Bob Sheppard, the longtime Voice of Yankee Stadium died this week at the age of 99. Sheppard’s majestic elocution gave players and spectators goosebumps for over half a century. Sheppard was also devout in his Catholic faith and he was kind enough to offer Senior Editor Mike Hayes an interview about both his faith and his career as he tried to return to the public address booth after an undisclosed illness. Sadly, he would never make it back. We’re reprinting our interview here. You can also hear the full audio version of the interview here on a Busted Halo Cast.
Anyone who has attended a Yankee’s home game since the mid-twentieth century has been greeted by the unique—and now legendary—style of player introductions given over the stadium’s public address system:
Now batting for the Yankees… Number 2… the shortstop… Derek… Jeter.. Number 2.
For over 57 years, Bob Sheppard’s honeyed baritone has been echoing throughout the “The House that Ruth Built,” which means that Sheppard has introduced legends like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Thurman Munson. From Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 and Reggie Jackson’s magical three World Series homers in 1977 to Joe Torre’s dynasty throughout the late 90s— Sheppard has seen it all.
If sports, as it is often said, have become a religion for many Americans, Yankee Stadium is certainly baseball’s great Cathedral and Sheppard—as Reggie Jackson once dubbed him—is the Voice of God inside it. For decades, his distinctive style of announcing has added a greater sense of reverence and grace to games there. It should come as no surprise then that Sheppard is also a man of deep faith: a devout Catholic all his life who receives communion daily and has a daughter who became a nun.
With the Help of God
In 2007, Sheppard, who doesn’t publicize his age (although Busted Halo® sources report that he is 98!) was unable to finish announcing the season due to a severe illness. For the first time in his storied career the man whose microphone is encased at the Baseball Hall of Fame was unable to complete a season. Sadly, as fans are flocking to the Bronx this summer to pay their last respects before the new Yankee Stadium opens in 2009, Sheppard’s voice has not been there to greet them (except for Derek Jeter’s introduction—more on that later).
“With the help of God,” as he often says, Sheppard hopes to return sometime this season. During his recuperation, Sheppard took some time via phone from his Long Island home to discuss with Busted Halo® his years with the Yankees, his own personal spirituality and his life-long love affair with a woman he met in church many decades ago: his wife Mary.
Busted Halo®: Is this just a job for you or do you have the same passion for baseball that a lot of the fans have?
Bob Sheppard: Well I haven’t done it this season because I’ve been ill but I’m hoping to be back before the season is over, God willing and the doctor willing. I’ve done it for 57 years and I’ve enjoyed it for 57 years. And I will continue to do it as long as God keeps me in good shape and I find it interesting and pleasant. It’s undetermined how many years I have to go! I won’t say how old I am because that is a big secret, known only to millions of people, as far as we’re concerned you can just say that he is mature…he is QUITE mature. (laughs)
Up until my recent illness, I have been physically fit for somebody my age. But last January for some reason or other, life caught up with me, and I began losing weight. I had a very serious problem with my lungs because of a bronchial problem and I was hospitalized. I had lost weight. I had gotten down to 103 pounds! I don’t know what you weigh, Mike? (laughs)
BH: A lot more than that!
BS: Don’t tell me…(laughs). So I lost all the weight! So he put me in the hospital where they gave me special treatment and surgery and since that time I went from 103 to 127 and a half as of last week. So I was gaining about 2 pounds a week under this doctor and his recommendation about a diet. According to the doctor, when I reach, “my fighting weight” about 145-150, he will allow me to go back to Yankee Stadium and finish the season. So my target date to be back is July 1. There is an All Star Game to be played at Yankee Stadium on July 15th and one of my goals is to be there and announce it. I did one years and years ago at Yankee Stadium but I can’t recall it. So now this would be something to remember. I do want to be there next year when we open a new Stadium. And I’d like to be the one who says, “Good Afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen…Welcome to the NEW…Yankee Stadium.”
BH: What a lot of people don’t know about you is that you’ve been a speech teacher for most of your life at the high school and college level. Do you consider yourself a speech teacher first and the Yankee announcer second?
BS: I’m a teacher first and a Yankee announcer second or maybe third or fourth. Primarily, my whole training has been to be a speech teacher. That’s what I decided to do when I was early in college at St. John’s (University in New York). For many years I was teaching high school speech during the day, St. John’s in the late afternoons and evenings and some of the summer times, and in the meantime, I was still at Yankee Stadium doing the night games and the weekend games.
BH: Derek Jeter has requested a recording of your voice be played every time he gets up to bat. With technology the way it is now, would you like the Yankees to create a digital version of your voice to always be played at Yankee Stadium?
BS: No! No! No! (laughs) I didn’t even know that Yankee Stadium would preserve what I had been saying after introducing Jeter for years now. But they started using it because Jeter asked him to do it. And I didn’t even know that he (Jeter) had done the requesting (laughs)! He said, “Mr. Sheppard introduced me the first time I came to bat years ago and I want to keep going that way as long as I’m a Yankee, I want to hear him introduce me.”
BH: Family has played a prominent role in your life. Can you talk a bit about that?
BS: My own life has been involved in family, in church, in education and in sports. I have four children. And I’m proud of all of them. I have nine grandchildren. I have a couple of great-grandchildren, I forget how many (laughs). My first wife died of a brain tumor 15 years after we’d been married. Ugh, it was sudden and I had three children at the time! Anyway, I was still going to mass every day and so did Mary Hoffmann. And I used to see her in church every day and she was lovely looking, she was young, she was an elementary school teacher and one day she said, “I saw your son on the golf course.” And I said, “Oh yeah, he plays a lot of golf.” And she asked if I played golf? (laughs) I said, “Oh no Mary, I’m a beach man! How would you like to go this afternoon?” She said, “yes.” We swam—she’s a great swimmer and a great looking lady in a bathing suit. So we played pitch-putt golf and we ate the sandwiches her mother had made for us—they were awful! Anyway, before the night was over I knew, I really knew, Mike, that this is a girl I would marry.
“There are 3 questions I have for you, Mary” I asked her on the beach.
“Are you in love with anybody?” She said, “No.”
“Do you think about falling in love sometime?” She said, “Yes I do.”
I said, “OK, thank you.”
She said “Wait! What is the third question?”
I said, “That will take a little time!” (laughs) And it did! I think until Christmas of that year! And we’ve been married for over 40 years now! She has been—especially through this illness—an Archangel, not an angel, an Archangel! Woooo, taking care of me, building me up, making sure that I eat enough, get enough treatments, vitamins, vitamins, vitamins!
BH: Bob can you tell us what’s the most important thing in your Catholic faith to you?
BS: Thank you, thank you, thank you for asking. Well, my family is Catholic. I go to mass every day that I’m able to; go to communion. Since I’ve been sick, my wife brings me the consecrated host every morning, every morning! I have a very special love for the Blessed Mother and always have had, it started when I was young I think and I can remember many times at St. John’s Prep Chapel going in to the church there before a baseball game and asking the Blessed Mother to allow me to get a couple of hits that afternoon (laughs). And she did! (laughs) She was good, very good to me. I gave innumerable lecture workshops around the country. In other words, I have been a fairly active Catholic layman in the speech area.
BH: I interviewed you about 15 years ago at Yankee Stadium for WOR radio and you asked me what my last name was and when I said it was “Hayes” you said “Oh yes! Like the Cardinal (and former Archbishop of NY). Well, what are you doing here?” you asked. “You should be at the seminary!”
BS: (laughs) And you didn’t make it?
BH: Well no, but I did leave radio and go to work for the church, so I owe some of my lay ministry to you and to that conversation.
BS: I didn’t know if you were religious or not. I can remember being a young fellow and living in Richmond Hill (Queens) and one day someone at the rectory in my parish called and asked me to come over to the rectory? So I went over and there was a young priest who asked me “Did you ever think of becoming a priest?” I said, “ME!?” (laughs) I think I was life guarding in the summer then and he says, “Well, do you like the girls?” And I said, “You bet I do! I’m a life guard” So that was the end of my career as a priest! It was not any loss to the clergy! (laughs) But I did what God wanted me to do and I’m still doing it!