Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 15, 2010

Mourning In The Bronx

Two voices so familiar to Yankees fans fell silent this week, less than 48 hours apart. Tuesday morning George Steinbrenner, principal owner of the team for the past 37 years, died following a massive heart attack. Just two days earlier Bob Sheppard, for nearly six decades the public address announcer at The Stadium passed away at age 99. The two men could not have been more different; yet between them they epitomized all of the qualities that have made the Yankees the most successful franchise in sport.

When he was introduced as the head of the partnership that bought the then-downtrodden Yankees from CBS for $8.7 million in 1973, Steinbrenner assured reporters that he did not intend to be a hands-on owner. “We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned,” Steinbrenner said. “We’re not going to pretend to be something we aren’t. I’ll stick to building ships.” In time, even he could laugh at that.

In short order, it became clear that at The Stadium, Steinbrenner was indeed The Boss. He was bombastic, domineering and a perfectionist. Managers came and went like staff from a temp agency, with twenty team skippers in the first 23 years of The Boss’s ownership until the arrival of Joe Torre. Of course that number included two round trips each through Steinbrenner’s revolving door for Lou Piniella, Bob Lemon, and Dick Howser, and the remarkable five separate stints as manager of Billy Martin. But while the manager merry-go-round got all of the attention, any number of less high profile employees also felt George’s wrath.

Even future All-Stars were not exempt. Derek Jeter tells the story of how once, during his rookie season, he became the second out of a double play while leading off third base when a teammate hit a sharp line drive right at the third baseman, and the opposing fielder stepped on the bag to double up Jeter. After the game Steinbrenner berated the young shortstop, who protested that the Yankees had won the contest. “It doesn’t matter,” screamed Steinbrenner. “Don’t let that happen again.”

Steinbrenner had been a graduate assistant to Woody Hayes while a student at Ohio State. It often seemed that he carried that short season football mentality over to the Great Game and would be satisfied with nothing less than a 162-0 season. But if Steinbrenner’s seemingly impossible demands on his team produced an atmosphere that must have often been stifling, they also produced champions.

Seven times during his ownership the Yankees hoisted the World Series trophy, They won in the Bronx Zoo days of manager Martin and slugger Reggie Jackson. They won and won and won and won again during Torre’s dynasty. And in Game Six last autumn, under second-year manager Joe Girardi, who wore #27 in recognition of the team’s goal, they got 27 outs against the defending champion Phillies for their 27th championship. Son Hal Steinbrenner held the trophy and proclaimed to the world, “Dad, this one’s for you.”

Critics love to say that the Yankees have simply bought their championships. But George Steinbrenner didn’t invent free agency. Nor was he, by a long shot, the wealthiest owner amongst the 30 teams. But he was an excellent businessman who found any number of ways to capitalize on the cash flow possibilities of a franchise located in the biggest market of them all. In short, he did exactly what any owner in his position would have done.

If Steinbrenner and his bombast represented the arrogance and swagger that is an inevitable part of sporting success, Bob Sheppard and his restraint represented the class and dignity that have been equal parts of the Yankees’ history.

Sheppard was a collegiate speech teacher when he began his announcing career in 1951, Joe DiMaggio’s final season and Mickey Mantle’s first. From that day until the end of the 2007 season (he never formally retired, but declining health kept him home on Long Island), his minimalist style never changed. It stands in stark contrast to some modern announcers who seem to think that they are the reason fans come to the stadium.

While he had a distinctive baritone voice, what really stood out were his perfect enunciation and stately, deliberate cadence. He began more than 4,500 games with the same greeting, “Good af-ter-noon (or eve-ning)………ladies and….gen-tle-men…………And welcome………to Yankee Stadium.” Try taking almost 15 seconds to read those two sentences, and you’ll have an idea of Sheppard’s announcing style.

In the same vein his announcement of each batter never, ever, altered. The first time through the order it was team, position, uniform number, name, and then the number repeated. “Now batting for the Yankees, the shortstop, number two, Derek Jeter, number two.” Subsequent at-bats were announced by just the position and name. And there were no nicknames in Sheppard’s precise world. The fans may have known them as Goose and Catfish, but the pitchers were announced as Rich Gossage and Jim Hunter. And he was unfailingly polite. Every single announcement outside of the normal call of the game began with “Your attention please, ladies and gentlemen.”

It was Reggie Jackson who named the humble P.A. man “The Voice of God.” Of course, the best part about hearing that marvelous voice was that it meant one was actually at The Stadium.

While striving to remain in the background, Sheppard took his job very seriously, making sure that he had the right pronunciation for players’ names, especially as the game took on more and more of an international flavor. When a young Jorge Posada jogged in from the bullpen to serve as a pinch runner in his first ever appearance at the major league level, Sheppard famously announced him as “Posado.” He was mortified by the error and personally apologized to the rookie the next day. Fifteen years later, Derek Jeter’s nickname for Posada remains “Sado.”

Tomorrow evening at The Stadium the regular season will start up again after the All-Star break. By chance, Saturday afternoon is the annual Old Timer’s Day. It’s always a grand event, and no doubt will be so again this summer. But for all of us who will be there, this year it will also be an event steeped in sadness. For we will all be thinking about the two old timers who will not be present. In the end they were both perfectionists. One’s pursuit of perfection restored a franchise to greatness. The other’s allowed him to proclaim it, with loyal fans hanging on his every word.

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