John Buell

Pondering Retirement While Watching Baseball

Periodically I fall asleep while watching a late night baseball game from the West Coast. I have invested in a Major League Baseball package that allows me to choose almost any game every night, but by far the preferred choice is Dodger games. I am a fan of announcers as much as teams. And the former are more stable than the teams, which have become interchangeable parts on a money- driven merry-go-round.

My choice of Dodger games owes nothing to Brooklyn or Los Angeles loyalty but rather to appreciation of and fascination with the voice of the Dodgers, Vin Scully. I have been especially attentive to Dodger games this season.

Prior to the start of the season, Scully had announced that this would be his last as Dodger broadcaster.

The other night, however, Scully surprised us, albeit with a characteristically soft-spoken announcement. An admirer had a long tradition of sending him chocolate chip cookies, and this year her gift was accompanied by a note that the cookies were a bribe to entice him to return for another season.

As I drifted off to sleep, I expected him to thank her and then explain why the time had come to hang up the microphone. His response, that he would return for his 63rd season, both jolted me out of my sleep and led to some reflections on age and retirement. Even if he really loves those cookies, Scully is returning to the booth because he is healthy and loves his job. Many older Americans toil on also out of love for the office, even when they could easily afford to choose the golf course.

Sadly, however, an increasing number, even in declining health, are forced to keep working due to America’s inadequate social protections not out of love for their work; this is where we all as a society strike out. Scully is both typical and atypical of his generation. As an announcer, he is without equal. For me he almost defines the genre. Unlike any other announcer today, Scully works alone, with no ex- player to provide the “color” commentary. And hype is not his style. For him no baseball game determines the future of western civilization. His commentary resembles a quiet, literate conversation with his listeners. The other day he congratulated both Japan and Huntington Beach for their long run in the Little League World Series. Both had played great ball, but only one could win. “It’s a game, after all.”

Scully reminds me of Ernie Harwell, long-time radio voice of the Detroit Tigers and a fixture of my youth. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson has commented that the L.A. Dodgers “boasted sports’ greatest, most literate and entertaining broadcaster, Vin Scully. (I’ve long believed that kids who grew up listening to Scully got at least a 30-point bump on their verbal SAT.) Always the most spatially and governmentally scattered of cities — there are 88 municipalities in Los Angeles County — L.A. lacked most forms of common civic identity until half the town began listening to Scully.” Like Harwell’s, Scully’s commentary is peppered with stories about the players’ lives and families.

Recently during a scorching Sunday afternoon from Dodger Stadium, Scully regaled us with tales of how players used wet mattresses and cabbage under their hats to cool off in pre-airconditioning times.

As with all modern commentators, he has a plethora of statistics upon which to draw, but he does not overwhelm the fan with numbers.

I especially appreciate several features that seem unique to his broadcasts. When a runner lands on third, Scully will invariably inform us of the number of wild pitches the pitcher has committed over the season. And when pitchers bat he tell us what percentage of the time they have struck out, a figure that gives a better sense than mere batting average as to whether or not they are klutzes at the plate.

My favorite Scully touch is a sixth inning feature, “This Day in Dodger Baseball,” wherein he tells a story of an event or personality in the long history of the Dodgers, stories often drawn on his own conversations with the players.

Longevity in the US has increased and seniors are working longer, both out of choice and necessity. Nonetheless, I bristle at the idea — increasingly popular — that because longevity has increased and many seniors are doing excellent work well into their eighties, it is no big deal if the Social Security retirement age were to be increased from 65 to 67.I look around my own working class community with its fishermen, boat builders, carpenters.

Despite talk of post- industrial society, much work remains physical and is literally back- breaking. (Such service professions as nursing carry enormous physical and emotional burdens.) And increases in longevity, as Dean Baker has pointed out, are heavily class- skewed. Upper class citizens have more control over their work environments, generally do less physically stressful work, and have better and more regular access to quality medical care.

Increasing the retirement age is another attack on the wallets and the health of poor and working class citizens, often depriving them of the few years of retirement to which they can look forward.

Baker also points out that any social security shortfalls, which are exaggerated to begin with, could be alleviated by removing the cap on earned income subject to social security taxation.

Much as I like Vin Scully, I believe he and other well compensated professionals working long years at jobs they love should see all of their income taxed, just as is the case for my neighbors, most of whom have few choices about their work. In a broader sense, the issue of retirement raises questions about modern capitalism. At least as far back as the twenties, capitalism’s most outspoken defenders promised a future of both material gains and more free time for everyone.  

And indeed, despite US capitalism’s frequent failures to tap its full human and technological potential, worker productivity has greatly increased. Yet for a quarter century Americans have seen stagnant incomes, longer workloads and no opportunity to trade any wage gains for increases in leisure or earlier retirements. Preserving and lowering the Social Security retirement age and taxing all earned income would be a small step in the right direction. But for now I am pleased that Vin Scully will stay another year so that I can use my own leisure time to revisit and refashion my memories of the summer game.

John Buell is the author of Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2011

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2011 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652