"The Voice of God" has gone quiet.
Bob Sheppard, the public address announcer at Yankee Stadium since 1951 and the possessor of a baritone so imposing and majestic that for decades people wondered if it came from the heavens, is retiring at age 98, according to The New York Times. Sheppard debuted as the Yankees' PA man with a lineup that included Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio and a 19-year-old rookie named Mickey Mantle.
They were all iconic Yankees, and almost six decades later, so is Sheppard. Or, more accurately, so is his voice. Not much was ever known about Sheppard the man, and that's just the way he wanted it. He preferred to keep such a low profile that the confirmation of his age, as much the announcement of his retirement, is a surprise. What isn't a surprise is the way he became as much a part of the being at Yankee Stadium as any of the stars whose names he pronounced with the perfect diction befitting a man who taught speech at St. John's University. (I once recall Sheppard saying that his favorite name to announce was that of former Japanese player Shigetoshi Hasegawa, for the musical way it rolled off the tongue).
From his signature greeting before every game -- "Good evening, ladies and gentleman, and welcome to Yankee Stadium" -- to his classy, perfectly enunciated recitation of thousands of names during it, Sheppard was the one constant in the Bronx during a half century of almost constant turnover, and as much a part of the Stadium's mystique as any of the games he saw or players he announced. Even opposing players admitted to looking forward to being announced by him because it was a sure sign that they had finally arrived as big leaguers. He became so revered that even when he missed games because of illness, which happened more and more in recent years, Derek Jeter is said to have mandated that a recording of Sheppard be used to introduce his every at-bat in the Stadium.
Sheppard personified class and dignity, eschewing the histrionics and cheerleading that mark the PA work of so many of his colleagues in professional sports. Listening to him could be soothing, it could be enjoyable, but it could never be a clue as to what was happening on the field. Whether the Yankees were winning or losing, Sheppard simply did his job with the same even tone. While the Bronx Zoo raged all around him, Sheppard was an evening at the symphony.
At the conclusion of every Yankees game in recent years, Sheppard would sneak out from his private booth and be headed for the elevator even before the rendition of New York, New York began bellowing from Stadium loudspeakers and started spreadin' the news about the outcome of that night's game throughout the Bronx (Frank Sinatra, of course, for a win, and often the Liza Minelli version for a loss).
Give us the Liza version today. For the Yankees, for their fans, for the new Yankee Stadium that will never know his voice, Sheppard's departure is truly a loss.