Yankee Stadium loses its quietly refined voice
Sheppard’s sustained popularity was evident on Twitter on Sunday, when he died at his Baldwin, N.Y., home at 99, and that says something about the man who began reading the lineups at Yankee Stadium in an era when ballpark sound effects consisted of the national anthem on a record player. “Sometimes,” he once said, “the needle would jump.”
“The Voice of Yankee Stadium,” as he is known on his plaque in Monument Park, was as much a part of the team’s elegant history as pinstripes. And he was just as much a reason for their mystique and popularity. Sheppard was a Yankee through and through, proud that he had the same birthday (Oct. 20) and the same professional starting date as Mickey Mantle (they both debuted at the Stadium on April 17, 1951).
He was as effective and compelling as ever on his last day in 2007 as he was on his first, 56 years earlier. He is the most famous public-address announcer of all time, which is stunning because it is impossible to imagine him being hired if he were starting out today. These days, noise is in and public address announcers often are asked to scream above the din.
Sheppard’s approach was quietly refined: Announce the player’s position, his number, name and position again. That it still worked after the phrase “old school” became a devastating insult was testimony to his class. And the reason his work was so classy was that he was so classy.
“I always asked him to tell his stories, but he never wanted to talk about himself,” said Stadium organist Paul Cartier, who used to drive Sheppard to and from the park.
On his first night as Eddie Layton’s successor, Cartier was in his booth, getting ready to play, when Sheppard came by. “I was so nervous to see him. He just asked, ‘Is it ‘Car-tee-air’ or ‘Car-tee-aay?’ I told him, ‘It’s however you want to pronounce it,’ ” the organist said, adding that Sheppard, naturally, chose the latter, proper French pronunciation.
That was a sign not only of being polite but being prepared. Preparation always was vital for Sheppard, whether announcing or teaching his classes at St. John’s University. “He had such a great work ethic in everything he did,” said his son Christopher, a commercial pilot and Navy captain. “He always wanted me to be a catcher, but I would never have been able to take off and land planes on an aircraft carrier without him.”
Yankee Stadium would not have been the same without him, either. Sunday, I couldn’t help recall his reply two years ago Monday when I called to tell him Bobby Murcer had died: “Oh my goodness. I feel so bad. He was one of my favorite people.”
I’m sure many people are saying the very same thing about Bob.
“I know what he would be saying right now,” said Cartier, one of the first visitors to the Sheppard household Sunday. “It would be, ‘I don’t understand all the fuss. I was just a public-address announcer.’ ”
The fuss is because Sheppard was the best at what he did and how he lived. Bob Sheppard. No. 1.