Like virtually anyone who set foot in any iteration of Yankee Stadium over the past 60 years — Yankees fan or tourist — I’m greatly saddened to learn of the passing of public address announcer Bob Sheppard. The New York Times obituary‘s first sentence says it all:
Bob Sheppard, whose elegant intonation as the public-address announcer at Yankee Stadium for more than half a century personified the image of Yankee grandeur, died Sunday at his home in Baldwin, on Long Island.
Sheppard was 99 years old and had been in ill health since calling his last game on September 5, 2007, so ill that he had to forgo attending the closing ceremonies of the old ballpark in 2008 and the opening ceremonies of the new one in 2009. Yet his presence remained a vital part of the Yankee Stadium experience in the form of an absolutely indelible prerecorded introduction, one delivered in an unforgettably graceful cadence which seemed to boom from the heavens: “Now batting for the Yankees, number two, Derek Jeter, number two.”
Jeter has requested that the introduction be used so long as he’s a Yankee. One has to assume his desire accounted for the contingency of Sheppard’s passing, but as of yet, no official announcement has been made.
According to Keith Olbermann (via Jon Weisman), Sheppard invented the role of the modern sports public address announcer:
In the ’40s and ’50s, public address announcing at Yankee Stadium – and elsewhere – was an afterthought. [Yankees public relations director Red] Patterson did it in between bon mots with the writers. He and other Yankee officials attended a football game played by the old Yankees of the All American Football Conference and were struck by the professionalism and thoroughness of the PA announcer there. They approached him as early as 1948 about doing baseball, but Sheppard could not fit the team’s weekday schedule into his full-time life as a speech professor at St. John’s University. Bob was more of a football guy anyway – he had quarterbacked St. John’s in the ’30s – and once confessed to me with a laugh that he had never attended a baseball game at Yankee Stadium until the team hired him during what would be Mickey Mantle’s first year (and Joe DiMaggio’s last).In the new job, Sheppard essentially invented the process with which we are familiar today. Before him, stadium announcers rarely provided any information to the audience. Line-ups would be announced, and then each batter’s first plate appearance as we, but often thereafter the fan was on his own. The idea of the dramatic announcement in the ninth inning of a tie in the Bronx: “Now batting for the Yankees, number seven, Mickey Mantle,” was Sheppard’s. It truly changed not just the fans’ experience at the game, but the game itself.
Over at Bronx Banter, Layton’s successor, the current Yankee organist Ed Alstrom has his own personal remembrance, from the Banter’s “Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories” series in which I participated. He concludes:
Whatever our collective vignettes are of Yankee Stadium, Bob Sheppard’s narration to that soundtrack is a thread that runs through all of them, and an essential component of it. His humanity, wit, and warmth are every bit as momentous as that voice, and I am honored to have shared some time on this Earth with him. He is Yankee Stadium, in a lot of ways.
I think the quote that sums up Sheppard the best comes from my favorite part of Roger Angell’s uneven A Pitcher’s Story: Innings With David Cone, namely the description of Sheppard’s postgame ritual:
Up in the pressbox, every night ends the same way. Herb Steier, a retired Times sports copy editor, comes to every game and sits motionless in the third row, his hands in front of him on the long table. He doesn’t keep score but watches the action intently, with bright, dark eyes. When the ninth inning comes, he gets up and stands by the railing behind the last row of writes, near the exit, and after the potential final batter of the game has been announced, Bob Sheppard, the ancient and elegant Hall of Fame announcer, comes out of his booth and stands next to him, with a book under his arm. (He reads novels or works of history between announcements.) Eddie Layton, the Stadium organist is there, too, wearing a little skipper’s cap. Eddie has a private yacht — well, its a mini-tug, called Impulse — that he peeks on the Hudson, up near Tarrytown. He gets a limo ride to the Stadium most days from his apartment in Queens — it’s in his contract — and a nice lift home with Bob Sheppard and Herb Steier at night. Eddie and Bob Sheppard make a bet on every single Yankee game—the time of the game, the total number of base runners, number of pitches by bullpen pitchers, whatever — but won’t tell you which one of them is ahead. The stakes are steady: a penny a game.
Steier is Sheppard’s neighbor, out in Baldwin, Long Island, and he drives him to work every day and home again at its end; they’re old friends. Sheppard, a stylish fellow, is wearing an Argyle sweater and espadrilles tonight. This is his fiftieth year on the job at Yankee Stadium, and once in a while I ask him to enunciate a player’s name for me, just for the thrill of it. “Shi-ge-to-shi Ha-se-ga-wa,” he’ll respond, ringing the vowels. It sounds like an airport.
The instant the last batter strikes out or pops up or grounds out Sheppard and Steier and Layton do an about-face and depart at a slow sprint. Out the door they go and turn right in the loge-level corridor, still running. A few kids out there are already rocketing down the tilted runways. “Start spreadin’ the noooss…” comes blaring out from everywhere (the Yanks have won again) but Bob and Herb and Eddie have turned right again, into the quiet elevator lobby, where the nearer car waists them, it’s door open. Down they go and out at street level, still at a careful run. Herb’s car, a beige 1995 Maxima, is in its regular spot in the team parking lot, just across the alley—the second car on the right. They’re in, they’re out, a left turn up the street, where they grab a right, jumping onto the Deegan, heading home. The cops there have the eastbound traffic stopped dead, waiting for Bob Sheppard: no one else in New York is allowed to make this turn. Two minutes, maybe two-twenty, after the game has ended and they’re gone, home free, the first of fifty thousand out of the building, every night.
No one else in New York is allowed to make this turn — that sums up how unique and exceptional Sheppard was. All of us who experienced Yankee Stadium are honored to have shared some time in the presence of his voice. May he rest in peace.