‘Voice of God’

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After missing Opening Day for the first time since 1950, Bob Sheppard is back where he belongs, behind the microphone at Yankee Stadium.

NEW YORK (AP) – The voice known to millions of New Yorkers answered the telephone and began speaking slowly in the deep, distinct tone that’s been beloved by baseball fans for more than a half-century.

“I’m getting better,” Bob Sheppard said sonorously, sounding exactly the same as he does when introducing the lineups at Yankee Stadium – minus the echoes. “It takes a little time, but I’m getting better.”

Even on the telephone, he tends to say things twice. For emphasis.

He missed opening day for the first time since 1950 after a bone popped out of the socket of his artificial hip a night earlier at his home in Baldwin, Long Island. He was back at his microphone Friday night, when the Yankees started a homestand.

When Sheppard had a checkup Monday, his doctor gave him a list of instructions, which he read off in the same cadence as a pregame warning to fans.

“No high-jumping. Don’t hurdle the high hurdles. And don’t jump off diving boards,” he said, enunciating clearly and chuckling as he finished. “Actually, he said: “Be careful. Be careful.’ And I will be.”

Actually, he used to dive a lot – he was the quarterback of St. John’s football team from 1928 to 1931 and the left-hander was a first baseman for the university in the springs.

Babe Ruth gave Yankee Stadium its nickname, but Sheppard gave it its sound. From his little booth perched on the ballpark’s middle level, the man with white hair is the “Voice of God” – the nickname players and fans have given him – his words echoing off the bleachers, audible on the train platform beyond right field and in the park across the street.

In any history of the Yankees that mentions Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Sheppard – who grew up a New York Giants fan – is likely to be included. Like many of the great ones, he has a plaque out in Monument Park, and his old microphone is in the Hall of Fame.

Sheppard doesn’t like to give his age, but a former Yankee official confirmed that Oct. 12, 1910, is correct. That would make him 95, although it doesn’t show: Before the injury he was in good enough shape to wait in the back row of the Yankee Stadium press box and spring to the elevator for the final out in an attempt to beat traffic.

Long after games, his voice still rings in the ears, linking numbers and players together for eternity …

“Number 5. Joe Di-Maggio. Number 5.”

“Number 7. Mickey Man-tle. Number 7.”

“Number 44. Reggie Jack-son. Number 44.”

“Number 2. Derek Je-ter. Number 2.”

Sheppard might be the only Yankees employee that George Steinbrenner has never criticized.

“Every time I hear his voice, I’m delighted, and so are the fans,” the owner said through a spokesman.

Sheppard was hurt reaching over to take a Band-Aid off his left ankle.

He remembers being taken to a hospital in Rockville Centre and recalled his thoughts when speaking with the doctor, who had been summoned from Manhattan.

“What is going to happen, when without cutting me, he was going to manipulate the bone from where it was astray, into the socket, where it was supposed to stay?” Sheppard said, then pointing out: “That’s a poem. It’s a poem.”

“I said when are you going to do it? And before you know it, I was falling asleep,” he said. “And when I woke up, it seemed like two minutes later, I looked at him and I said, “When are you going to do it?’ And he said, “Mr. Sheppard, it has been done.”‘

Sheppard started out as a speech teacher, first at Grover Cleveland and John Adams high schools in New York, then at St. John’s, where he retired only a few years ago.

He sort of stumbled into his job as a public-address announcer.

He was a semipro player in the 1940s when he was asked to announce an exhibition football game in Long Island between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers in the old All-American Conference.

“When the game ended, a man came up to me and said, “You do a good job.’ He said, “You know, the Dodgers are looking for a football announcer at Ebbets Field,”‘ Sheppard remembered. “So the next day, I took the Long Island (Rail Road) to Brooklyn, found out where they were, went upstairs, told them that I was applying for the job.”

“How much do you want?” he remembered them asking.

“I said $75 a game.”

“You got it,” they answered.

“Bingo. I became a professional public address announcer, never knowing the going rate at the time was $20 or $30 a game.”

The football Dodgers went bust after the 1948 season, and the football Yankees asked Sheppard to announce their games the following year.

“The Yankee baseball people would go to the games and listen to me, and so they said, so would you like to do baseball?” Sheppard recalled. “And I said I would like to, but my teaching schedule would not permit me to do afternoon games on school days. And I turned them down.

“But they went after me the following year and said, “Here’s a deal: When you can’t be there, supply us with a competent backup, and you do the games you can: at night, on Sundays, on Saturdays and in the summer. And we will pay you the same, and you can pay your backup.’

“So that was a good deal, and I took it, and I’ve been there ever since.”

His first game was a 5-0 with over the Boston Red Sox on April 17, 1951 – DiMaggio’s last season and Mantle’s first. The first batter he ever introduced was Dom DiMaggio, Joe’s brother.

“In those days, the press box was alongside the third-base line, open-air, no protection against wind and rain and cold,” he said. “The anthem was on a Victrola record. And the music was occasional. Occasional.”

Since the NFL’s Giants also played at Yankee Stadium, he became their announcer in 1956 and remained with them through last season, He also announced St. John’s basketball games, soccer’s Cosmos and Army football, among others.

In addition to school and sports, he has been a church lector and taught priests how to give sermons.

“I electrified the seminary by saying seven minutes is long enough on a Sunday morning. Seven minutes. But I don’t think they listened to me,” he said, laughing. “The best-known speech in American history is the Gettysburg Address, and it’s about four minutes long. Isn’t that something? So seven minutes was giving them a lot of leeway. And yet I’ve talked to some Baptists and they say, “Oh, well our men go on for an hour.’ I said, oh, God, what a test of religion. To listen to a rabbi or a minister for an hour? Woof.”

One of his most challenging tasks as a teacher was when Jackson needed help with his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1993. Jackson planned to speak for 40 minutes.

“Too much you,” Jackson said slowly, mimicking Sheppard’s voice.

“He’s a good speaker – he’s clever, he’s bright, he’s articulate,” Sheppard said. “But he’s also egotistical and he loves the limelight.”

So, Sheppard gave Jackson some incentive.

“I said if you get the talk up there in 20 minutes or less, I’ll you a quarter – 25 cents,” Sheppard said. “And a month later, I paid him 25 cents.”

AP-ES-04-20-06 1524EDT

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