Monday, July 12, 2010

Longtime Yanks announcer Sheppard dies - By Marty Noble /

Longtime Yanks announcer Sheppard dies

Man known affectionately as 'Voice of God' was 99 years old

The gentle, refined and pious man whose voice afforded the Yankees' former home a dignified distinction for nearly five decades has passed away. Bob Sheppard, who introduced Joe DiMaggio, George W. Bush, Mickey Mantle, Elmer Fudd, and Derek Jee-tah and narrated the touchstone NFL playoff, died at his home in Baldwin, N.Y., on Sunday at age 99, nearly three years after his final call in the Bronx.
A rich, mellow voice and precise elocution made Sheppard a primary component of the Yankee Stadium experience. For generations, his "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen..." was the greeting that mattered most. Scooter, Yogi, Mickey, Whitey, Thurman, Reggie, Goose, Donnie, Bernie and Jee-tah were occupied, preparing for the day's event. They didn't nod or wave. It was left to Sheppard to greet the masses. "...and welcome to Yankee Stadium."
His words, deliberately delivered and echoing, served as a baseball "On your mark." Once Sheppard had spoken, the game could begin. He did for elocution what Loretta Young did for elegance, Benny Goodman did for swing, what Rogers and Astaire did for dance and what Mantle did for switch-hitting. Sheppard was from then, and he extended "then" so that it could be appreciated into the 21st century.
For that and other reasons, New York Times columnist George Vescey once identified him as a "civic treasure." That Sheppard worked Giants football games -- "Tackled by Robustelli and Katkavage" still resonates -- and St. John's basketball games and later did introductions for the Yankees' YES Network enhanced his metropolitan-area profile.
What Yankee Stadium visitor didn't mimic his unique delivery? The backyard and schoolyard fantasy games of young boys in Yankees' vast kingdom routinely featured introductions with the cadence and tenor of Robert Leo Sheppard, the man who made every syllable count and made a visit to his workplace different from an outing to any other sports venue in the land.
He made us listen and taught us to appreciate subtle sounds in a setting that often offered only jock-jam cacophony. Now, he is silent, and we are at loss for words -- his words.
It was no specific illness, but natural causes that took Sheppard from us. He had been ill and, as a result, too frail and weak to work in 2008. He regained weight and strength, but not enough to visit the successor to The House That Ruth Built. The new Stadium is graced, though, by a press dining area that bears his name and by his voice each time Jeter bats.
At the request of the Yankees' captain, a recording of Sheppard's "Derek Jeet-tah" is used.
Sheppard referred to Jeter's request as "one of the greatest compliments I have received in my career of announcing," and wryly added, "The fact that he wanted my voice every time he came to bat is a credit to his good judgment and my humility."
Sheppard's first game as the Yankee Stadium public address announcer came April 17, 1951. The first player he introduced was DiMaggio -- Dom, the Red Sox center fielder. His debut coincided with Mantle's big-league debut. (Coincidentally, the two also shared a birthday, Oct. 20.)
"Mickey arrived with slightly more fanfare," Sheppard liked to say.
Almost all of them did, from Mize to Mo, Raschi to Rodriguez and Stengel to Steinbrenner. But before his time came, Sheppard, too, had gained celebrity, unlike others who had similar responsibilities in other ballparks. He became, for the Yankees, what Ed McMahon became for Johnny Carson.
"I'd bat ninth just to hear him say my name," Reggie Jackson once said. "When he says "Forty-four," it's a higher number."
After hearing his name Sheppard-dized, Roy Smalley stated, "I couldn't have said it better myself."
Red Sox second base Jerry Remy decided no player was a bona fide big leaguer if he hadn't been introduced by Sheppard, and Rusty Staub identified Sheppard's voice as "the tones of dignity." More recently, Moises Alou lamented never having played in the Bronx. "I want to hear him say my name," Alou said in 2008, hoping Sheppard would work a Mets-Yankees Interleague game. Sheppard had been advised the proper pronunciation was "Ah-LOW," and was prepared to alter the public's pronunciation, as he had done with Tony PEH-rez in the 1976 World Series.
For that matter, it was Sheppard who taught the world the proper pronunciation of the Di-MAH-gio. To him, the short A was comparable to fingernails on a blackboard.
Sheppard was a tall, slender man who, like DiMaggio, preferred a blue suit and white shirt. He was distinguished before his hair turned white. In his later years, he favored solid-color LaCoste sweaters and ivy caps. His dress was as meticulous as his speech.
He was a striking figure on the dance floor. He and his second wife, Mary, occasionally attended the "Indoor Outing," a dinner and dancing event staged annually in the fall by the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America at one of the city's ballparks. When they danced, others did not; they watched, instead. The Sheppards moved like Champions.
The BBWAA honored Sheppard for his long and meritorious service to the game at its annual winter dinner in 1998. When he reached the lectern, he stood, arms extended, palms facing up. He had the appearance of a religious figure. The reception afforded him was long and heartfelt.
Players suggested Sheppard's announcements sounded like sermons, particularly those in which unruly fans were gently admonished. Jackson took it a step further. After Sheppard had ventured to Fenway Park and surprised all by replacing Sherm Feller and introducing Jackson, the Yankees Hall of Famer said he had been introduced by "The voice of God."
Sheppard wasn't altogether comfortable with such well-intended comparisons. He was a devout Roman Catholic who celebrated mass daily when his health allowed.
Some did consider him a kind of deity. Oscar Gamble once pointed out that National League players didn't know what they were missing.
"We got the DH over here," Gamble said. "And that man upstairs." His reference was not to George Steinbrenner or a supreme being, but to Sheppard.
Perhaps no name benefited more from Sheppard's delivery than AH-scar Gamble, unless it was Ah-to VELL-ez or Looo-EESe Ar-r-r-royo. Even Mickey Klutz sounded better. Sheppard enjoyed introducing Mantle, Rocky Colavito, Dave Righetti and most Hispanic names.
Mantle once said, "Each time Bob Sheppard introduced me at Yankee Stadium, I got shivers up my spine." And Sheppard said to him, 'So did I.'"
Salome BAR-oh-has and Shigetoshi Hasegawa were his particular favorites. Sadly, William Van Landingham never pitched in the old Stadium.
Asked for a list of his favorite names, Sheppard did more than accommodate. He wrote this verse:
     There are certain names that go over well,
     Like Pena, Ramos, Carrasquel,
     With liquid sounds so panoramic.
     And strangely, they all are Hispanic.
     Aurelio, Hipolito, Cecilio, Domingo
     Have a lovelier sound than American lingo.
     What native name could I ever tell so
     Musically, as Valdivielso?
     And no native name could ever show us
     The splendor of Salome Barojas.
"He adds elegance to the game," Tim McCarver said. "The best words to describe his introductions are 'eloquent' and 'elegant.'"
Sheppard was born Oct. 20, 1910 -- 21 years to the day before Mantle -- in Ridgewood in Queens, N.Y. He graduated from Saint John's Preparatory School in Brooklyn in 1928 and from St. John's College in 1932. He was president of his senior class and earned seven varsity letters at St. John's, four as a left-handed quarterback and a first baseman. Upon graduation, he played semi-pro football on Long Island on weekends.
He earned his Master's Degree in speech from Columbia University and later served two years in the United States Navy during World War II, commanding shipboard gunnery crews in the Pacific Fleet.
His announcing career began in the late '40s when he volunteered to work a charity football game in Freeport, N.Y. That job led to positions with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the All-American Conference, the New York football Yankees, baseball's Yankees and the NFL Giants. His work with the Yankees might have begun a year earlier, in 1950, but his job as the chairman of the speech department at John Adams High School in Queens conflicted with the Yankees' schedule of mostly afternoon games. His "other job" responsibilities were accommodated the following year.
It was as the Giants' PA announcer that Sheppard worked the NFL championship game between the Giants and Colts in December, 1958, widely considered the game most responsible for the explosion in popularity of the NFL.
Traffic before and after Giants home games played in the Meadowlands persuaded Sheppard to end his football duties after the Giants' final game of the 2005-2006 season. His final baseball game came Sept. 5, 2007 -- Ben Broussard of the Mariners was the last player he introduced -- though his official retirement didn't come until Nov. 27, 2009. Sheppard's passion for football belied his gentle nature, but it was evident. He was once an on-air guest of Phil Rizzuto during a rain delay at Yankee Stadium in the early '70s. Rizzuto, wearing his pinstripes on his sleeve, as always, said, "Well, Bob, you've been present for so many great moments here at Yankee Stadium. Which one has the been the biggest for you?" Rizzuto was stunned when Sheppard cited the Colts-Giants game.
Sheppard also worked games for New York Titans of the AFL at the Polo Grounds, the New York Stars of the WFL at Randall's Island and five Army-Navy football games, all of which is not to suggest he wasn't a baseball fan. He treasured his relationships with the Yankees greats and the lesser-knowns who passed through the Bronx, and generally enjoyed the company of baseball people.
Sheppard is survived by his wife, Mary, two sons, two daughters, four grandchildren and nine great grandchilden.
Sheppard's work was recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame, which displays his encased microphone, and by St. John's University, where he also taught and which annually awards the Sheppard Trophy to an outstanding student-athlete. His celebrity also reached the cinema -- he appeared in four movies -- and television. His voice was heard in three episodes of "Seinfeld."
Though he made his mark via his introductions of batting orders and lineup revisions, Sheppard's poetry -- eloquent tributes to players and preambles to ceremonies at the Stadium -- made him more special and admired. Among scores of poems, he wrote were ones about DiMaggio, Mantle, Roger Maris, Thurman Munson, the now-razed Yankee Stadium and a tribute to Hispanic names.
He wrote the eulogies he delivered, declining on at least one occasion to use something Steinbrenner had provided. Sheppard suggested he might leave the Stadium if ordered to use The Boss' words. Steinbrenner later praised his eulogy for Dick Howser.
Sheppard was a man of conviction who had a strong sense of what was proper. In the mid-'90s, he had been in early discussions about writing a book about his Yankees' experiences. But when the publisher suggested that anecdotes which Sheppard considered unusable would be essential, Sheppard flatly declined to work on a book and didn't revisit the possibility.
When the New York baseball writers considered roasting him a few years earlier, he had expresssed reservations. No one was quite sure how to roast such a revered figure. But when Sheppard asked, "Would my daughter feel comfortable if she attended? ... She's a nun," he was told the roast might get a tad improper. He politely but firmly declined.
So few people in the game are like Sheppard. Paul Olden has replaced him in the booth, but not in the Yankees' pantheon. More than any club in the game, the Yankees know how difficult it is to replace a legend. But they do salute their heroes: Sheppard has a plaque in Monument Park with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, et al. And as further tribute, there are the words Jackson spoke in 1985 after the death of long-time clubhouse manager Pete Sheehy. They're quite apropos for Sheppard as well:
"There have been a handful a great Yankees. He belongs. They shouldn't wear black arm bands. They should remove one pinstripe."
Poignant and well said, but had Sheppard said it, it would have sounded better.
Marty Noble is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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