Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Passing of Legends

Most of you have likely heard of today's passing of longtime New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. The controversial Mr. Steinbrenner recently marked his 80th birthday although he had been in poor health for several years, and has rarely been seen in public in that time.

Back in the early 1970s, Steinbrenner lead a group of investors who purchased the badly-run Yankees from CBS. Yes, THAT CBS! At the press conference at which the deal was announced, George stated he would not be involved in the day-to-day operations of the ball club, but would rather concentrate on his principal business, shipbuilding. We know that his declaration, while likely meant at the time, soon proved to be a hollow one. He got involved in the down and dirty details of running the team, hiring and firing at will, and just as often re-hiring those fired just as quickly. The multiple hirings and firings of Billy Martin as manager were the prime example.

George eventually bought out most of his business partners in the Yankees, taking the title of General Partner as well as President and owner. After one of the few remaining "Limited Partners" sold his shares to Steinbrenner, the man wryly remarked, "There is nothing more limited than being a Limited Partner of George Steinbrenner."

His obsession with rebuilding the fortunes of the team went hand-in-hand with his fierce competitiveness and his desire to go first class with virtually everything. He wanted "Yankees" to be synonymous with First Class. In many ways he achieved that ambition, but often sullied that reputation with his personal failings, including being banned from baseball for two years as a result of being convicted of illegal campaign contributions to the campaign of Richard Nixon.

Steinbrenner raised the bar when free agency started, and opened his wallet to the superstar players. Some will say he bought World Series championships, but spending big bucks on players does not always mean they win all the time. He rekindled the glory of the Yankees, enough to where they once again became the biggest road draw of the season for most teams, and became the team everyone loves to hate as well.

His old-school-football-coach style did not always fit well when it came to running the team and making personnel decisions, but he did make enough good hires to put the foundation in place for a long and successful run at or near the top of the baseball world.

You will have noticed the title of today's post mentions "Legends", as in plural. The second Yankee Legend actually passed first, last week. Unless you are a Yankees fan, you likely have never heard of Bob Sheppard, the public address announcer for the Yankees from 1951-2007. As a p.a. announcer myself, he has filled a warm spot in the Yankees part of my heart for a very long time.

Bob Sheppard had a job teaching English at the college level as well as his job as the announcer for the Yankees, New York (football) Giants, New York Cosmos (soccer), and he did some college sports p.a. as well.

I was very young when I first heard Mr. Sheppard's distinctive style in the background of baseball games on television, and his speaking style has always stayed with me. Once heard, his dulcet tones are never to be forgotten. He once said every name deserved to be pronounced properly, and many people recall seeing him going over names in the pre-game hours, making certain he had it correct. If he had any doubt he would ask the player directly. Visiting players still say hearing him pronounce their names when they come to bat gives them chills every time. He was deliberate in his diction but not pompous. He had a simple style that was reflected in his delivery, the same delivery each time. He would intone, for instance, "Now batting. Number 7. Mickey Mantle. Number 7."

He said Mickey's was his favorite name to announce although he did favor the Latin players because of the flow he saw in their names. One writer said he gave equal prominence to the stars as well as the bench warmers when he announced their names.

I have tried to emulate Mr. Sheppard in one essence, asking for the names of soccer players who play where I do my announcing. Unfortunately, an occasional coach will get the name of his player wrong, and it usually results in a mother turning around and shouting up the correct pronunciation, for which I am grateful.

Current Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said he could not bear to hear another announcer say his name in Yankee Stadium, so he had it written into his contract that as long as he plays for the Yankees, a recording of Mr. Sheppard's "Number 2. Derek Jeter. Number 2." will play as long as he does.

Although illness prevented Mr. Sheppard from working the past several years, it should be noted that when he worked his last game, he was 96. He was 99 last week when he passed.

May we all have such a long and quality life as the venerable Mr. Sheppard.

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