Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A VOICE OF DISTINCTION

Millions heard his voice. For fifty-one years he was the voice of Yankee Stadium, and now, at 99 years of age, he is gone. Robert Leo Sheppard was the gold standard for anyone who aspired to be a stadium announcer. I have never heard anyone like him and may never again.

Reggie Jackson, the wonderfully talented, often irreverent Hall of Fame outfielder who was known, to himself at least, as “the straw that stirred the drink” and to the rest of us as “Mr. October,” referred to him as Mr. Sheppard and named him “The Voice of God.” His marvelous distinct, polite, and proper speech pattern became a fixture in Yankee Stadium on April 17, 1951 when he debuted as the public address announcer for the New York Yankees. There he remained until 2007. No baseball player who was ever introduced by him will ever forget it. He was that much of a legend, heard by millions, seen by a few, yet known to nearly all who follow the game.

George Steinbrenner, the flamboyant and legendary owner of the Yankees whose own death came  days after Sheppard’s, said, “His death leaves a lasting silence.” He may have been the only employee of the Yankees that Steinbrenner never criticized.

Fifty-one years is a long time to have one job. Yet Bob Sheppard never thought of it as his most important one. He was first a speech teacher at St. John’s High School in New York and later a Professor at St. John’s University. Those were the ones of which he was most proud. Announcing was something he did besides that and perhaps because he saw it that way it was never about him. He believed it was his job at the ballpark to report what was happening and announce what was important. He did so in the same tone as he taught his classes, distinctly and with respect.

A New York Times’ Columnist, Clyde Haberman once wrote of him “he could read Eminem lyrics and make them sound like the Magna Carta.” In his career, he announced more than 4,000 games, 62 World Series Games and two All Star Games. Over the years, he announced the names of more than 70 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

When I was a boy sitting in the centerfield bleachers of the old Yankee Stadium, I  heard him and never forgot his voice. He brought composure and a dignity to the mere act of informing the crowd who the next batter was. It was a pleasure to listen to him. His tone never changed. The enthusiasm and drama of the moment--which he said he appreciated--never entered his voice. He was not a cheerleader or a circus barker, he said, just a reporter. He would introduce each player in the same unique way with the same intonation. The first time they came to bat, in deference to those who might be using a score book and had arrived too late to hear him announce the starting lineups, he would include the name, number, position, and place in the batting order the first time the player appeared. After the first time, he would state, in that professional, cadenced style of his, the player’s position, number, last name, and  repeat the number. Whether a Yankee or visiting player, all were introduced the same. He told an interviewer that he came to the stadium, studied the names before the game, called the visiting clubhouse for the correct pronunciation if there was a question, write it phonetically, and practice it again. He particularly enjoyed saying the names of the Latin players, he said, they were more musical. His favorite name, however, was Mantle, he admitted, because he both loved the player and the way the syllables sounded. No one remembers a name he mis-pronounced. 

He never missed an Opening Day until he dislocated his artificial hip in 2006. He had a bronchial infection at the end of the 2007 season, missed the Divisional Series that year, and never returned to work. He was retired when the Yankees left the old stadium for the “new” Yankee Stadium across the street in 2009.

It seems fitting that he never announced there. He was the voice of the “House that Ruth Built” as the old one was known, and not the one built by the Steinbrenner family that replaced it.

On a warm evening in the 1990’s, I sat in a place then known as Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego and much to my surprise, I heard The Voice again. Bob Sheppard’s vacations' were what my father would have called “a busman’s holiday.” When he visited friends in San Diego he always announced at least one game for the Padres.

The Padres had a pitcher in those days that had been special in his early career with them by the name of Andy Hawkins. When he became free to negotiate with other teams he signed a very lucrative contract with the Yankees. A country boy from the south, Andy had thrived in the player friendly confines of San Diego. His stay in New York was both brief and brutal. He was bewildered by the press attention, the pressure cooker atmosphere, and the expectations of the big city fans. His performance mirrored his confusion. Soon, he moved on, traded away as so many have been that failed to thrive in that way of life they found so alien. After a time he came back to the Padres, no longer a star but a serviceable extra starter and relief pitcher who could, as  managers say, "give you innings" on the days when the starter faltered early. One night, he was scheduled to start, and Bob Sheppard was in town and at the ballpark with friends. Through a series of machinations only his teammates and coaches could appreciate, Bob was convinced to announce the starting lineups for the two teams. Andy was in the bullpen warming up for his start when he heard the stentorian tones of the voice of the Yankee Stadium announcer issue his signature command:
“Your attention please, Ladies and Gentlemen,”
Hawkins--it was later gleefully reported by the bullpen staff--stopped in mid-delivery, turned violently as if he heard a shot and looked to the press area, stunned by the sound of “The Voice.” He would later tell reporters, amid the laughter in the clubhouse, that somehow he feared he had been transported back to New York. He enjoyed the joke, but not nearly as much as Bob.

The Voice is still now, another of the great ones of baseball gone. Remembered for his quiet dignity, his grace, and dry wit, he enhanced the games he announced and the “Game” he gave those fifty-one precious years  just as Harry Carey, Mel Allen, Red Barber, and Ernie Harwell and a few others have with just the sound of their voice.

Yet, unlike the others, he can still be heard. In 2006, the shortstop for the Yankees and team captain, Derek Jeter, who has been a Yankee his entire long and very talented career, said, “When you think of Yankee Stadium, he’s the first thing that comes to mind. It’s not right playing here unless he’s the one announcing.” On hearing that, Bob recorded his introduction of Jeter and those going to a Yankee home game still hear “The Voice” say these words whenever he comes to bat:
“Now batting for the Yankees, the shortstop, No. 2, Jeter, No. 2.”

3 comments:

  1. I miss Red Barber and Mel Allen and Harry Caray and even Skip.

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  2. The TV announcer yesterday mentioned Bob Sheppard when Derek Jeter came up to the plate.

    ReplyDelete