Bob Sheppard, whose voice was so synonymous with Yankee Stadium that many of us who had heard him since our youths still hear him in the background of our dreams, has died at the age of 99.
Mr. Sheppard had suffered through severe congestion for most of the last season in the old park in 2008, and though he held hopes of opening the new stadium last year, he never made it back. His family had reported as late as the end of the Yankee homestand last Sunday, that he was happy, alert, and feeling well – not strong enough to get far from his home, but well enough to have enjoyed a cocktail. Yankee Stadium videographers were in the process of compiling a second tape of greetings and well wishes from those of us at the Stadium who knew him and missed not merely the quality of the work but more importantly the quality of the man.
His sense of humor was nearly as legendary as his enunciation and the meticulousness of his preparation. He had joined the Yankees so long ago – 1951 – that it was a point of perverse pride that the team had no record of who preceded him, and said so in its media guide. When I picked up the gauntlet of research I went first to Mr. Sheppard himself and asked him if, by chance, he knew but just hadn’t been asked. “Yes,” he intoned, pausing just as he did while behind the microphone. “Methusaleh,” he said with a laugh, referencing a biblical figure who lasted into quadruple figures.
It turned out Bob had actually been hired by Red Patterson, the Yankees’ public relations director of the time.
In the ’40s and ’50s, public address announcing at Yankee Stadium – and elsewhere – was an afterthought. 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.
I will add more reminiscences of Bob Sheppard throughout the day here – including the story of the above photograph with Tony Gwynn – as opportunities present themselves.