By Ed Alstrom
Like most of you, I just got the news of Mr. Sheppard’s passing. I didn’t know him for as long as some did, but over the course of only 5 years he had become a dear friend with whom I shared many indelible memories.
And that speaks volumes, I think. You’ll be hearing his praises sung by all for several days, but I too will affirm firsthand that for a man of his stature, who is so revered and so famous, to be as kind and friendly as he was to me from the very beginning is, well, almost beyond belief.
From the day I met him, when he calmed me down before my frantic first game as organist at the Stadium by extending a hand and a big grin and saying ‘Welcome to Yankee Stadium!’ (in the exact same tone of voice and volume he delivered it over the PA before every game!), to the last time I saw him when my wife Maxine and I visited he and Mary at their home on Long Island about 6 months ago, and we talked about seemingly everything but baseball for about three hours… he was quite simply one of the finest and most genuine human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to come in contact with.
Think about this – why would you call an man routinely by the prefix “Mr.”? Unless it’s a total stranger, usually you are forced to do so because it’s someone who commands ‘respect’ only by intimidation, rank, or force (e.g., the contemptible CEO of the company you work for). Rarely these days do you address a man as “Mr.” all the time because you just flat-out love and respect him so much that it actually feels disrespectful to call him by his first name. And that’s Mr. Sheppard to me. Nobody at the Stadium ever told me I had to address him as ‘Mr. Sheppard’; that’s just what everyone did as a matter of course.
Alex asked me to write something now, and I thought it might be fit to bring back to light a piece I had written for the Banter in 2008, since I can’t add much more to it than my profoundest condolences…
9/21/08 (the day of the last game at the old Yankee Stadium):
I’ve been to a lot of great and wacky games at the Stadium, like everyone else: the Chambliss home run, several other playoff and World Series games, some crazed comebacks, and some of those insane asylum games from the early 90s with people running onto the field at random (one game against the Red Sox, there were seven of them at different intervals, in the rain).
And, of course, auditioning for the organist position at the Stadium (with Eddie Layton himself standing in the doorway requesting song snippets!) was priceless, and fulfilling my childhood dream of playing the organ there is very special, every single time I do it.
But for my part, I’d have to say that my lasting memory of the Stadium after it’s gone will be a little different from most, and that is having gotten to hang out with Bob Sheppard.
Mr. Sheppard (that’s what all of us in the Press Box call him) has his public address booth right next to mine at the organ. Only a pane of Plexiglas separates us. Sometimes I’ll knock on his door, sometimes he’ll tap on my window and motion me in, and we chat, sometimes during the game. He’ll be talking, and then point his index finger in the air mid-sentence, to say ‘wait a minute,’ step on a pedal to activate the mike, announce the next player (in the same exact tone of voice he’s speaking to me in), and then continue where he left off. When a Yankee makes an error or a bad play, he’ll look at me and very slowly point his palms skyward and shrug his shoulders.
His end of game routine is really beautiful: with 2 out in the ninth and Mariano on the hill, he’ll slowly don his cap and coat, salute me, lock his door, and wait in the runway. If the game ends then and there, he is off like a shot, walking so briskly I can barely keep up with him (and I’ve tried it!). If that batter reaches base, though, he’ll unlock the door, come back in, give me that same shrug, step on the pedal, announce the next batter, and repeat the procedure. His determination to beat that traffic (and his success rate, I’m sure) is admirable indeed.
Several times, I’ve gone down to the press lunch room and broken bread with him at ‘his table,’ which is the one in the corner of the room with a cardboard handwritten sign with his name on it. He surely deserves a gold plaque or something more dignified (well, he does have a Monument in the Park), but everyone knows anyway that that’s his domain.
You’ve probably heard what a class act he is, and he exceeds all expectations on that count. I’ve spoken to him many, many times, but oddly it’s almost never about baseball: usually music and theater. In fact, he usually changes the subject to music when I try to engage him about baseball.
He loves the music of the 40s, and the big bands. He told me once he was especially fond of the great singer Jo Stafford, so I went home and found a bunch of her recordings and put them on CD for him, and he was delighted and talked about her at length, and about how he was stationed in Aruba during World War II, and they used to get her 78s shipped to them, and play them at their bar in the ‘Quonset hut’ (you can just hear Shep saying ‘Quonset hut,’ right?).
He loves poetry, so he is quite enamored of the lyrics of Hart, Hammerstein, Gershwin, Porter, et al., and we’ve spent quite a bit of precious pre-game time analyzing those. And I’ve spent some time (at his behest) trying to explain the merits of rock and roll, or any music recorded after 1955 (with limited success, I think).
At times, he’ll approach me with some handwritten poetry he’s composed, which is invariably literate, funny, and sometimes biting. He once wrote a concise and venomous little masterpiece about Kevin Brown’s bout with a cinderblock wall, and showed it to me; I am not at liberty to disclose it, but lemme tell you, it’s incredible. I said to him, “You must have a lot of these.” He said, “Oh, hundreds.” I said, “You should get these published,” to which he replied, “Oh, no, Mr. Steinbrenner would fire me!”
One Saturday afternoon, it was Military Day at the Stadium, and the formalities were to begin with the Golden Knights parachuting onto the field. It was about two minutes before the ceremony was to begin, and Mr. Sheppard was nowhere in sight.
I knocked on the control room window, got the director’s attention, and pointed to myself and then to Shep’s booth. He said, “Yeah, go ahead.” So, I gave the script a speed read, got the cue, stepped on the pedal to activate the mike, and very deliberately said… “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen; welcome to Yankee Stadium!”
Now, I didn’t have time to think about it, but my instinct was to not attempt my Shep imitation, because I felt it would be disrespectful somehow, but I did try to phrase it as he might have, veer a course somewhere down the middle vocally, and create the illusion that it was him.
It was a very long script, about two pages, and it was a real roller coaster moment. Toward the end of it, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Mr. Sheppard was standing behind me! I finished with the read, released the pedal, and looked at him gingerly, feeling somewhat like a child about to be scolded. Instead, he grinned broadly, and said very slowly, “Were you trying to imitate me?” Imagine that thrill!
But the best of all was when he approached me one day, and said, “You know, I wrote a song many years ago.” Of course, I wanted to hear it, so he showed me the lyrics and sang it to me. I told him the next day I was coming back with a recorder, and he sang it again for me, acapella, and then I got him to talk into the recorder for about 15 minutes about it. I then went home and created a musical track for his melody, chopped his vocal track into pieces and flew it in over the accompaniment, and presented him with a finished product worthy of Sinatra. He was very touched, and I was touched to be able to do that for him. He wrote a handwritten note of thanks, which is more valuable to me than any piece of memorabilia could be. Believe me, Mr. Sheppard, the pleasure was all mine.
Whatever our collective vignettes are of Yankee Stadium, Bob Sheppard’s narration to that soundtrack is a thread that runs through all of them, and an essential component of it. His humanity, wit, and warmth are every bit as momentous as that voice, and I am honored to have shared some time on this Earth with him. He is Yankee Stadium, in a lot of ways.
Ed Alstrom plays the organ on weekends at Yankee Stadium.
[Photo Credit: 161st Street]