Tagged: Bob Sheppard

Stan Isaacs: 1929-2013

Tonight the world is a little more safe for mediocrity.

With the death of the great New York sportswriter and media critic Stan Isaacs – to say nothing of the passing of Roger Ebert – the mundane, the repetitive, and especially the reverent, are just that more secure in their universe of passivity.

Still, both men took huge chunks out of that cosmos and Isaacs in particular did so at great personal risk and against the tradition of obedience and obeisance that dictated the sports world well into the 1990’s. For reasons that will soon become evident, I cannot fashion a true obituary for Stan. I recommend you to these from Bryan Curtis of Grantland and Mark Herrmann from Newsday, where Isaacs served as everything from Original 1962 Mets’ beat reporter to Sports Editor to TV and Radio Columnist.

The obits include some of the highlights: the fact that Stan stole the 1955 World Championship Banner from the Dodgers in Los Angeles so it could be properly housed in Brooklyn; that when Yankees’ pitcher Ralph Terry told the cookie-cutter reporters of the day that his wife had been listening to him pitch in the 1962 World Series while feeding their infant Stan asked him “breast or bottle?;” that he helped replace those enabling stenographer knights of the press box by being one of the so-called “chipmunks” – the skeptics of the 1960s.

Isaacs’ Chipmunkism was more than just an inspiration to colleagues and successors to apply occasional doses of journalism and sarcasm as an anecdote to the almost unquestioning, flag-waving sportswriting and tv reporting of the time. It had a direct and practical influence on what you read and hear today and who writes it and says it. George Vecsey, long one of the leading lights of The New York Times, proudly called Stan his mentor. Tony Kornheiser of ESPN and The Washington Post and, once of Isaacs’ Newsday, said he “idolized” Stan. And there were many others.

Like me.

Stan Isaacs is directly responsible for my television career – and much of how I approached what I’ve said and whom I’ve said it about.

In September of 1980, Sports Illustrated ran a brief piece on how while I was working for the radio network of United Press International I was collecting and rating audio clips in which athletes used the insufferable verbal crutch “you know.” Within weeks, Stan had heard a startling string of “you knows” from a New York Rangers player named Mike Allison and called me out of the blue for a ruling on where Allison stood in the competition. A few months after that Stan called again. “There’s been a lot of reaction to that ‘you know’ thing. I’d like to meet a kid who has the nuts to bring that up on radio. Maybe I can make you into a column.”

By then I was working for Charley Steiner at the RKO Radio Network. Television was my aspiration but I’d struck out twice in efforts just to get in the front door, once at a local New York station, and once at a brand new and not very promising outfit called Cable News Network. For Stan Isaacs – at worst the second or third most influential TV Sports Columnist in the country – to possibly “make me into a column” was a possible game-changer.

We met at the radio network, he listened to a few tapes of sportscasts, we had a little lunch, and we sat down in Newsday’s dank, almost-empty Manhattan “bureau.” His questions were warm and supportive but I could tell he had a reservation. “I got one complaint. You sound too much like…” and here, great disgust overtook his tone, “…an announcer.” I explained I was an announcer. “You’ve got me there. I’ll have to forgive you for that.”

On June 12, 1981, just as baseball careened towards its first disastrous mid-season strike, this appeared in Newsday. I recall that you couldn’t buy the paper in Manhattan then except at Penn Station. I can also recall lugging 20 copies of it back the six blocks up from the train station to the RKO offices on 40th Street.

Imagine getting to read this about yourself, at the age of 22:Stan2

I am not engaging in speculation nor hyperbole in saying the column got me on television.

In those days Newsday was co-owned by The Washington Post, and in those pre-historic days of “national editions,” the version of the Sunday Post that the world outside the Beltway got to see was printed early on Saturday and physically shipped around the country. To help fill a sports section devoid of anything newer than the earliest-finishing of Saturday afternoon’s ballgames, the Post would print one and only one of the four or five columns Stan Isaacs wrote for its sister publication each week.

That week the one chosen was the column about me.

And so it was that a displaced Washingtonian named Rick Davis who happened to run the sports department at that nascent semi-television outfit at which I had already struck out (Cable News Network, or, as it was only occasionally abbreviated, “CNN”) was thumbing through his national copy of the Post sports section the next Sunday morning while (he would later tell me) he was thinking to himself that his sports newscast had done pretty good with its anchors like Nick Charles and Fred Hickman and some of its reporting but it just didn’t have any life or humor.

That’s when Rick read Stan’s piece.

Weeks later, Rick’s boss Bill MacPhail, the president of CNN Sports, was seated across from me at The Algonquin Hotel and I was being interviewed for a job as a television sports reporter. I had no television experience, precious little reporting experience, and a full beard. A few weeks after that, in August 1981, MacPhail and Davis asked me to spend two weeks filling in for their New York sports reporter Debi Segura (now, coincidentally, Mrs. Lou Dobbs) and by February of the following year I was under contract to CNN.

When some milestone or another in my career would occur – or it would be time for his annual piece on my favorite baseball story, the saga of Fred Merkle – I’d always hear from Stan, with the appropriate congratulations, commiserations, or approbation. I would always answer “it’s all your fault.” Stan always assumed I meant that without the article I’d never have gotten on to television and he continually said that the most he did was accelerate the process and I let him think that was what I meant. But in fact I was saying that he had both facilitated my television career and – just as importantly – lent his stamp of approval to what did, and how I did it. There were others who did this: every boss who let me live on the proverbial edge, from Stan Sabik to Charley Steiner to Jeff Wald to Norby Williamson to Vince Doria to Dick Ebersol to Traug Keller, to on-air inspirations like the late great Glenn Brenner.

But Stan wrote that about me when I didn’t know enough to take the microphone off after I’d finished doing the stand-up and I’d walk away from the camera and – being still tethered to it – promptly pull it off its pedestal and crashing to the ground.

I would not ever be described as a Chipmunk. But like Stan, I would be called an iconoclast. And also like Stan, I would be damned proud of it.

Stan could also shame me into working harder, and if you read what Vecsey and Kornheiser and those who worked for him when he was their sports editor, I was hardly alone. Once you had earned his acceptance, you wanted more of it. Not ten years ago, he and I were side-by-side in the press box at Yankee Stadium and he was reading aloud from the press guide, tittering all the way at the cliches and meaningless data. Then he came to the part in which the Yanks admitted they had no idea who had preceded their venerable Public Address announcer, Bob Sheppard. “You’re this great researcher/baseball expert/television muckety-muck. Certainly you can find out this perplexing hole in history, Mr. Big Shot. I give you one year.”

I found it. It was Red Patterson, and it had been buried by history because Patterson was also the Yankees’ public relations man at the time and he had wanted his announcing role buried by history. Before I wrote the story up I told Stan.

“Great! Congratulations.” Then came a long pause. “So, Mr. Big Shot, knows Red Patterson preceded Bob Sheppard? Who preceded Red Patterson, huh?”

I will miss Stan Isaacs every day.stanley

The Creepiest Stat I’ve Ever Researched

Even as the Minnesota Twins continued to succumb to their weird allergy here at Yankee Stadium (they’ve now lost 31 of their last 37 here, counting playoffs), Derek Jeter went 0-for-4 and the creepiest stat of all time just got a little worse.

I will state at the outset that those who interpret what’s being done as tribute have my full respect when they so claim. But, personally, I flinch every time I hear the voice of the late Bob Sheppard introduce Jeter, and my reaction is not unlike that of the late comedian Bill Hicks when he first saw a posthumous public service announcement featuring actor Yul Brynner: “What the heck is this guy selling?”

I thought the world of Mr. Sheppard, who extended kindness and support to me from the day I finally screwed up the courage to introduce myself to him. He did not undervalue his place in sports, but he had fun with it. When in 2004 I was researching the then-unknown identity of his predecessor (it was Yankees’ public relations director Arthur “Red” Patterson) I asked him if he had any earthy clue who it might have been, he said without batting an eyelash, “Methuselah!” Merely because I asked him, Bob spent fifteen minutes before the first game of the 1998 World Series with Tony Gwynn. Tony had said that one of the highlights of being in the Series again was the chance to hear Bob introduce him. I got Bob to record that introduction on a disk for me to present to Tony as a gift. Nobody who asked Bob for a favor – or the inevitable voicemail/answering machine message – was denied. I know one of Bob’s sons and have found him to be just as much a gentleman as his father, and I was privileged to get frequent updates on Bob’s health from Chris. I hosted the 2000 Subway World Series on Fox, and the thing became real to me when I wrapped up the pre-game show that it was my greatest honor to introduce him on the PA. When I would get to work the PA at Old Timers’ Day each July I was fully aware at every moment that I was on Bob’s PA.

I get it. I revered Bob Sheppard and I revere his memory daily. But the post-mortem introductions of Jeter have, I think, become disturbing.

And now there’s this to consider: Since Bob Sheppard died last July 11 and the tribute to the absent and beloved Public Address Voice of Yankee Stadium became instead a memorial, Derek Jeter is hitting just .263 here with one homer, 10 RBI, a .338 On Base Percentage and a .349 Slugging Percentage in 43 games. There are various dates and causes to assign to Jeter’s midseason eclipse last year but Mr. Sheppard’s passing is not exactly a random one – which makes the stat all the creepier. As of that sad day, Jeter had had 161 home at bats. Thereafter he had…exactly the same number: 161 home at bats. But in the first half of his home 2010 season Jeter was batting .316, with six homers, an On Base of .380 and a Slugging of .472.

Would it all turn around if Jeter had Sheppard’s successor Paul Olden announce his name, too? No, of course not. It would just be a little less…creepy.

Like A Good Piece Of Art

This is not intended as an insurance advertisement, just a freeze from ESPN’s coverage of the Home Run Derby that struck me as bordering on art: the shadowed silhouettes of fans in the right field bleachers at Angel Stadium during David Ortiz’s ups.


Nice, huh?
A commenter on the last post quotes a second version of the only major gaffe committed in the 57 seasons the late Mr. Sheppard announced Yankee games at Yankee and Shea Stadiums. In the version I recounted, a faulty microphone caused his editorial comments about starter Shane Rawley (“if you call that a pitcher”) to echo around the ballpark. In the version the commenter cut-and-pasted, Bob recalled it as Rawley entering a 1982 game in relief and his first pitch getting whacked for an extra base hit, leading to a different comment (“some relief pitching”) going out over an open mic. 
In point of fact, I heard both versions, from Bob. Since Rawley, otherwise effective with the Mariners and particularly the 1987 Phillies, spent his entire two-and-a-half years in the Bronx pitching like the Human Torch, either version could be correct (maybe even both). My point in telling the story was that after initially being terribly embarrassed by the gaffe, Bob came to embrace it and enjoy it as much as the rest of us cherish some of our on-air bloopers (my favorite of my own can’t be repeated or reprinted – I’ll spare you).
This reminds me that one of the first clues as to the identity of Bob’s forgotten predecessor was a open-mic blooper so hilarious that it was recorded by all of New York’s many newspapers in the ’40s, and has since passed into baseball lore – but attributed almost exclusively to another PA man. A few fans sitting front-row in fair territory had draped their overcoats over the then low fence in the outfield. The next day, the papers all reported that the Yankee Stadium announcer had inspired a roar of laughter from the crowd by intoning “Would the fans sitting in right field please remove their clothes…” 
Remarkably, not one of the eight or nine beat reporters – who used to fight each other for details in a way we can’t comprehend today – said who the PA announcer was! This was the first hint that his anonymity was being protected for some reason. Later evidence proved the reason was obvious: it was Yankees’ Public Relations man Arthur “Red” Patterson, and the writers certainly weren’t going to tick off their official conduit to the club by publicly humiliating him by name.
A year or two later, Tex Rickards, the Dodger PA announcer whose style would be the exact opposite of Sheppard’s (earthy, gravelly, sitting not in the press box but next to the Dodger dugout, often wearing a team jacket reading “Dodger Announcer”), made the exact same mistake. Rickards’ version of “will the fans sittin’ in the outfield please remove dere clothes” has gone into history. Patterson’s is an almost forgotten footnote – except he did it first.
Incidentally, the doubling of duties was not unique to New York. A remarkable recording of a Yankees-Tigers game in Detroit from 1934 has Tigers’ radio play-by-play man Ty Tyson telling his listeners that Luke Hamlin was coming into pitching, then, with an audible click, he turns on the PA microphone and makes the same announcement to the crowd.

Imagine Vin Scully doubling as the Dodgers’ voice, on air, and in Dodger Stadium!
One last note about Mr. Sheppard. Visiting with my friend Gary Cohen after the Mets’ game yesterday (and congratulations to Gary, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez for placing second to Vin in GQ Magazine’s ranking of the best TV booths in the game), he told me that Ralph Kiner had mentioned during the broadcast that when Ralph joined the Mets’ crew in 1962 he sought Sheppard’s advice on enunciation and clarity – which gives you a sense of the esteem with which he was held, relatively early in his remarkable career.

Bob Sheppard and The Yankees

It took him a long time to see the amusement in the story, let alone the fact that with one accident, he had channeled the growing frustration among Yankee fans. I think in the end Bob Sheppard was just a little proud of one of his very few mistakes behind the microphone at Yankee Stadium.
It was, I’m pretty sure, 1982. It was the year the wheels fell off at Yankee Stadium. George Steinbrenner went through three pitchers, sent veteran third baseman Butch Hobson to Columbus with the instructions “learn how to be a catcher,” inspired the Rich Gossage (“take it upstairs! To the fat man!” tirade) and engaged in public disputes with two of his best players, Tommy John and Dave Winfield. A team that had won the first two games of the preceding World Series had collapsed into a quagmire of futility.
One of the players Steinbrenner had to have, no matter the cost (in this case, a future closer named Bill Caudill, and a long-term top middle reliever, Gene Nelson) was pitcher Shane Rawley of Seattle. Not long after arriving in New York, Rawley, having pitched poorly in relief, was inserted into the rotation. More arson followed – only earlier in the game. Finally, one day, not long after a Yankee player had asked me why people actually paid money to get into Yankee Stadium when he would’ve happily paid money to get out, the masochists in the seats heard this:
“And pitching for the Yankees…” 
Long pause.
“Number 26.”
“Shane… Rawley.”
“Number 26.”
“If you call that….a pitcher.”
Clicking sound of microphone being switched off.
Bob was mortified. In point of fact, he had given unintentional voice to the frustration of Yankee fans. It was as if “The Voice of God,” as Reggie Jackson had termed him but a few years before, had been reading everybody’s mind.
Long afterwards, Derek Jeter would pay tribute to the voice of Yankee Stadium by suggesting to management – with no offense to his successor Paul Olden – that a recording of Sheppard’s introduction of him be played whenever Jeter came to bat in the new Yankee Stadium. It is a tribute that will be carried, it is reported today, into Tuesday’s All-Star Game. And then, presumably, Derek Jeter, and all the other Yankees and Yankees fans and baseball fans like you and I, will have to let him go, with deep affection, and even deeper gratitude.

Bob Sheppard and Preparation

I’ve heard the story with several different players, one of them being the delightfully-named Kenny Szotkiewicz, utility infielder of the 1970 Detroit Tigers. When such an idiosyncratic name would appear on Bob Sheppard’s scorecard at Yankee Stadium, he would take no chances. He would go to the visitors’ clubhouse (and especially in the pre-renovation Stadium of the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s, this meant more than just a quick trip into the elevator) and ask someone he knew to introduce him to the player in question. 

“Forgive me for intruding. I am Bob Sheppard, the public address announcer here at Yankee Stadium.” As the years wore on this, the self-introdfuction became less and less necessary, of course. “Could you pronounce your name for me so I make no mistake during your introduction?” Then the ritual would ensue: “It’s Soka-witz.” “Sock…a…witz.” “Right.” “As in punching some wits?” The meticulousness extended to the subtler variables. He asked Rick Burleson of the Red Sox if it was “Burl-son” or “Burl-a-son.” That’s how much it mattered to him. 
The personal trips would end in the ’90s or early ’00s (an emissary would ask) but only because Bob eventually had to have an artificial hip implanted. Even then, he was vigorous and with inspiring endurance. Bob missed a game a few years back and the Yankees announced he had had a minor household injury. In fact, the artificial hip had dislodged. Bob’s son Chris found this out when his father called him from the ground floor of his house, having walked – with a loose artificial hip – downstairs from his bedroom. 
The diligence and the work ethic paid off. As outlined below, players like Tony Gwynn consider hearing Sheppard introducing them at Yankee Stadium to be a thrill something close to winning a batting championship. And, after today’s game at CitiField, Ron Darling of the Mets told me that during the two career starts he made in the Bronx, he actually paused while warming up in the Oakland bullpen. “I had to hear Bob Sheppard say may name. I just had to.”

Bob Sheppard and Tony Gwynn

The photograph in the previous post merits an explanation. 

In 1998, when interleague play was still new, the San Diego Padres made it to the World Series against the vaunted Yankees. After he and his teammates won the NLCS, one of the first things Gwynn mentioned was that he would finally get to play in Yankee Stadium, and moreover, hear his name announced over the PA system by Bob Sheppard. I knew both men and decided to introduce them, and listened in delight as the former St John’s speech and public speaking professor talked the nuances of diction with the batting champion who used to take communications courses at San Diego State. 
Afterwards, as I escorted Bob back upstairs, I asked Bob if I could record him introducing a hypothetical Gwynn at bat, so I could transfer it to one of those “talking birthday card” electronic chips. Bob not only obliged, but asked me to confirm for him Tony’s position and number just to make sure. “We can’t have any mistakes.” Tony still has the recording (“in my trophy case, next to my silver bats”). And I cherish the memory.

Bob Sheppard, 1910-2010

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.