When the Yankees begin their second half on Friday night, two lost icons will take centerstage. To honor the memory of their late owner and Bob Sheppard, the only man more identifiable with the Yankees than George Steinbrenner over the last six decades, the team will don a pair of commemorative patches. It will be but one of the many ways in which the club will honor two icons.
The patches, as shown above, are a change from the Yanks’ usual armband memorials. The microphone of the Voice of Yankee Stadium will be worn on the sleeve while the GMS patch will be worn on the chest of the uniform either above the interlocking NY while in the home pinstripes or the word “York” on the away digs. These two men had not been the same since illnesses felled them both in the mid 2000s, and now they will be remembered by the Yankees throughout the season.
I’ve had both the Boss and Bob Sheppard on my mind over the last few days, and I took Bob’s passing harder than I did George’s. For me, as with millions of other Yankee fans, Bob Sheppard was Yankee Stadium. Nothing signalled summer more so than walking through the tunnels behind the stands while hearing Mr. Sheppard go over the Yankee Stadium ground rules. “During the course of the game,” he would intone in his slow and precise manner, “hard hit baseballs and bats may be hit or thrown into the stands.” Who would fail to heed such a warning?
As I grew up going to baseball games, Bob Sheppard would always be there. He announced Mike Pagliarulo with deliberation and amused the crowd when Shigetoshi Hasegawa joined the Angels. His “Der-ek Jee-tah,” heard again last night on the national stage during the All Star Game broadcast, remains as iconic an announcement as any in sports. Through thick and thin, elementary school, high school, college, 9/11, World Series’ victories and defeats, thrilling playoff comebacks and crushing collapses, Bob Sheppard’s voice — such a booming voice on a slight man — would usher fans in and out of Yankee Stadium. He and longtime organist Eddie Layton were two peas in a nostalgic pod that never grew old.
In no small way, Bob passed with the old Yankee Stadium. He fell ill in late 2007 and missed all of the lasts at Yankee Stadium. He missed the last playoff games, the last Joe Torre appearance, the last All Star Game and the entire last season. As the Yankees counted down the games remaining until their move across the street, Mr. Sheppard never made it back to Yankee Stadium. He made a video appearance during the final game, and while frail, he still had the Voice as he read the lineups one last time. Bob passed away just a few weeks after the final pieces of the House that Ruth Built, and the parallels are too eerie to ignore.
My dad was born the year before Bob Sheppard took over the microphone, and he had, until the recent spate of indistinct public announcers, known no other voice at Yankee Stadium. “Bob Sheppard,” he said in recollection, “That voice is part of my life’s soundtrack and the loss runs deeper by reason of that. For more than 50 years (beginning with my first trip to Yankee Stadium as a 7-year-old) that voice was part of my summers…a powerful, disembodied presence that was woven deep into the fabric of something I dearly loved.”
With the Boss, on the other hand, his lasting legacy is far more complicated than that. In recent years, Yankee fans have celebrated George Steinbrenner. He’s become the patron grandfather of the Yankees. As the club spends his money, he hasn’t been the same hands-on control freak he was in the 1970s and 1980s. Maybe he mellowed with age, and maybe he realized his investments would increase if he allowed his baseball minds to put a more competitive product on the field. Despite some mid-2000s hiccups, though, the Yanks have flourished under his benevolent eye since his return to the game in 1993 from a suspension.
When I myself was a seven-year-old Yankee fan, coming of age with Tim Leary, Andy Hawkins, Lee Gutterman and a cast of offensive offensive characters, I found myself with my dad at Yankee Stadium on a warm night in late July. I have vague recollections of the game on the field, but what I do remember involved a long standing ovation in the middle of a Yankee victory. The fans were reacting not to the play on the field but the drama off the field. George Steinbrenner had just been suspended from baseball by Fay Vincent for hiring Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Mr. May himself, Dave Winfield.
As coverage from the time shows, Yankee fans were none too disappointed about the news. By 1990, many Yankee fans had decided that Steinbrenner’s meddlesome ways were a detriment to the ballclub, and they weren’t afraid to say it. ”I speak for all true Yankee fans when I say that getting rid of Steinbrenner is the best thing that could happen to this team,” Bobby Ricci, a 24-year-old fan from the Bronx, said. ”Now it’s time to get rid of all the guys who Steinbrener calls his baseball people. Obviously, they don’t know much about baseball.”
Another presciently predicted better days ahead. ”This is so sweet. Maybe it’ll save the team. Now they can build a dynasty again,” Mike Nisson said.
In a short paragraph I asked my dad to write about sitting in the stands for that game, he too remembers the joy of the crowd:
“It’s hard to overstate how satisfying it was to have been sitting in the stands at Yankee Stadium as word spread through the crowd that it had just been announced that George Steinbrenner had been suspended. As the news worked its way through the stands, a low murmur graduated into raucous cheers from fans who were jubilant in seeing retribution visited on the man who had spent years spending money on mediocre players, berating professional athletes to the point of public humiliation, repeatedly inflicting the pathological Billy Martin on the players and fans and, finally, spying on Dave Winfield. Punctuating the cheers were some shouts of disapproval from fans who expressed the opinion that a suspension was not adequate and that he should have been banned for life (I, of course, being among that chorus). That display struck me as a bit of the French Revolution coming to the venerable House that Ruth Built–and it felt great.”
That’s the real first impression I had of George Steinbrenner. It wasn’t of the loyal philanthropist or the dedicated owner; rather, it was of the mercurial interloper whose suspension was welcomed by people older and wiser than I. Even as George aged into someone who still wanted to win but could seemingly control this temper, I still wondered about the good and the bad in him. For those who didn’t know him in any personal context, he isn’t an easy man to describe.
Yesterday, as the Yankees in Anaheim gathered to talk about the Boss, Andy Pettitte’s presence and words struck me as particularly telling. Pettitte and George Steinbrenner were never that close. For years in a row, George wanted his GMs to trade Andy Pettitte. He didn’t like his competitiveness and thought him too soft to succeed in the Bronx. Every year at the trade deadline, Pettitte would be the subject of rumors — to the Phillies for Adam Eaton, to somewhere else but the Bronx. In 2003, when the Yanks had the opportunity to let Pettitte walk, they did. It was a Boss move through and through.
Yet, Number 46 sat at the podium yesterday afternoon and looked as distraught as anyone else there. He had lost a mentor and a boss, the man who, eventually, showed enough faith in him to stick with him. Now, Pettitte has five Yankee World Series rings and forgave the Boss, as so many others have. That’s the man of contradictions that he was: flawed, temperamental, hated and ultimately accepted in New York as the wins rolled in. As he once said, “Winning is first, next to oxygen.”