Commentary

Bob Sheppard was one of a kind

The Yanks lost their beloved announcer on Sunday; the world is a poorer place for it

Updated: July 12, 2010, 7:10 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

For more than a half-century, Bob Sheppard did what baseball teams demand of their pitchers: He repeated his delivery, again and again and again, day in, day out, the same way every single time.

And during that time, he did what all businesses, even professional baseball teams, used to demand of their employees: that they represent their employers with the utmost class, dignity and professionalism.

[+] EnlargeBob Sheppard
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonBob Sheppard was the absolute best at what he did, and there's certainly something to be said for that.

We live in a different world now -- a world in which louder, gaudier and more vulgar are mistaken for better, a world in which arguments are won by he who shouts longest, a world in which the technological ability to do 15 things poorly is valued above the talent to do one thing well.

Sheppard came from a different world, a world in which the sound track of baseball was the smack of horsehide against leather and the crack of baseball against wood.

And, oh yes, the occasional sound of the voice of the public-address announcer informing you of who was coming to bat.

Throughout his lifetime, Sheppard did many things well and one thing impeccably.

That one thing -- the clear, concise, informative and authoritative act of announcing who would be the next man to come to bat -- is the reason his memory will live on long after his tape-recorded introduction of Derek Jeter is played for the last time.

Sheppard's death on Sunday at 99 was not exactly unexpected, considering his mellifluous tones -- there really is no other word to describe them -- had not been heard at a Yankees game in three years and never (except for that recorded introduction that Jeter has insisted be played before every one of his home at-bats) at the new stadium.

And although this is no longer Sheppard's world -- this world of blaring walk-up music for each batter, ballparks papered in advertisements so that they look like shopping malls, and PA announcers who sound more like circus ringmasters -- the world we have now is made poorer by his passing.

Because from 1951, when he announced his first Yankees batter -- "Now batting for the Yankees, the left fielder, No. 27, Jackie Jensen" -- to 2007, the precise enunciation of Bob Sheppard was the one true link from the Yankees of Jeter not only to the Yankees of DiMaggio but also to an era in which the game was the thing, the one true reason for being at the ballpark.

Today, people go to the ballpark for many reasons, and sometimes it seems as if the least of them is to actually watch the ballgame. They go to see and be seen, to schmooze with clients, to make cell phone calls and wave from their obscenely expensive seats in full camera range behind home plate, to cruise the food courts and the memorabilia shops, and occasionally to glance at what is happening on the field.

These days, the game often seems like either just a backdrop or a lure to get people into the ballpark so that vendors can sell them things.

When Sheppard started announcing Yankees games, the action on the diamond was all the sensory assault necessary to make what is now known as "the stadium experience" a worthwhile pursuit.

And so anonymous was the PA announcer that Sheppard did not even know the name of the man he replaced. (It is believed to have been Red Patterson.)

His job, like the job of the television play-by-play announcer, was to provide the viewer with the basics and then get out of the way and let the game speak for itself.

This was before the days of the grotesquery of NBA PA announcers -- each of whom has a customized hometown call -- and before the advent of TV announcers who think they are bigger than the event they are calling, and before some genius decided that a few moments of silence during a baseball game -- such as between pitches -- was some kind of dead zone that needed to be filled.

Those of us old enough to remember when a ballpark was somewhere you went to actually watch the game and engage in friendly banter with those around miss those days terribly. Those of you too young to know anything but the audio/visual attack that is a day at the ballpark today have no idea what you are missing.

Sheppard was the last link to the old Yankee Stadium -- the stadium of Ruth and Gehrig -- and to old baseball, the baseball of Murderer's Row and the Gashouse Gang and Dem Bums of Brooklyn.

His wasn't a loud voice or a booming voice. It didn't grab you by the lapels and demand you listen. But in its firm, precise way, it was a commanding voice, one to which you just instinctively knew that attention must be paid.

There was a cadence to it, and a discipline, an unwavering pattern. The first time through the order, he gave you the player's position, his number, his name and his number. After that, just the position and the name.

There was no editorializing, no rooting, no indication from the announcement alone whether the player was a Yankee or a Seattle Mariner, or whether the player was a star or a scrub. He announced Jeter with the same panache that he announced, say, Eric Hinske.

This is not to imply that Sheppard was a saint, or that his motives were always pristine, or that he was a last holdout in a world rapidly spinning toward terminal crassness.

He did his share of answering-machine recordings and wedding announcements -- "And heah they aaare, for the furst time as man and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney … Applebaum … Applebaum" -- and as an employee of George Steinbrenner was made to perform his share of cheesy in-game announcements.

(A great story recounted by Bill Madden in his recent biography, "Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball," has Sheppard refusing to interrupt the ritual of his pregame dinner to deliver an amplified apology to "our Canadian friends" at the stadium after a singer mangled "O Canada.")

And he quickly came to appreciate the Yankees' use of Frank Sinatra's recording of "New York, New York" as a useful way for him to beat a hasty retreat to his car for the drive home to Baldwin, N.Y., immediately after the final out of a game.

Sheppard was famously secretive about his age and a bit vain about his appearance. Former Yankees PR man Rick Cerrone, who remained a lifelong friend of Sheppard's, remembers being shocked at how old Sheppard was on their first meeting in 1977, because the picture in the Yankees' media guide had not been changed since 1959. But, about his dedication to his craft, there could be no doubt.

And in a profession marked by its anonymity -- quick, tell me the name of the PA announcer at Citi Field, for instance? -- Sheppard's unique delivery, as precise and recognizable as Tom Seaver's windup, was valued equally by players and fans.

In his later years, Sheppard often would sit in the Yankees' dugout during batting practice, and players would creep over, timidly, and ask to meet "Mr. Sheppard." When he joined the Yankees, Alex Rodriguez asked Cerrone whether he could help him get an autograph.

Once, in 2001, Sheppard came down with laryngitis and needed relief in the middle of a game. Cerrone, a former radio announcer who had "done Sheppard" while serving as the football and wrestling PA announcer at Yorktown High School in Yorktown, N.Y., was forced to fill in. He did so, in what he thought was a pretty passable imitation.

After the game, he was accosted in the Yankees' clubhouse by Don Mattingly. "Who was that doing the PA announcements today?" Mattingly asked. "It wasn't Sheppard."

It reminded Cerrone of a time nearly 30 years earlier when the Yankees announced their affiliation with a Triple-A team in Nashville -- and to commemorate the occasion, Sheppard turned over the Yankee Stadium microphone to the minor league team's PA man for what was supposed to be the next three innings.

After the first batter, Billy Martin -- then the Yankees' manager -- stuck his head out of the dugout and stared up at the press box. After the second batter, he used the dugout phone to ask what in the hell was going on up there.

And for the third batter, Bob Sheppard was back to doing what he did for 56 years. And he did so impeccably -- repeating his delivery, again and again, day in and day out, the same way every single time. Displaying the excellence of consistency and precision, and demonstrating the genius of doing just one thing as well as it has ever been done.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com »

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
Follow Wallace on Twitter »  Chat archive »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

  • Socked!
    Shane Greene was chased, Brett Gardner ejected and the Yanks fell to the Sawx.
  • Tip Your Hat To The Cap
    Leading up to Derek Jeter's final playing days, merchandise is flowing.
  • He Can Do It All
    Juan Lagares' defense has been great through August, but today he got it done at the plate.
  • 'Pure Dominance'
    Derek Carr should expect 'pure dominance' from the Jets' front seven Sunday.
  • Big Blue Or Little Giants?
    Dan Graziano makes his game-by-game picks for the Giants' 2014 season.

ALSO SEE