Bob Sheppard: 1910 – 2010

Two years ago, as the last season at  the old Yankee Stadium was being played out, much was said, written and pontificated about the long and extraordinary history of this baseball cathedral.

But to me, it was a bit overplayed. After all, the original House that Ruth Built ceased to exist after 1973. The renovated Stadium, which opened to great fanfare (so much that I played hookey to be in attendance) in 1976, was a far cry from the original. Yes, it was built from the same foundation on the same hallowed ground, but it was not your father’s (or grandfather’s) Yankee Stadium. 

Except for one thing.  That crisp, soothing, classy, unmistakable voice that resonated throughout the big ballpark in the Bronx — forever, it seemed.    Bob Sheppard, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 99, provided the soundtrack at Yankee Stadium — original and updated models — for a staggering 56 years as its PA announcer. It was really Sheppard who bridged the gap between the two eras of the old stadium, who gave the illusion, and a grand illusion it was, that  there was but one Yankee Stadium from 1923 through 2008.  Dubbed “The Voice of God” by Reggie Jackson, Sheppard’s command of the mic was elevatd to an art form. Soothing, calm, reassuring — his style, his tone, his pace were unique, providing a mood that flowed gently through the veins of  Yankee history.

I’m not a Yankee fan, but I do have a great appreciation for the Bombers history and tradition. I’m not sure how many Mets fans would admit to that, but that’s for another day. Sheppard was just one of the many jewels in the Yankees crown — from its storied players, to its regal managers, to its majestic stadium(s), to its magical moments. He was as much about Yankee tradition and excellence as Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Stengel, and Jeter.   The man even has his own plaque in Monument Park, a place reserved for only the high priests of Yankee greatness.    

I can close my eyes and hear him say, “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please.  Now batting. . . ” His “clear, concise, correct” tones, as he liked to say, take me back to a sun-splashed Sunday afternoon at the Stadium, stands packed, electricity in the air, Yankee bats cracking balls all over the yard. It could be 1977. Or ’85. Or ’96. Or ’04. The year doesn’t matter. Sheppard always put forth a perfect performance. Reggie or Guidry or Jeter or A-Rod might have an off-day, but never Bob Sheppard. You always knew what to expect with him and he always left you feeling like you were in the perfect place at the perfect time to watch a baseball game.

Sheppard’s career, during which he only missed  small handful of games due to family commitments, was truly one of the more unique and remarkable in the history of the game. How many people did the same thing,  for so long, uninterrupted, for the same team, at such a consistently high level, with such modesty and dignity?

Last year, when I made my first visit to the new, new Yankee Stadium, I felt something very palpable was missing. There was a lot to like about the place — the magnificent exterior, the wide concourses, the abundance and variety of food — but there was a hollow ring to the place. And for one obvious reason: the voice was missing. Health issues prevented Sheppard from taking the mic in 2008 as well, but once the new stadium opened, his absence  was more noticeable. A new chapter in Yankee history, which of course ended with a familiar old theme — another World Series title — begged for an encore performance from this magnficant voice.

Mickey Mantle once said that he got shivers up his spine everytime he heard Sheppard announce his name.  I get the same feeling from just the memory of Sheppard’s voice floating softly through my mind. “Your attention please. . . “

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