Three Life Lessons from Vin and Arnie

Posted 09.26.2016

Two legends said goodbye yesterday.

At age 88, Vin Scully, after 67 seasons in the booth, called his last home game for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Like the closing scene of a movie, the boys in blue clinched the NL West in the bottom of the 10th with a walk off homerun. After celebrating at home plate, the entire team, along with all of the fans in the stands, turned to the press box to salute Vin who stood there beaming and wrapping his arms forward as if he could hug everyone there.

At age 87, Arnold Palmer left much more quietly when he passed away in Pittsburgh after being admitted to the hospital a few days earlier for tests on his heart. Perhaps as he passed, the long ago cheers of Arnie’s Army were echoing in his mind. Most everyone agrees that with his skill, moxie and common guy from Latrobe, PA demeanor, Palmer made the previously elite game of golf of interest to millions of average people. Back in the day, thousands of fans on the course and millions more at home would root for every go-for-broke shot he made shouting, “Charge, Arnie, charge!” If you want to get a sense of how popular he was, ask yourself if you can think of any other athlete who has a drink named after them.

When people pursue their vacations and lives with so much acclaim over so many years, I think it’s worth stopping to ask how did they do what they did and what can the rest of us learn from them? In the cases of Vin Scully and Arnold Palmer, the lessons are many and too numerous to mention in a brief blog post. Here, though, are three characteristics that I think they had in common that the rest of us should consider as we live our own lives:

Class: Scully and Palmer both had a clear sense of how they wanted to carry themselves through life. In spite of all of their accomplishments, neither man immersed himself in an ego bath.

As the accolades washed over him this year, Scully graciously acknowledged them and then, wearing his dress shirt and tie, went back to his mic. As reported in The Washington Post this morning, Scully explained at a pre-game press conference that “You don’t go through life thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really good.'”

Arnold Palmer was taught the game of golf by his dad who was a club pro in Latrobe. As recounted in the Financial Times, as a boy playing in a junior tournament, Palmer threw a club in a fit of anger after a shot went awry. On the way home, his father admonished him and said the next club he threw would be his last. Palmer never threw another club for the rest of his 70 plus years in golf. He was noted instead for his zest, energy and warmth as a player.

Scully and Palmer decided early on to comport themselves with class and, in doing so, began to define the terms of their legacies.

Craft: Scully worked alone in the booth. He  wanted his broadcast to feel like a conversation between himself and one other person — the listener — as if they were two fans watching the game together. He was an astute observer of the game who knew when to explain and when to let the moment speak for itself. He knew when it was time to mix a story into the play by play. He knew how to conduct a conversation with millions of viewers and listeners. He was a master craftsman in his profession.

In his remembrance of Palmer in the Financial Times, Derek Lawrenson shared the story of the champion preparing to play his last U.S. Open in 1994. The tournament was at Oakmont just down the road from Palmer’s hometown so the spotlight was particularly intense. When Lawrenson arrived at Oakmont the day before the tournament started he was surprised to find Palmer “in the professional’s workshop mending an old wooden club, repairing the binding that had come unglued. ‘I’m not one for all the adulation and the backslapping, to be honest.’ he said. ‘I would rather be doing this, what I trained to do and what I do best.'” Like Scully, Palmer was a master craftsman.

What different would it make if we all approached our vocation as a craft to be mastered over the years?

Connection: While they each worked alone, both Scully and Palmer relied on and encouraged connection with others. In the press conference before his last game, someone asked Vin how he made his audience members feel like friends. His answer was instructive:

“I think really if you had to explain away everything, I’m a very happy person, and I love people…When I go on the air, I’m happy. I’m happy having met Marie in the elevator. I’m happy to see James at the front door of the press box. Seeing all my pals, the writers. I mean, I was not kidding last night when I talked about the warmth that I get when I come here.”

For his part, Palmer seemed to thrive on the connection and energy he felt with and from his fans. On ESPN last night, the golfer Peter Jacobsen recalled the guidance Palmer gave him when he became a pro. Palmer told him to always sign his autographs to the fan could read his name because what good is a scrawl that they can’t read or later remember who even signed it? I have my own autograph that Palmer gave me when I was 11 or 12 years old. On a family vacation, I got to see him play in the Citrus Open in Orlando. On the 13th tee he took a drink of water from a paper cup, flattened it and threw it in the trash can. After the players and crowd left I pulled the cup from the trash determined to have Arnold Palmer’s autograph on it. Later in the day, I somehow found myself face-to-face, alone with the man himself. I pulled out the cup and said, “Mr. Palmer, would you please sign this?” He looked at the flat little cup and then looked at me and asked, “Is paper getting scarce, son?” I explained that it was his cup from the 13th. He laughed, smiled, signed it and sent me on his way. And, yes, I still have the cup and, yes, it clearly reads Arnold Palmer.

Class, craft and connection. Vin Scully and Arnold Palmer had all three in buckets. The great thing for the rest of us is we don’t have to have their level of talent or attain their levels of success to apply those characteristics in our own lives.