Monday, July 12, 2010

A tribute to the Yankees' most elegant voice

People often have referred to actor James Earl Jones or late NFL Films narrator John Facenda as the "voice of God.'' But, for me, that distinction will always belong to longtime Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard, who passed away the other day at age 99.

Sheppard, though, was much more than a man blessed with a great set of pipes. He was an elegant and caring individual who represented the Yankees with as much grace and dignity as anyone in the franchise's illustrious history. I had the thrill of interviewing Sheppard on a couple of occasions and he treated me wonderfully. When I told him I was from Rochester, N.Y., his eyes brightenned because Rochester was home to one of Sheppard's favorite orators, the late Bishop Fulton Sheen.

Following is the essay I wrote about Sheppard for my book, "Memories of Yankee Stadium. I hope it gives you a feel for this remarkable man.


When Reggie Jackson was preparing his Baseball Hall of Fame acceptance speech during the summer of 1993, he sought the assistance of longtime Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard.

Wise move.

Who better to help Mr. October than The Voice of God himself?

Sheppard's first piece of advice to the verbose slugger was to slice his speech in half.

"I reminded Reggie that brevity is the soul of wit,'' Sheppard recalled in his distinctive, resonant tones. "Brevity, when it comes to public speaking, especially on a hot summer's day, also is a way of making friends.''

When it comes to endearing oneself to audiences, no one has done it better or longer than Bob Sheppard. The Queens native introduced his first Yankees lineup at the Stadium on April 17, 1951, and since that time has worked more than 4,500 baseball games in the House That Ruth Built.

Most New York fans probably wouldn't recognize him if they saw him on the street, but Sheppard's Q-rating among strangers surely would shoot up dramatically the minute he opened his mouth.

His sonorous, dignified voice has become as much a part of Stadium lore as the pinstripes on the Yankee uniforms and the copper fa├žade that once hung from the old ballpark's roof. He has been a constant, the man who connects generations of Stadium-goers - from Joe DiMaggio to Derek Jeter, from grandpa to grandson and granddaughter.

"I can't imagine a home Yankees game without Bob's voice booming out of the loudspeakers,'' said Goose Gossage, the legendary Yankees reliever. "I still get chills running up and down my spine when I hear him say my name. You're not officially a Yankee until he announces you that first time. And then when he does, it's like you are connected to all the great players who came before you.''

The funny thing is that this six-decade-long gig almost didn't happen. Yankee officials were impressed with the P.A. job Sheppard had done for two old All-American Football Conference teams - the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees. So, before the 1950 season, they offered him the baseball job at the Stadium, but Sheppard refused because the day games during the spring would interfere with his work as speech professor at his alma mater, St. John's University.

The baseball club approached him again before the '51 season with a compromise offer. They would find a substitute for him on the days there was a scheduling conflict.

Sheppard accepted, never anticipating that he would still be at the microphone in 2007.

"A temporary job,'' he quipped, "that has lasted a half-century.''

For the record, the first name he announced from his loge-level perch behind homeplate that afternoon was that of Boston Red Sox centerfielder, Dom DiMaggio. Interestingly, Sheppard would say the names of eight players in the starting lineups at that 1951 home opener who would eventually be honored with plaques at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Among them would be Sheppard's all-time favorite name - Mickey Mantle.

"I loved the alliteration of that name and the emphasis you could place on the first syllable of his last name,'' he explained.

Though best known as the Stadium voice of the Yankees, Sheppard also has worked for several other teams and venues through the years. He was the P.A. announcer for the New York football Giants for 50 years - 18 at Yankee Stadium and 32 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. And he also worked games at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and at the Polo Grounds, which was located just two miles from Yankee Stadium across the Harlem River in upper Manhattan.

Long before he began announcing games, Sheppard enjoyed playing them. He was a first baseman and quarterback at St. John's and played semi-pro football for $25 a game after graduating from college.

Though he is extremely honored that he has become a part of Yankees lore, he is more gratified by the work he did as a teacher.

"I think teaching was more important in my life than public address because teaching had a greater impact on society,'' said Sheppard, who continued to work as a professor at St. John's into the 1990s. "I've heard from hundreds of students I taught. The number of ballplayers I've heard from you can count on one hand.
"I'm not into hero worship,'' continued Sheppard, who is a devout Roman Catholic and a lecter at his church on Long Island. "I usually keep my distance from players and managers. And that's as it should be. I have a job to do at the ballpark, and so do they.''

He may not have heard from many players through the years, but he can rest assured he made an impact on them. Mantle once told Sheppard he experienced goose bumps hearing the Voice of the Yankees pronounce his name. Sheppard, who delivered a stirring tribute the day Mantle died, told the Mick he had a similar reaction each time he announced the slugger's name.

Mantle was hardly alone in his reaction.

"Nobody - and I mean nobody - has ever said people's names better,'' said former Yankees third baseman Scott Brosious. "You get the feeling that when it's your time to meet St. Peter at the pearly gates, Bob Sheppard is going to be standing there next to him, introducing you.''

Sheppard's favorite Yankee Stadium moments include: Don Larsen's perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series; Roger Maris' record-breaking 61st homer in 1961; Chris Chambliss' walkoff homer against the Kansas City Royals in the 1976 American League Championship Series, and Jackson's three-homers-on-three-pitches explosion in Game Six of the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Chambliss' memorable blast was preceded by a stoppage in play because fans had thrown debris onto the field. Sheppard made an announcement telling the unruly spectators to refrain from such behavior. They stopped and the game resumed. When Chambliss homered - ending the game and a 12-year Yankees' World Series drought - thousands of spectators rushed onto the field. This time, Sheppard's mic remained silent.

"The game was over, the Yankees had won, 10,000 people, as if they were shot out of a cannon, ran out on the field and I just folded my arms and let them do it,'' Sheppard recalled in a 2000 interview with USA Today. "I could never have stopped them. The Marines couldn't have stopped them. Nobody could have stopped them. It had to happen. I never saw anything like it before, and I've never seen anything like it since.''

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