This photograph makes me so happy. It was taken at the White House, of course, on the day that 21 people received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I first saw it on Vin Scully’s Instagram page. I am thankful that Vin Scully has an Instagram page.
I have spent the last two days staring at this photograph more or less nonstop. It has everything. At the center, you have Vin Scully, a miracle. Look at the joy on his face. That’s not one of those “OK, everybody smile,” expressions — that is the pure and runaway wonder of a child who cannot believe that life has been so good to him.
That was the wonder that Vin Scully brought to baseball. You can talk, of course, about the poetry. “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.” You can talk about his sense of rhythm and tempo and music, the way he watched Henry Aaron hit the home run that passed the Babe, declared it gone, and then stepped aside for 27 seconds to let people hear the crowd roar, the fireworks go off, the rapture everyone felt just being there.
And then, at exactly the right beat, he sang:
“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep south for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”
You can talk about the stories, the interludes, the vivid descriptions, the way he would take the plainest of moments — baseball’s beauty is in all of its plain moments — and turn it slightly magical: “So,” he would say, “deuces wild, two balls, two strikes, two outs, two on and two runs in the game.”
But it was his joy, above all, the way he could express his own sense of fortune at every game for more than a half century, that made him a miracle. Vin Scully’s life has had great sadness in it. Personal tragedies. Long lives do. “In the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” Samuel Beckett wrote. Vin Scully went on, and somehow, through it all, conveyed that he still could not believe how wonderful it all is, a hitter, a pitcher, a beautiful day at Dodger Stadium. Pull up a chair and spend the afternoon with us.
To his right in the photograph, blocking the lower corner of the painting of John Tyler, that’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, of course, and the smile on his face is a bit more forced, a bit wearier. That too fits. “Listen kid,” he said to the boy in the cockpit in “Airplane,” “I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.”
Kareem’s game was pure efficiency. In his later years and after he retired, people would write about the beauty and gracefulness of his signature move, The Skyhook, but it always seemed to me that the miracle of The Skyhook was how ungraceful and unbeautiful it was; The Skyhook was scoring refined and distilled down to a sort of clear basketball concentrate. You knew it was coming. You had seen it a thousand times before. But it was unstoppable as rain and as unavoidable as the wind.
To Vin’s left in the photograph, with Ulysses S. Grant hovering over his shoulder, is Michael Jordan. He too has a camera-ready smile, though unsurprisingly, unlike Kareem’s, it is perfect.