Saturday, November 28, 2009

God Quitting: Bob Sheppard Retires

In 1951, America was involved in the Korean conflict, Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train is in the theaters, Elvis Presley's first Sun recordings were still 2 years away, and Bob Sheppard started his career as Yankee announcer.

Already 40 years old when he began his Yankee announcing career that year, Sheppard's "part-time job" would last until 2008, when he announced the final lineup at the old Yankee Stadium.

Since 1951, Sheppard has announced Don Larsen's Perfect Game, Roger Maris' 60th Home Run, Reggie Jackson 3-HR World Series game in 1977, the first game after Thurman Munson's death—where he read a poem in honor of the Yankee Captain—Derek Jeter's first game and about 4500 other games. Along the way, "The Voice of God" called 22 pennants, 13 World Series and 3 all-star games (although he was too ill to announce the 3rd game in 2008).

Sheppard also was the announcer for the New York Giants for 50 years and calls the 1958 Championship game against the Colts (the so-called "Greatest Game Ever Played") one of the best games he was ever fortunate enough to call.

Well, God is 99 years old and is officially retired after missing much of the 2008 and all of the 2009 season due to flailing health. According to the New York Times, Sheppard retired back in April, but the announcement of his official retirement did not come out until this week.

Ever the perfectionist, Sheppard was quoted as saying, "I had a good run for it. I enjoyed doing what I did. I don't think, at my age, I'm going to suddenly regain the stamina that is really needed if you do the job and do it well."

The most famous announcer in sports, Sheppard was not just a "good voice", but also a man who took his craft seriously. His deep booming baritone, combined with a slow, lucid delivery made him an icon, not just in baseball circles, but all around sports and pop culture. To make sure he did his job correctly, Sheppard would contact the players with harder names to pronounce, ask them how they wanted to him to pronounce it and then practice it until he was sure he got it right. Two of Sheppard’s most difficult, and favorite names were Mariner, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and White Sox, Minnie Minoso.

However, probably the most famous announcement—nowadays anyway—that Sheppard makes is his announcement as Derek Jeter approaches the plate. And that is probably because, when Sheppard was sick in 2007, Jeter asked Sheppard to record him announcing, "Now batting...number 2....Derek Jeter." Jeter has said he wants no one else to announce him and will use the recording for the rest of his career. Sheppard called Jeter's request was one of the best honors he's ever gotten.

His honors also included a press dining area in the new Stadium named after him, and his microphone in the Hall of Fame. He is also one of only two people to have a World Series ring and a NFL Super Bowl ring.

But more than that; more than the honors, accolades and the longevity, even more than what Phil Simms called the Voice athletes hope to hear him announce their names, Sheppard became a part of the game. He was part of your experience as a Yankee fan—as much as the white facade or the hot dog or the home run.

And apparently, I'm not the only one who feels that way. In writing that he was "a part of the game," I unintentionally parroted what is written on Sheppard's plaque in Memorial Park. In being one of only 26 men in Yankee history to be honored with a plaque, the Yankees wrote on his plaque that Sheppard is as ..."synonymous with Yankee Stadium as its copper facade or Monument Park."

And they are right. To put how much a part of Yankee history Sheppard has been, here's the first lineup he announced, back in 1951:

Jackie Jensen LF
Phil Rizzuto SS
Mickey Mantle RF
Joe DiMaggio CF
Yogi Berra C
Johnny Mize 1B
Billy Johnson 3B
Jerry Coleman 2B
Vic Raschi P

And here is Sheppard's final lineup. Watch him say it here:

We will miss you, Bob. It won't be the same without you.

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