One was the Boss. The other was the Voice of God. Although the former occasionally considered himself the latter, the latter never, ever considered himself the former. In the past week baseball and the Yankees lost two icons, George Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard. On what has been a Gumpian journey (my career) I came to know both men reasonably well. They couldn't have been more opposite in appearance, style and temperament.
George was stout, constantly in the blue blazer, mock turtleneck, never a hair out of place, mercurial personality and a brilliant showman as much as he was a sportsman. Bob was long and lean, thinning white hair, professorial, an oral interpreter, who read from a script, that was in essence provided by the Boss. They were the batting orders of George's cast of characters.
I first met George in 1977 when I worked radio in Cleveland, at some rubber chicken dinner in the middle of the winter. A year later I was in New York working local and later network radio. This was long before my days at ESPN. So I covered George for a long time, before I came to work for him.
Fast forward to late August 2001. I was at Yankee Stadium to do a game for ESPN, sitting in General Manager Brian Cashman's office batting the breeze several hours before the first pitch. I'm facing "Cash," who is sitting behind his desk, when unbeknownst to me, George walks in behind me, puts his hands on my shoulders, and says something to the effect, I just watched one of your games the other night down in Tampa, and he was very complimentary. As George left Cashman's office saying that he wanted to see Brian in his more lush digs, I mentioned to Brian that if anything should develop with the new YES network (which didn't yet have a name), I might be interested.
That was it, or so I thought. As I headed to the broadcast booth, Brian went into the principal's office. Less than an hour later, Cashman comes into the booth and says, and I am paraphrasing here, "I've got some bad news and I've got some good news." I wasn't expecting any news at all, and so the next few sentences were mind-numbing and life changing. "The bad news is, that George told me to stay the hell out of the broadcasting business and build me a World Series champion." Okay. And then I asked the good news? "He wants to hire you."
The following March, my first spring with the Yankees at Legends Field (the training facility in Tampa), I am invited to watch the very first YES telecast in Steinbrenner's suite with Leo Hindery (the first president of YES), Randy Levine (the president of the Yankees) and George. Having just come from 14 years at ESPN presumably they wanted to know what I thought of the telecast.
Jason Giambi was stepping into the batter's box for the first time as a Yankee. As he did, George asked his three visitors, "Boys, do know why I hired him? Note, at least I did at the time, he said hired, not signed, not brought him aboard, but hired. After considerable silence, George answering his own question, pointed out that Mike Piazza (then the Mets catcher) was an enormously popular figure in the Italian-American community, a significant one in the New York metropolitan area. He wanted a player who could trump the Mets in that neighborhood. He went onto say that with his new television network, he needed to put on 162 blockbuster programs from April thru September. No longer was he consumed by putting "asses in the seats," now he was also driven by placing eyeballs in front of television sets.
So I asked him, "George are you a sportsman, or a showman." His response with an inhale followed by exhale "very good Charles." And that's what he was, a sportsman, a showman, a brilliant businessman, a Clevelander, a Tampan, and yet the quintessential New Yorker. Some shrink under the harsh glare of the big city. George lived and thrived in it.
Bob Sheppard, on the other hand was a native New Yorker, who lived in a small suburban town on Long Island, Baldwin, maybe a 45 minute drive to Yankee Stadium, depending on traffic. He was elegant, graceful, deeply religious and utterly charming.
The "Voice of God" was his. He sounded no different in conversation or at the dinner table than he did coming out of the loudspeakers, except there was no echo. But you half heard an echo in his voice even if there wasn't one.
I often had my pre-game meal at Bob's table. It was a circular table in the corner of the press dining room, at the old stadium. Bob would sit with his back to the wall looking out at the room. It was a table for six, and it was essentially the same crew in the same seats, talking about life and occasionally baseball. Frank Dolgin, a former Philadelphia columnist who came to work for the Yankees, Red Foley another scribe, who became an official scorer, Eddie Layton, the Yankee Stadium organist, Arthur Richman (a longtime advisor to George), among others. I was the kid at the table. No, I was the kid in the candy store.
In the middle of conversation, Bob would ask "Charles (pause), could you please pass the salt." The salt was passed. (Another pause) "Thank you."
As I grew up on Long Island not far from where Bob and his wife Mary lived, we would occasionally, but coincidentally meet at an Italian restaurant during the off-season, when I would visit my folks. Unfailingly, he would come to the table and say hello to Mr. and Mrs. Steiner. At first my mom had no idea who this guy, with this voice was. My mom was never quite sure if they would blow up or sew up a baseball. But that didn't matter. "What a gentleman he is," my mom would inevitably say. As usual, she was right.
My mother and father are gone now. So is the Voice of God and now the Boss. And as Bob would say when completing an announcement, or receiving the salt shaker... "Thank you."