I was sitting at a picnic table near Pensacola, Florida, of all places, when Bob Sheppard’s unmistakable voice came through my cell phone: “Good morning, Bryan. I heard you wanted to speak with me.”
It was the day before Thanksgiving last year, and I had been assigned to get in touch with Sheppard and ask for his thoughts and reflections on the holiday – in a sense, giving thanks for his 99 years. It was an interesting assignment, and when I found out that Sheppard was willing to offer me a few minutes, I was very excited about the interview.
We rescheduled it once that morning, as Sheppard’s wife, Mary, told me that he was about to have his breakfast. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to get in the way of that, so we pushed our chat back an hour, which is why I was at that picnic table near my brother’s house when the phone rang again.
That story wound up making news across the country because Sheppard told me he had no plans to return to his post as the Yankees’ public address announcer, but that was not the intention of the story. In fact, we didn’t even get to that topic until six and a half minutes into our 16-minute chat, when I asked him if he was still planning to make it out to try the public address announcer’s booth at the new Yankee Stadium in 2010.
“I doubt it, very, very much,” Sheppard said that day. “I think Paul Olden will be there as long as he is satisfying the Yankees, and as long as he is satisfied with what they’re giving him, to do the job that I did for 55 years or so. But I have no plans of coming back.”
Listening back to the audio this morning as I sit here at an airport gate in Seattle, I can hear my surprise in a brief pause. I recovered and asked him if he was at peace with that.
“I would say yes. I would say yes,” he said. “I mean, time has passed me by, I think. 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. You know, it isn’t a two-hour job.
“Leaving my home on Long Island at 4 o’clock in the afternoon for a night game, getting up there at 5 or 5:30, having a quick dinner, finishing up, getting home approximately midnight out to Long Island and driving through the traffic and getting out of the parking lot.
“One reason I quit the football Giants after 50 years was because it was a long day in East Rutherford to come back to Long Island. So it’s not just the two hours or three hours of baseball. It’s the trip, the preparation, the trip home, and a long, long day.
“I think, at my age, it’s time to accept the fact that I had a great run. A great run. And only made a few mistakes along the way. Some of them were embarrassing. It happens in your work too, I’m sure.”
I agreed with him, offering a chuckle, and then moved on to another topic. I’d asked Reggie Jackson for his thoughts on Sheppard that week, and he called Sheppard “one of the most wonderful men” he’d ever met. I asked Sheppard if that embarrassed him in any way, and how he viewed the legacy he’d left.
“I love it,” Sheppard said, laughing. “I tell you, I don’t get too many accolades, really. I was a quiet kind of guy that didn’t get a lot of publicity. If it came, it came free of charge, unexpected. I think the greatest compliment I’ve ever received was Derek Jeter (he said it, ‘De-rek Jee-tah’) asking Mike Bonner – who’s in charge of sound and sight – always to play my introduction of Derek Jeter coming up to bat.
“As long as he plays with the Yankees, he wants my voice announcing his at-bat when he comes up. I didn’t know this until Mike Bonner asked me, would I object to having him do that? Of course not. It’s a compliment. I think it might be one of the finest compliments I have ever received, that he wants my voice introducing him.”
Sheppard was also funny that day, quick with his wit. Talking about his health and his weight fluctuations, he stunned me briefly by asking, “Now I have a question for you, Bryan. How much do you weigh?”
The last question I had for him was if he had any words of advice for people who hoped to lead long and full lives the way he had. He paused and sighed, “That’s a tough question.”
“I try to get to Mass every day. Every day. Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and so on. I pray. I thank God for giving me 99 years. 99 years. Wow. Can you envision that? I don’t want to know how old you are, but if you dream of living long, I would recommend it to you.”
In the moments after we ended our chat, I can remember walking back into the house, knowing that I would save the audio recording forever. I might have been in Florida, but if I closed my eyes during that conversation, it was summer at the old Yankee Stadium, and ‘The Voice of God’ had just spent part of his day speaking directly to me. It was a thrill, and I still treasure the last words he said to me:
“It was nice talking to you. Bryan, the best of everything to you, and God bless.”