With the 2010 Major League Baseball season now underway (in full swing, perhaps?), let us pay pay homage to the unsung heroes of America’s pastime — the public address announcers. Their unmistakable, omnipresent, voices fill stadiums and can be heard by scores of fans throughout the country, however, their personal stories often go untold. Throughout the 2010 baseball season we'll take a look at the men behind the MLB ballpark microphones.
There is no one better to kick-off this series than the legendary (former) voice of the New York Yankees, Bob Sheppard, who served as the team's public address announcer from 1951-2007 (officially retiring last year). For over half-a-century the man dubbed "the voice of God" by Reggie Jackson also announced New York Giants' games (for 50 years), profesional soccer at the Polo Grounds, West Point football, and Army-Navy games. But while Mr. Sheppard's iconic career made a mark on Yankee Stadium, Giants Stadium, Shea Stadium, Ebbetts Field, the Polo Grounds, and a dozen other stadiums throughout the country (not to mention a few Seinfeld episodes), he never forgot what brought him there in the first place — teaching and a reverence for articulation.
Born October 20, 1910 in Ridgewood, Queens, Robert Leo Sheppard — who turned 99 last year — is best known for welcoming generations of baseball fans with his trademark greeting: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Yankee stadium.” Throughout his 56-year tenure with the Bronx Bombers he announced over 4,500 regular season games, 121 postseason games, presided over 22 American League titles, 13 World Series championships and never missed an opening day until 2006.
In May 2000, to commemorate his 50th season behind the microphone, the Yankees held Bob Sheppard Day and honored him with a plaque in Monument Park. Watch the video tribute prepared for the occasion, below.
As legend has it, Mr. Sheppard's public address career came together rather unexpectedly on a day, perhaps like any other, in the late 1940s in Freeport, Long Island. Two professional football teams from the All-America Conference — The New York Yankees and Chicago Rockets — were playing an exhibition match. While this might have been a game like any other, the young man behind the microphone was not. Bob Sheppard, a semi-pro football player, and high school speech teacher by day, volunteered to be the public address announcer. For someone who was a football fanatic and arbiter of enunciation, this couldn’t be a more perfect match.
In a storyline fit for a movie, an executive from the Brooklyn Dodgers football team was there that afternoon; he liked Mr. Sheppard’s “clear, concise, and direct style” and hired him as team announcer for 1947. But while the football Dodgers where never meant to be (they folded after one season), this was just the beginning for the man with the golden pipes. He signed with the New York Yankees football team in 1950 — it was a job that led to a postion with the baseball team of the same name one year later.
Mr. Sheppard made his New York Yankees MLB debut on opening day, April 17, 1951. He introduced a team that included the rookie Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto. Dominic DiMaggio (Joe's brother) was the first Yankee player he ever announced. The salary? $15 per game — $17 for a double-header.
While Mr. Sheppard is one of the most respected PA announcers in history, he considers his sports responsibilities only a part-time job. A speech teacher since his 20s, first at John Adams High School and later at St. John’s University (his alma mater), he taught until 1998 and also announced football and basketball for the university. In a 2000 interview with American Sportscasters Online he gave some insight into teaching vs. announcing:
“I would rather be known as a good teacher of speech rather than as a public address announcer. It's more important to me in my life. People don't know of me as a teacher. They think, 'Oh that's the guy who works at Yankee Stadium 81 days a year.' That's short sighted. I wish people would say he was a great teacher and he also did public address."
For the players, to be introduced by Mr. Sheppard was just as much part of Yankee lore as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and the stadium itself. Mr. Mantle once said in an interview with Good Morning America, "Every time Bob Sheppard introduced me at Yankee Stadium, I got shivers up my spine." Sheppard responded, "So did I." As a testament to the legend, Derek Jeter made sure that, while Mr. Sheppard might not be heard in-person anymore, his voice will remain for the foreseeable future. The shortstop requested that the announcer's introduction be played every-time he steps to the plate — "Now batting for the Yankees, No. 2, DEH-rick JEE-tuh, No. 2" — for the rest of his career. Listen below:
As public address announcer, Mr. Sheppard regularly reported cultural moments in sports and beyond to a captive audience of 50,000-plus (in this audio clip he announced that Billy Martin would be the team manager for the 1980 season). He even wrote and read poems to the crowd on rare occasions; once after Thurman Munson's unexpected passing, and another commemorating Roger Maris' record-breaking 61st home run in 1961. Listen to Mr. Sheppard calling for a moment of silence before the game following Senator Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in the clip below.
Bob Sheppard officially retired in 2009 and was replaced by Paul Olden, a former Yankee broadcaster. He has an unenviable assignment, being the guy that follows the voice of God, but reportedly Mr. Sheppard is pleased with what he's heard so far.
Some parting words for Mr. Olden: Keep it simple. In a 2000 interview, The New York Times asked Mr. Sheppard to describe his own dictation style. He answered: "I just try to be clear, concise and correct. I don't change my pattern. I speak at Yankee Stadium the same way I do in a classroom, a saloon, or reading the Gospel at Mass at St. Christopher's.''
Finally, we'll let Robert Leo Sheppard close this post. Watch/listen as he bids farewell to the old Yankee Stadium:
Thanks for the unforgettable voice, Bob.