Bob Sheppard, the Yankees’ ‘Voice of God’ for more than a half century, dies at 99

By Ronald Blum, AP
Sunday, July 11, 2010

Revered Yankees PA man Bob Sheppard dies at 99

NEW YORK — Bob Sheppard, whose stylish, elegant stadium introductions of New York Yankees from Joltin’ Joe to Derek Jeter spanned more than a half century and earned him the nickname “The Voice of God,” died Sunday. He was 99.

Sheppard, a gentle man who spoke with the sonorous authority of a giant, died at his Long Island home in Baldwin with his wife, Mary, at his side, the Yankees said.

His voice, however, will live on in recordings. His mellifluous tone still is heard at Yankees games, nearly three years after his finale, when it is played to introduce captain Derek Jeter.

“Every time you hear it, you sort of get chills,” Jeter said.

Sheppard started with the Yankees in April 1951 and worked his last game at Yankee Stadium in September 2007, when he became ill with a bronchial infection.

His “Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman, and welcome to Yankee Stadium,” was as much a part of the team’s identity as the pinstripes itself. And for a person heard far more often than seen, he became a fan favorite alongside Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Jeter.

“He certainly got everybody’s attention,” former Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “The person he was made it easy to like him.”

Sheppard’s style was so simple, yet became much imitated. Players longed to hear him pronounce their names. Before the 1998 World Series against San Diego, future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn sat in the third-base dugout talking about how much he wanted to meet “Mr. Sheppard.”

“Coming up to home plate and hearing your name was special,” said Lou Piniella, a former Yankees star and manager.

Even slowed by illness, Sheppard recorded a greeting to fans, a poem and the introductions that were played at the original ballpark’s final game on Sept. 21, 2008. Jeter couldn’t deal with not hearing Sheppard introduce him.

“There were a few times sprinkled in and out that he wasn’t there and it didn’t sound right,” he said. “So I had the idea to record his voice and always used it as long as I was playing.”

Sheppard was perhaps the only Yankees employee never criticized by hard-driving owner George Steinbrenner, who called him “the gold standard.”

“Fans were thrilled to hear his unforgettable voice and players were thrilled to hear his majestic enunciation of their names,” he said.

When the team moved into new Yankee Stadium last year, it honored him by naming the media dining room after him.

While Sheppard didn’t like to give his age, the Yankees confirmed Sheppard was born Oct. 20, 1910.

The Yankees’ lineup for his first game on April 17, 1951, included DiMaggio, Mantle, Johnny Mize, Berra, and Phil Rizzuto. And the opponents that day, the Boston Red Sox, were led by Ted Williams.

The first name Sheppard announced was DiMaggio — Dom DiMaggio, the center fielder for the Red Sox.

Sheppard became as much as a fixture in the Bronx ballpark as the facade, Monument Park and the shadows that swept the field during World Series games.

“You always hear that voice, even if you don’t want to,” Yankees closer Mariano Rivera said.

On May 7, 2000, after 50 years and two weeks on the job, the team honored him with “Bob Sheppard Day” and put a plaque in his honor in Monument Park. Fans gave Sheppard a standing ovation, and legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite read the inscription. Berra, Reggie Jackson and Don Larsen were among those who stood on the field during the ceremonies.

“The voice of Yankee Stadium,” read the plaque. “For half a century, he has welcomed generations of fans with his trademark greeting.” He served as a counterpoint to the clipped cadence of Sherm Feller at Boston’s Fenway Park.

“Bob was part of the fabric of the Yankees,” Don Mattingly said. “The way Bob said stuff, the way he pronounced the names, that was the sound of Yankee Stadium. He was the constant.”

Sheppard also served as the stadium voice of the NFL’s New York Giants from 1956-05; for men’s basketball and football at St. John’s University, where he taught; for Army football; and the Cosmos soccer team. He announced for the American Football League’s New York Titans at the Polo Grounds and the World Football League’s New York Stars at Downing Stadium.

But baseball is what made him famous. Babe Ruth gave Yankee Stadium its nickname, but Sheppard gave the ballpark its voice.

He announced at 62 World Series games and a pair of All-Star games, and introduced more than 70 Hall of Famers across his career. It was one of them, Jackson, who dubbed Sheppard “The Voice of God.”

“A voice that you hear in your dreams, in your sleep,” Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said Sunday.

Sheppard’s player introductions remained consistent throughout the decades, with Sheppard instilling each name and number with a gravitas more in keeping with a coronation than a ballpark outing: “No. 7. Mickey Mantle. No. 7.” Or even “No. 58. Dooley Womack. No. 58.”

Unlike the shrill shills of later generations, Sheppard conducted himself with an understated and dignified delivery. He employed perfect diction, befitting a man who considered his real job teaching speech at St. John’s. He graduated from the school in 1932 and later worked there for more than 25 years.

“A P.A. announcer is not a cheerleader, or a circus barker, or a hometown screecher,” the epitome of the old-school style once said. “He’s a reporter.”

Sheppard’s favorite Yankee Stadium moment was Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, but his dulcet tones defined New York sports for the second half of the 20th century and beyond. He also was the stadium announcer for the “greatest football game ever played,” the Baltimore Colts’ 23-17 sudden-death victory over the Giants in 1958.

He was on hand when Roger Maris hit home run No. 61, when Jackson hit three homers in a single World Series game, when the Giants finally reached the Super Bowl. He never missed an opening day at Yankee Stadium from 1951 until a hip injury sidelined him in 2006.

Sheppard, who followed the Giants across the Hudson River when they moved to New Jersey, received a ring after the team won its first Super Bowl in the 1986 season; it complemented his Yankees’ World Series jewelry. His football calls covered the Giants from Frank Gifford through Tiki Barber.

While few might have recognized Sheppard in person, his voice was unmistakable. Once, while ordering a Scotch and soda at a bar, Sheppard watched as heads turned his way. He often read at Mass, and was subsequently greeted by parishioners noting he sounded exactly like the announcer at Yankee Stadium.

“I am,” he would reply.

His favorite names to announce, in order, have been Mantle, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Salome Barojas, Jose Valdivielso and Alvaro Espinoza. He preferred the names of Latin players.

“Anglo-Saxon names are not very euphonious,” he said. “What can I do with Steve Sax? What can I do with Mickey Klutts?”

Sheppard was the quarterback of St. John’s football team from 1928-31. The left-hander was a first baseman for the university in the springtime.

Sheppard began his announcing career at an exhibition football game, which led to a job with the long defunct Brooklyn Dodgers of the All-American Conference in 1947. When they folded a year later, he was hired by the football New York Yankees, who played at Yankee Stadium.

Management with the baseball Yankees liked his approach, and Sheppard was on board for opening day in 1951.

Even the players treated Sheppard with a degree of reverence. Mantle once said that every time Sheppard introduced him, he felt goose bumps. “Mickey, so did I,” Sheppard responded quietly.

Sheppard, while proud of his work with the Yankees, also was known for his speaking as a church lector. He taught priests how to give sermons.

“I electrified the seminary by saying seven minutes is long enough on a Sunday morning. Seven minutes. But I don’t think they listened to me,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “The best-known speech in American history is the Gettysburg Address, and it’s about four minutes long. Isn’t that something?”

He said one of his most challenging tasks as a teacher was when Jackson needed help with his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1993. Jackson planned to speak for 40 minutes, and Sheppard implored him to cut.

“Too much you,” Jackson said slowly, mimicking Sheppard’s voice.

After working what turned out to be his final game against Kansas City on Sept. 5, 2007, Sheppard missed the 2007 division series, ending his streak of 121 consecutive postseason games at Yankee Stadium. He was replaced by Jim Hall, his longtime sub, and Paul Olden took over when the Yankees moved to the new ballpark in 2009.

In addition to his wife, Sheppard is survived by sons Paul and Christopher, daughters Barbara and Mary, four grandchildren and at least nine great-grandchildren.

A wake will be held Tuesday and Wednesday, with the funeral Thursday in Baldwin.

AP Sports Writers Tim Booth, Mike Fitzpatrick and Beth Harris, and former Associated Press Writer Larry McShane contributed to this report.

will not be displayed