By Jon Lane
The new Yankee Stadium will never sound like the venerable original building. In fact, Yankees games period will never sound the same again.
The New York Times‘ Jack Curry is reporting that Bob Sheppard has decided to retire as the Yankees’ public address announcer, a position he held proudly and executed with dignity since 1951
A bronchial infection forced Sheppard to miss all of last season, including Yankee Stadium’s final game on September 21, and was to keep him home for the new Stadium’s Opener on April 16.
Former Yankees and New York Jets broadcaster Paul Olden will work the Yankees’ exhibition games against the Cubs Friday and Saturday.
“I think Bob just wants to take it easy and no longer have the pressure of, ‘Can he? Will he? Or won’t he?'” Paul Doherty, a friend of Sheppard, told Curry in an e-mail message. “And, at 98, who can blame him?”
I’ll be back later with some memories of Sheppard, often imitated but never duplicated, and a look back at his first game on April 17, 1951.
Where do I begin talking about Bob Sheppard? Well, Peter Abraham reports the Yankees said news of Sheppard’s retirement is news to them and not official, but it’s a safe bet that barring one of the Yankees’ dramatic and theatrical surprise appearances in the mold of Billy Martin and Roger Clemens, you won’t be hearing Sheppard’s voice in the new park. Thus, time to share a few anecdotes on who is forever a Yankees legend.
I could start with April 17, 1951, when he entered the limelight as the voice of Yankee Stadium, but I’ll wait. Instead, I start at Sheppard’s days as a speech professor at St. John’s University. My father-in-law worked at Suffolk County Federal Bank in Babylon, N.Y. The bank offered speech courses to better serve its customers. On the side, Sheppard taught those courses with my father-in-law as one of his students. Well before Sheppard became a Yankees institution, he was a man of class who once said that being a Professor of Speech is far more important than his work as an announcer.
That lineup on 4/17/51, Opening Day against the Red Sox, included future Hall of Famers Phil Rizzuto, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra. The Yankees defeated who years later would become their bitter rivals, 5-0, on the only day when DiMaggio and Mantle shared an Opening Day outfield.
I first met Sheppard in the Yankees dugout before Game 1 of the 1997 Division Series. I knew who he was (who didn’t?) but it was the first time I was able to place a face to Yankee Stadium’s booming, dignified and impeccable “Voice of God.” He greeted me as “young fella” and although he wasn’t as open to the media at that time — he politely declined an interview request about the playoff experience at Yankee Stadium — we spent about 10-15 minutes talking about the Yankees and their history. It was the first day he met me, yet were were talking like old chaps at the watering hole after a day’s work.
In subsequent years I ran into Sheppard either in the Stadium cafeteria – he’d be making a cup of Joe before heading up to his office — or more likely waiting for the elevator. On days I wasn’t on a tight deadline, I’d head for the clubhouse with less than two outs in the ninth inning and the game in hand to avoid the mass exodus from reporters and fans alike. Sheppard would be there too, except he’d be ready to bolt straight for the parking lot, into his car and on the highway back to Baldwin, N.Y. (the south shore of Long Island). Every hello was the same: with a warm, wide smile, quick thoughts on the game and pleasantries until next time.
Earlier I wrote Sheppard was one often imitated but never duplicated, which is one of fame’s highest honors. Still, a couple tried. One was Reggie Jackson, who after a game was making small talk with reporters until breaking into his best routine.
Another was Derek Jeter. The captain’s was not as good as Reggie’s but holds Sheppard in high enough regard that he had his ntroduction recorded on tape before his at-bats. For all of last season, every time Jeter walked to the batter’s box, you’d hear Sheppard’s voice ring, “Now batting for the Yankees, Number 2, De-rek Je-ter.”
It’ll be interesting to hear some of the Yankees’ takes on Sheppard’s retirement. Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez and others all had their name called by Sheppard, like so many of the game’s greats, as well as those just passing through. Alas, with all due respect to Paul Olden or whomever is chosen to sit in Sheppard’s chair, Posada said it best in an interview last March.
“Yankee Stadium is Bob Sheppard.”
There will never be another.