Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Robert Leo Sheppard Passes Away at 99
Robert Leo Sheppard, 99, The revered public address announcer passed peacefully at his Long Island home in Baldwin with his wife, Mary, at his side on July 11, 2010.
His elegant introductions of stars from Joe DiMaggio to Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium for more than a half century earned him the nickname "The Voice of God". Sheppard started with the Yankees in 1951 and he last worked at Yankee Stadium late in the 2007 season, when he became ill with a bronchial infection.
He recorded a greeting to fans that was played at the original ballpark's final game on Sept. 21, 2008, and his audio recording still is used to introduce Jeter before each at-bat at home by the Yankees captain. When the team moved into new Yankee Stadium last year, it honored him by naming the media dining room after him.
The Yankees' lineup for Sheppard's first game on April 17, 1951, included DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Mize, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto. And the opponents that day, the Boston Red Sox, were led by Ted Williams. Sheppard became as much as a fixture in the Bronx ballpark as the familiar white stadium facade or Monument Park, tucked behind the blue outfield wall. On May 7, 2000, after 50 years and two weeks on the job, the team honored him with "Bob Sheppard Day" and put a plaque in his honor in Monument Park. Fans gave Sheppard a standing ovation, and legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite read the inscription. Berra, Reggie Jackson and Don Larsen were among those who stood on the field during the ceremonies. "The voice of Yankee Stadium," read the plaque. "For half a century, he has welcomed generations of fans with his trademark greeting, 'Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Yankee Stadium.'"
He also served as the stadium voice of the NFL's New York Giants from 1956-05, and for men's basketball and football at St. John's University, where he taught, for Army football and the Cosmos soccer team. He also announced for the American Football League's New York Titans at the Polo Grounds and the World Football League's New York Stars at Downing Stadium.
Baseball is what made him famous. Sheppard gave the ballpark its sound. He announced at 62 World Series games and a pair of All-Star games, and introduced more than 70 Hall of Famers across his career. It was one of them, Jackson, who dubbed Sheppard "The Voice of God." Sheppard's player introductions remained consistent throughout the decades, with Sheppard imbuing each name and number with a gravitas more in keeping with a coronation than a ballpark outing: "No. 7. Mickey Mantle. No. 7." Sheppard conducted himself with an understated and dignified delivery.
He employed perfect diction, befitting a man who considered his real job teaching speech at St. John's. He graduated from the school in 1932 and later worked there for more than 25 years. "A P.A. announcer is not a cheerleader, or a circus barker, or a hometown screecher," the epitome of the old-school style once said. "He's a reporter." Sheppard's favorite Yankee Stadium moment was Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series, but his dulcet tones defined New York sports for the second half of the 20th century and beyond. He also was the stadium announcer for the "greatest football game ever played," the Baltimore Colts' 23-17 sudden-death victory over the Giants in 1958. He was on hand when Roger Maris hit home run No. 61, when Jackson hit three homers in a single World Series game , when the Giants finally reached the Super Bowl. He never missed an opening day at Yankee Stadium from 1951 until a hip injury sidelined him in 2006.
Sheppard, who followed the Giants across the Hudson River when they moved to New Jersey, received a ring after the team won its first Super Bowl in the 1986 season; it complemented his Yankees' World Series jewelry. While few might have recognized Sheppard in person, his voice was unmistakable. Once, while ordering a Scotch and soda at a bar, Sheppard watched as heads turned his way. He often read at Mass, and was subsequently greeted by parishioners noting he sounded exactly like the announcer at Yankee Stadium. "I am," he would reply. At his Yankees debut, the first name Sheppard announced was DiMaggio - Dom DiMaggio, the center fielder for the Red Sox. The Yankees' lineup included five Hall of Famers: Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Berra, Mize and Rizzuto; the Sox had three more, Williams, Bobby Doerr and Lou Boudreau. His favorite names to announce, in order, have been Mantle, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Salome Barojas, Jose Valdivielso and Alvaro Espinoza. He preferred the names of Latin players. "Anglo-Saxon names are not very euphonious," he said. "What can I do with Steve Sax? What can I do with Mickey Klutts?"
He was the quarterback of St. John's football team from 1928-31. The left-hander was a first baseman for the university in the springtime. Sheppard began his announcing career at an exhibition football game, which led to a job with the long defunct Brooklyn Dodgers of the All-American Conference i n 1947. When they folded a year later, he was hired by the football New York Yankees, who played at Yankee Stadium. Management with the baseball Yankees liked his approach, and Sheppard was on board for opening day in 1951. Even the players treated Sheppard with a degree of reverence. Mantle once said that every time Sheppard introduced him, he felt goose bumps. "Mickey, so did I," Sheppard responded quietly.
Sheppard, while proud of his work with the Yankees, also was known for his speaking as a church lector. He taught priests how to give sermons. "I electrified the seminary by saying seven minutes is long enough on a Sunday morning. Seven minutes. But I don't think they listened to me," he told The Associated Press in 2006. "The best-known speech in American history is the Gettysburg Address, and it's about four minutes long. Isn't that something?" He said one of his most challenging tasks as a teacher was when Jackson needed help with his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1993. Jackson planned to speak for 40 minutes, and Sheppard implored him to cut. "Too much you," Jackson said slowly, mimicking Sheppard's voice.
When Sheppard missed the 1997 division series, ending his streak of 121 consecutive postseason games worked at Yankee Stadium, he was replaced by Jim Hall, his longtime sub. Paul Olden took over when the Yankees moved to the new ballpark in 2009.
In addition to his wife, Sheppard is survived by sons Paul and Christopher, daughters Barbara and Mary, five grandchildren and at least nine great-grandchildren. Private visitation for family and friends will be held Tuesday, 7/13/10 and Wednesday, 7/14/10 from 2-4pm and 7-9pm at the Fullerton Funeral Home, Inc., 769 Merrick Road, Baldwin, New York (www.fullertonfhny.com). Mass of Christian Burial will be on Thursday, 7/15/10, 10:45am at St. Christopher's Church in Baldwin. Private Interment at Long Island National Cemetery.