Monday, July 12, 2010

Fulfilling the request of the man who gave voice to Yankee Stadium

Posted: Monday July 12, 2010 1:07PM ; Updated: Monday July 12, 2010 1:07PM
Tom Verducci

Fulfilling the request of the man who gave voice to Yankee Stadium

Story Highlights

Bob Sheppard was the public address announcer at Yankee Stadium for 56 years

Sheppard died on Sunday at age 99 and hasn't done PA since 2007

Sheppard asked Tom Verducci to write SI's story about his passing

Bob Sheppard gave voice to a building. He transformed all that concrete and steel of Yankee Stadium into a trusted old friend because, well, that voice was reliable, it was unhurried and it was always there. Players came and went, seasons dawned and set, but the one constant for 56 years, as fathers brought their sons in the same way their fathers brought them, was that because of Bob Sheppard Yankee Stadium sounded eloquent, refined and, truth be told, even godly.
There was a game back in the 1980s at the stadium when the bullpen gate was left ajar after a pitching change had been made. The umpires were vainly trying to secure the attention of anybody in the bullpen to close the gate, which was actually part of the outfield wall in left-center field, so the game could resume. Sheppard caught on to what was happening.
Suddenly, in a rare in-game moment when he spoke into the public address microphone for anything other than a player introduction, Sheppard announced in that proper cadence of his, "Will someone . . . in the bullpen area . . . please close . . . the bullpen gate . . .Thank you."
It was closed immediately, lest the risk of a lightning bolt or two. Only Sheppard could turn such a prosaic moment into something approaching divine providence. I was in the press box that night and was struck by the commanding nature of his voice. The stadium actually came to a hush. His voice did, in that Charlton Heston, The Ten Commandments kind of cinematic way, really sound like the voice of God coming down from on high.
For thousands of American League ballplayers over half a century, there were two rites of passage that confirmed your arrival as a true big leaguer: your own bubble gum trading card, and hearing your name announced by Bob Sheppard across that big canyon of a ballpark in the Bronx.
What made the voice so powerful was the man behind it. For not only did Sheppard give voice to a building, he also gave voice to humility and kindness. He was himself a devoutly religious man who dedicated his life to education (teaching speech at St. John's, where he had played football and baseball) and to his wife Mary, who was at his side when he passed away Sunday at his Long Island, N.Y., home, just three months from his 100th birthday. He was a man wholly without affectations or arrogance, and because he was so genuine his voice had such depth to it.
I was fortunate enough to get to know Bob a bit back in the 1980s, when I started covering the Yankees. On Sunday mornings when the Yankees were home, a local priest would celebrate mass in a small auxiliary clubhouse underneath the stands of Yankee Stadium, between the home and visiting clubhouses. The parishoners, typically about 30 to 40 of us, included ushers, vendors, reporters and coaches and players from the Yankees and their opponents, usually dressed in game pants, workout shirt and shower shoes.
The lector for these masses was Bob Sheppard. If you understand the gravitas of Sheppard's voice when he intoned, "Shortstop. Num-bah two. Derek. Jee-tuh. Num-bah two," just imagine, at a lectern beside an altar, the way he could intone "Deuteronomy." The Old Testament readings never sounded, quite literally, so much like heaven on earth.
Back then Sheppard was a regular visitor before games to the dugout and, whenever a new player arrived, to both the home and visiting clubhouses; Sheppard would personally ask them how they would like their name pronounced. I marveled not only at his attention to detail -- Sheppard considered himself a reporter, not a showman -- but also his countenance, which was regal without the stuffiness.
During games, Sheppard, an avid reader, would read books in between innings in his small, glass-enclosed booth in the press box, looking every bit professorial with his well-pressed slacks, plaid dress shirt, sweater vest and -- here's the important part -- comfortable shoes. After announcing the batter who represented the final out of a game, Sheppard would leave his booth and stand by the hallway leading out of the back of the press box, clutching his hardcover to his chest, his motor idling. If the batter extended the game, Sheppard would step back into his booth long enough to announce the next batter, and then resume his getaway position.
Immediately upon the securing of the final out, Sheppard dashed down the hallway -- he was still quick afoot well into his 80s -- and out a swinging door, then turned right into a stadium concourse, then into the doors of the Yankees executive offices, and then he hopped into an awaiting elevator, bringing him that much closer and that much faster to being home with Mary.
From the moment I met Bob I knew I was in the company of a legend, but I was fortunate enough to know him (though not all that well) as someone far more impressive than that: a blessed, kind-hearted soul. The voice made him famous. But all these years it was what was in his heart, not in his elocution, that was most godly. I profoundly admired, in such advancing years, that with such joy and contentment, and still a bounce in his step, he cherished a job and a woman he loved.
And so I was blindsided last fall, in what would be one of his last interviews, when Bob Sheppard spoke about me. It was October 29, the day of Game 2 of the World Series. Sheppard, who last worked at Yankee Stadium in 2007, was frail and dying. Melissa Segura, the very talented SI writer, visited Sheppard at his home to interview him for what would a first-person piece for a Yankees SI commemorative issue. Sheppard reminisced about his life and his career.
That night at the stadium, Melissa told me what Bob had said at the end of the interview. Taken from her transcript, this is what he told her:
"I have one request: if I had a choice of anyone of your team of gifted writers, I would like Tom Verducci to do the Bob Sheppard story. You tell him that I made a request, which won't be granted, I know. I think he's one of the finer writers in sports. Tell him that, too."
I was blown away. It meant so much to me, especially knowing the care and respect Bob had for language, but mostly because I so admired him for his kindness and authenticity. I remembered his words yesterday upon his passing, and they hit me even harder. I cried, and not because he was gone, but because of his benevolence.
So here you are, Bob. This is for you. Your request fulfilled.
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