Thank You Bob Sheppard

I know the exact moment that I fell in love with the game of baseball.

The date was Tuesday, October 19, 1976: Game 3 of the 1976 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees. It was the first World Series game in Yankee Stadium in my lifetime, as I celebrated my tenth birthday just 17 days before. No, I wasn’t there in the Bronx – far from it.

What “got” me that night was the “voice” of the PA Announcer during the pre-game ceremony. THAT voice. The voice of Bob Sheppard. I listened as Mr. Sheppard announced the players, coaches, and managers of both teams. By that point of my life I had heard quite a few really good public speakers, not the least of which was my own father. But this was DIFFERENT. As a kid living in Pennsylvania with a TV antenna on my roof, Yankee games were hard to come by, except for during the post season. And unfortunately, other than an “Oh, that guy” response there were not too many people to talk about Bob Sheppard deep in the heart of Phillies and Eagles country.

So the story fast-forwards twenty years. I’m dating the love of my life, and she takes me to Yankee Stadium for my first Yankee game. And of course, Mr. Sheppard was still going strong. Sometime during that afternoon I made the “I’m going to find a way to be here every day” vow that most of my family and friends know I took to heart. Along the way I found out that said love-of-my-life’s mother, godmother, and godfather all had a “Mr. Sheppard” as a teacher at John Adams High School in Queens, but none of them were really sure it could possibly be the same guy.

Within three years of that first trip to Yankee Stadium, I was “covering” MLB games in New York and sitting in the Yankee Stadium press box. Which brings me to my first “meeting” with Mr. Sheppard. As I was riding up the press elevator one day, I found myself alone in the elevator with him. I finally got up the courage to say, “Mr. Sheppard – I hate to bother you but can I ask you a question?” He graciously allowed me to ask if he was the same Mr. Sheppard that had once taught at John Adams. He answered in the same voice one hears over the Stadium’s PA system, “That was – many years ago.” When I told him of my “family connection”, he asked what they were all doing now in the way it seems all teachers ask about their former students. “Mr. Sheppard, they’re all retired”, was my answer – probably said before I should have thought of a better answer. Without any hesitation, his piercing eyes looked at me and said, “so what you are telling me is – that my students are smarter than their teacher.” Before I could have possibly thought of anything to say, he was gone. It dawned on me that perhaps I might have just upset “the man”.

Quite to the contrary, a friendship developed. From time to time he would ask how my “family” was. When he learned I lived in Woodhaven, he told me that he grew up in nearby Richmond Hill. When I told him that my fiancé’ was a St. John’s alum and catholic school teacher, he shared with me memories of the school’s days in downtown Brooklyn, and asked about her parish school. In 2000, I had the opportunity to be the PA announcer for baseball games at the brand new “Ballpark at St. John’s” and you know it was one of the first things I shared with him the next time I saw him. I’m proud to say that I still announce St. John’s baseball games to this day.

I considered it an honor to be invited into his small announcer’s booth during rain delays to “chat”. I always thought it was because it screened him from those that wanted autographs, pictures, or just to hear him “say” things at their request. We often talked about Dexter Park, the former ball field where he played baseball and football for St. John’s that stood three blocks from my house in Woodhaven. He told me about the “Wonder Five” – if you have to ask, go look up the real BEST basketball team in St. John’s history. And we talked about religion, politics, and history; conversations that I will never forget. I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak to him about these subjects – a learned man who had LIVED through important times in our country and really wanted to tell those stories. My understanding of 20th century history grew exponentially because of his willingness to share his experiences.

It was during one of those conversations in 2001 that he feigned disappointment. “I have been told that you are getting married this weekend,” he said, “and I haven’t received my invitation yet.” I reminded him that the Yankees were playing the Mariners that Saturday and he made a comment about not knowing in time to give my fiancé’ and me a gift. When I told him that I had formally requested an audiotape through the proper channels but that my request had been denied, he said, “Well – you didn’t ask ME”. He asked what we had wanted him to say, and after I mentioned an introduction for the reception he told me to stop by during the day game the following day. When I returned, there was a package waiting for me with a cassette tape inside. Too afraid to have it jam in my car’s tape deck, I waited until I got home to hear:

“Ladies and Gentleman – your attention please.
Introducing for the first time –
as husband and wife…”

Of course, I told my best man EddieBoy about the tape as soon I could. And when he got to the reception with tape in-hand, the DJ proudly stated that he didn’t carry a cassette deck with him anymore. I’m not sure how one magically appeared before the appointed time, but I suspect my family’s convincing nature had something to do with it.

So as our bridal party formally entered the reception to “Whoop There It Is”, my wife I waited behind a closed door. She had no idea about the tape. All of a sudden the music stopped, and after what seemed seconds of dead silence, THAT voice said THOSE words. The look on her face was priceless – she thought it was as cool as I did! The funny part of the story was how the people at our reception took it. A large group were Yankee fans, and thought it was cool to hear from the “Voice of the Yankees”. Another group were St. John’s grads, and thought it was cool we included “Professor Sheppard”. The non-sports fans of my family, who were still trying to acclimate to a Long Island wedding said, “What’s with the tape of the guy that sort of sounds like your Dad?” Clearly, there were limits to the reaches of Bob Sheppard’s voice.

Just weeks after our wedding day, everyone’s world changed. As I sat in the Bronx on Monday, September 10th waiting for word that the game would be “called” due to rain, I never imagined all that would transpire before I would see the Yankee Stadium Pressbox again. When we returned for that first game back, I was immediately struck by how angry Mr. Sheppard looked. I will never forget some of the first words I heard him say over the PA that night. It’s one of the few times my normally photographic memory of words fails me, so I apologize for paraphrasing:

“On September 11, 2001, terrorists unsuccessfully attempted
to crush the spirits
of the American people and our way of life.
Instead – in Lower Manhattan and in Washington, DC –
the greatest rescue operation in the history of the United States
successfully saved thousands – through the efforts of
police and fire men and women, EMS workers, doctors, nurses,
and civilians from all walks of life.”

Mr. Sheppard didn’t have “script writers”, I have no doubt that he carefully penned every word. In a world full of tragedy and chaos, here was a former WWII naval officer calming down his “troops” by re-stating the positives. I will never forget how important it was for me to hear those words at that time, and it’s a coaching strategy that I use to this day.

I’ve heard from many that they didn’t know if Mr. Sheppard had a sense of humor – which I find disappointing. He might have been one of the funniest people I ever met; it only took that glimmer in his eyes to let you know he was about to lay one on you. For example:

Mr. Sheppard was always very private about his age, which really wasn’t that hard to figure out – I was able to figure out in the early days of the internet. In 2007, Mr. Sheppard graciously agreed to be the Master of Ceremonies at the dedication of Jack Kaiser Stadium at St. John’s – an event that was his first trip back to his alma mater in many years. I had the pleasure of introducing him that day, and he deadpanned:

“For those of you that don’t know, my name is Bob Sheppard. I am a graduate of St. John’s University – Class of 1932.”

I’m sorry, but in front of a stadium-full of people who were absolutely there because he was – that’s pretty funny. And watching the non-StJ grads doing the math to figure out how old he was – priceless.

Another great line concerned St. John’s football and their quarterback of the early 1930’s:

“David – there are those that say I was the greatest quarterback in the history of St. John’s football.”

One day I bit, and asked him “who” said that? With a glimmer in his eye he replied,

“I did.”

On January 8, 2006, Mr. Sheppard announced his final football game at Giants Stadium. Between the east and west sections of the press box was a big dining room. There were no private areas there and seating was always a premium. As I was walking towards the dining area during halftime, Mr. Sheppard beckoned me over to where he was standing. As I got closer, he motioned me even closer – so he was whispering in my ear. He then said words that I will never forget: “David – I need to rest for a few minutes, and I was hoping that if I continue to stand here and whisper like this – people will see we are having an important conversation and leave us alone.” Of course, I told him that would be fine, and for the next few minutes he stood there in complete silence pretending to whisper in my ear, his hands cupped over his mouth. When the pressbox announcer signaled that the teams were returning to the field, he stepped away and simply said “Thank You”.

Like many, I was hoping that Mr. Sheppard was going to make a visit to the new Yankee Stadium one day. I simply refused to count out the strongest and most “full of life” person that I have ever met.

But on July 11, 2010 – God decided he wanted his voice back, and called him home.

There are so many things I would have wanted to say to him during that return, but one of the wisest men I have ever known always preached, “Clear, Concise, Correct”.

Mr. Sheppard: “Thank You.”

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One Response to “Thank You Bob Sheppard”

  1. Liz Says:

    Great story!!

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