The recent death of Bob Sheppard at 99, longtime public address announcer for the New York Yankees and the New York Giants, caught the attention of everyone I know in the New York area and even many people who live far from Yankee Stadium. Despite the subsequent death of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and later former Yankees manager Ralph Houk, the loss of Bob Sheppard was keenly felt. Even friends of mine in other cities who don’t follow baseball took note of the passing of the “Voice of Yankee Stadium.” A friend of mine didn’t know the name at first, but when I told him, he replied: “If you played a tape of his voice, I’d have known it was the announcer at Yankee Stadium.”
Bob Sheppard, with his rich resonant voice and his regal, dignified, yet unpretentious style, captured the hearts of generations of sports fans since he first uttered his trademark expression “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Yankee Stadium.” He was there to announce for the last year of Joe DiMaggio’s career as well as Mickey Mantle’s rookie year. He remained to announce the names of many other players — famous and not so famous — many at World Series games.
He has earned a plaque in Yankee Stadium’s famed “Monument Park,” and one of his microphones sits in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Many think that Sheppard himself should have a place in Cooperstown as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
I can’t claim close association with Sheppard, whom I interviewed a few times beginning in 1996. When I spoke to him in 2005, he didn’t remember meeting me at first, but noted: “I read your stories in The Long Island Catholic.” I, on the other hand, vividly recall all my exchanges with him.
While everyone remembers his voice, often described as the “voice of God,” many people don’t realize that Sheppard also offered his voice for God.
“Bob Sheppard and his wife, Mary, were lectors at the parish, I think, as soon as lectors were established after Vatican II,” said Father Steve Camp, pastor of St. Christopher’s in Baldwin, N.Y., Sheppard’s parish. “For all those years, our parishioners were able to experience that magnificent voice.”
In addition, Father Camp said, Sheppard worked with fellow lectors “and helped the deacons and priests with their homiletics.” He also visited the parish school, where he sent his children. A daughter, Sister Mary Sheppard, is a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, N.Y.
“He was a truly faith-filled and unassuming person,” recalled Msgr. John Bennett, a former pastor. When the parish had a memorial service for firefighters who died on Sept. 11, 2001, Sheppard, with no fanfare, readily agreed to read the names. After the moving service, one firefighter asked: “How did you get Bob Sheppard?”
Many people have imitated the famous voice, Msgr. Bennett noted, but “we should all imitate his faith and the life he led.”
Sheppard took pride in performing his work for the Yankees well. “Always be clear, concise and correct,” he explained. He’d arrive long before game time and talk with radio broadcasters for the visiting team to check the pronunciation of each player’s name.
Though devoted to the Yankees, he served his role in a dignified manner, not like “a cheerleader or a carnival barker,” he’d say. Sheppard would not hype players on his team over the visitors. In this age of media hype, many, including some in the news media, could learn from his sense of restraint and proportion.
As seriously as he took his announcing duties for the Yankees, the New York Giants, and at other sporting events, he maintained a sense of humor. I heard him joke about times he spoke freely, thinking his microphone was turned off, and accidentally proclaimed his thoughts to everyone in the stadium. “Never trust a dead microphone,” he quipped.
Less has been said about his dedication to teaching, a profession he valued more highly than announcing. He taught speech for decades at John Adams High School in Queens, agreeing to work for the Yankees only once it was clear that it would not interfere with his teaching duties. Sheppard also coached speech and debate at two Catholic high schools. He later taught speech at St. John’s University.
Even less has been said about Sheppard’s Catholic faith, which he practiced openly but did not actively draw attention to. Not only was he a daily communicant, but he also regularly served as a lector at weekday Masses.
In working with lectors, he emphasized that “preparation and technique are important, but a lector has to be infused with the word of God to proclaim it effectively.”
With his beloved wife, Mary, he also spoke at Marriage Encounter weekends. “We got so much out of it ourselves and enjoyed seeing other couples benefiting. They grow closer to each other,” Sheppard said, “and they accepted the grace of God that flowed from their living out Marriage Encounter in their lives.”
We will never again hear the voice of Bob Sheppard proclaiming: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Yankee Stadium.” Yet we can live in the hope that Sheppard has heard an even richer voice welcoming him to something much more than Yankee Stadium. May we all hope to hear that same voice of welcome.
Pete Sheehan is a longtime reporter for The Long Island Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.