andre Dawson has a bruised knee and is listed as day-to-day. Aren't we all?"
The other obit from this month that hit my world was that for Nichelle Nichols, famous for portraying Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek, who died at 89 years old. Erik again has a better tribute. As a champion-level Star Trek nerd I of course know all the oft-told stories about Nichelle and her Trek history—how Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her to remain with the show when she was thinking of leaving; how she inspired Whoopi Goldberg and plenty of other young African-Americans just by portraying a competent professional on network television; how she didn't know ahead of time that her audition for Star Trek was for her former affair partner, Gene Roddenberry, whom she left because she didn't want to be the "other woman"; how Bill Shatner sabotaged the alternate-take filming of the alleged "first interracial kiss" scene with her, insisted on by network suits, to ensure that the kiss would make it on air despite NBC's worries about alienating racists in the South—and how she turned being typecast as Lt. Uhura into a way to reach out to the scientific community, working with NASA on minority outreach and recruiting several applicants who would become prominent astronauts and administrators for the agency (including shuttle astronaut Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space, who "returned the favor," as it were, and appeared as a transporter chief on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation).
I never met Nichelle personally despite seeing her in person at a number of conventions. I've never been an autograph hound or anything like that, so didn't wait in line to speak with her and have her sign stuff, but I did enjoy her appearances and the occasions she would close out her bit with a verse or two of "Beyond Antares."
A class act, a quality human, and a loss to the world.
Nichelle had been in poor health for a while, it wasn't a shock to learn of her passing, but it still gave me a sad, as the kids say. We've now lost De, Jimmy, Leonard, Majel, and Nichelle from the original core crew, not to mention Rene Auberjonois and Aaron Eisenberg from Deep Space Nine.
I'm at that age. The obits are more often for folks that were somehow important to me now.
(Oh, and to answer Erik's question, Nichelle's character of Uhura got her first name, Nyota, non-canonically in novels in the '80s; it was only in the J.J. Abrams movie of 2009 that it was first used on-screen. Fanfiction attempted to name her "Penda" previously, but we can all agree the final choice was the better one.)