Wednesday, July 14, 2010

“Be clear, concise, correct.”

Bob Sheppard, whose elegant intonation as the public-address announcer at Yankee Stadium for more than half a century personified the image of Yankees grandeur, died Sunday at his home in Baldwin, on Long Island. He was 99.

I am a Yankee fan and on the few occasions I have been to Yankee Stadium I was struck by Bob Sheppard's voice. It was fascinating how the crowd grew quiet as he announced the starting line-ups. It was wonderful as the most mundane of announcements took on a majesty as Mr. Sheppard read them.

"Would the owner of the car with New York license plate 123ABC please report to your car. It is on fire."

From the New York Times -

Simple Intonation, a Lasting Impression
Published: July 11, 2010

Ten summers ago, when Bob Sheppard was not yet 90, I stepped into his tiny booth at Yankee Stadium and asked him for his first memory of being at the ballpark.

He looked up from the book he was reading — he read before games and between batters — and asked in that amazing voice of his: “Would you like my memory of the first game I attended or my memory of my first game as the public-address announcer?”

“Both,” I said. He could have narrated his first jaunt for a hot dog for all I cared.

His first reminiscence placed his visit in the early 1920s, perhaps when he was in his early teens. It was a general memory, not a box score recitation, but he offered it with excitement and a touch of historical perspective.

“I was a young lad sitting in right field in the bleachers and watched people like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and a fellow named Williams, not Ted Williams, but Ken Williams, of the St. Louis Browns,” he said, with his characteristic precision and slow cadence. “My idol was George Sisler, who was a perfect first baseman in my mind.”

Then came his memory from 1951, his first as the Yankees public-address announcer.

“The Yankees lineup had Johnny Mize at first, Jerry Coleman at second, Phil Rizzuto at short, Billy Johnson at third,” he said. “Jackie Jensen played left, DiMaggio played center and Mickey Mantle played right. Yogi Berra was the catcher and a fellow named Vic Raschi was the pitcher, and we beat the Boston Red Sox. And five of those starting nine are in the Hall of Fame.”

No doubt that the story of his rookie game, really not much more than a defensive alignment, was frequently requested by those who met him, much the way fans asked Sinatra to sing “My Way.” But he delivered his lines as if he were telling them for the first time.

Sheppard’s death Sunday is a reminder of how much he transcended his role as a public-address announcer. How many famous public-address announcers are there? How many are renowned like Sheppard? How many prompted imitations the way Sheppard did?

His fame rivaled, and even exceeded, that of many of the men who occupied the broadcast booth for the Yankees. That is not an insult, it’s just a fact. He did not have to speak for three hours to become famous. He said very little but he became known as the Voice of God, whose intonations sent chills through players and fans. If the Yankees were arrogant, Sheppard was elegant. In the Yankees’ down years, he offered up his class.

Does anyone recall who preceded him?

Sheppard’s role was a simple one: he greeted us, announced the lineups, told us who was at the plate and who was pitching, and told us to drive home safely.

He once joked that all he had was longevity, but longevity, mixed with his clarity, restraint from any silliness and that marvelous voice made him a star.

He was not inspired to a speech career by any sports voice, but by two Vincentian priests, one a “fiery orator,” and the other a “semantic craftsman,” he once said.

The Sheppard style was founded on several principles.

He thought that a man’s name was a personal treasure. So he lingered over names. He respected them. He especially loved the mellifluous ones (“Mick-ey Man-tle”) and the foreign ones (“Al-va-ro Es-pi-no-za”). He once fretted in the 1950s that he would mispronounce infielder Wayne Terwilliger’s name as “Ter-wigg-ler.” But he did not err.

Two, he thought that people spoke too quickly. So he spoke slowly. His cadence at home, in his high school and college speech classes, at a local bar or at Mass was the same as it was when he was announcing at the stadium. Ve-ry de-li-ber-ate-ly.

Three, he felt that his role required him to be “be clear, concise, correct.”

Sheppard’s passing feels like the loss of a significant representative of civility in the world. That quality, in addition to his remarkable voice, will be greatly missed.

Sheppard announced his final game Sept. 5, 2007, never visiting the new Yankee Stadium. But his voice will live on, in Jeter’s at-bats, and in an animated baseball movie called “Henry and Me.” It is an adaptation of a children’s book written by Ray Negron, a Yankees adviser. Negron realized the film would not be complete without the voice of Sheppard, who agreed to help. A studio was set up in his bedroom, but three months ago, Sheppard backed out because he was feeling too weak.

“At the last minute, he called and said he wanted to try to do it,” Negron said Sunday afternoon. “We sent a crew over there, and on his bed, he did all of his lines. It was classic Bob Sheppard. He sounded weak, but when the sound machines went on, he was powerful. He was powerful one last time.”

Your attention, please - Ladies and gentlemen - Now entering eternity - Public Address Announcer - Number 1 - Bob Sheppard - Number1.

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