It’s been a tough few days in the Bronx. Although the New York Yankees enjoy one of the most celebrated traditions in all of sports, this week has been anything but traditional for the legendary baseball club.
On Sunday morning, Bob Sheppard, the team’s long-time public address announcer, died. He was 99. Two days later and 12 hours before Major League Baseball’s All-Star game, the team’s former owner, George Steinbrenner, suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack. He was 80.
Both men were in the twilight of their lives, ailing, frail and fading. Their respective deaths, though sad, didn’t come as great shocks. But the news of passings in general and high profile ones in particular, are always, or at least should be, a reflective time.
It’s always good and right to show reverence and respect for the dead, but what can we, the living, learn from these two men’s long and colorful lives?
It would be easy to suggest they were models of contrast, because in many ways they were: George Steinbrenner, a very public, larger-than-life character, bombastic and belligerent, seen by many as a modern-day tyrant. Bob Sheppard, on the other hand, was the man who was heard but not seen, a quiet and gracious gentleman who steadily toiled away at his craft in the same small booth for 56 years in a row.
If George Steinbrenner was caustic, Bob Sheppard was grace.
But life is not a single act. It can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to a one-dimensional snapshot. Yet in a world driven by sound bite, don’t we often do just that?
We think we know people; we especially thought we knew George Steinbrenner. After all, he was the man so many loved to hate. According to conventional wisdom, he was the loud and obnoxious owner who bought championships and along the way hired and fired the same manager so many times that they appeared together in a beer commercial and lampooned themselves.
But was this the complete George? Of course not.
Understandably, many fans formed their opinion about Mr. Steinbrenner only on what the tabloids reported over the years. Writing in yesterday’s Washington Post, George Schudel reveals some fascinating tidbits from George Steinbrenner’s early days, things you probably don’t know, things that never made ESPN’s Sportscenter:
Steinbrenner grew up outside Cleveland in a family dominated by his excessively demanding father. His father, who ran the family’s shipping business, was a graduate of MIT and once won the NCAA championship in the 220-yard low hurdles (an event no longer run). If anyone wonders where Steinbrenner’s obsessions with order, cleanliness and punctuality came from, look no further than his father.
In the Steinbrenner household, if you weren’t seated for dinner by 5:45 p.m., you would go hungry. Steinbrenner’s father made young George wear a jacket and tie to junior high school and did not give him an allowance. Instead, he had chickens and sold the eggs door to door. Steinbrenner was sent off to the Culver Military Institute in Indiana to toughen him up. (Steinbrenner sent his own children there, as well.) He was a very good athlete and competed in both football and track — like his father, he was a hurdler — at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.
In college, Steinbrenner was president of the glee club, studied classics and majored in English. He wrote his senior thesis on the female protagonists in the novels of Thomas Hardy. Years later, a Sports Illustrated writer decided to test him by asking about Eustacia Vye, the heroine of “Return of the Native.” Steinbrenner could still discuss Hardy’s heroines with insight and authority, though his reading in later years tended toward military history.
Mr. Steinbrenner was a generous man who donated millions of dollars to various charities, from a victim’s fund for the Virginia Tech shooting to paying the college tuition of children of police officers killed in the line of duty.
Was George difficult? Imperfect? Demanding? Impulsive? Yes, yes, yes and oh my, yes.
Bob Sheppard, a Baldwin, Long Island, resident, was more than just a public address announcer for the Yankees. At one time, he taught high school English and speech classes and served on the faculty of St. John’s University for 25 years. If you were to ask him what he did, he would tell you that he was first and foremost, a teacher. He never led with the news of his position on baseball’s grandest stage.
Just a humorous aside: A colleague, who grew up in Baldwin just blocks from the Sheppard’s home, tells of a tradition where the town’s sanitation workers, while emptying the family’s trash cans, would beg Bob to rattle off the names of famous Yankees in his distinctive voice. He would regularly oblige. Mr. Sheppard was also known to chastise parish priests for sermonizing too long during Sunday Mass. “I electrified the seminary by saying seven minutes is long enough on a Sunday morning,” he once said. “Seven minutes. But I don’t think they listened to me. The best-known speech in American history is the Gettysburg Address, and it’s about four minutes long. Isn’t that something?”
If you read Bob’s obituary, you would learn that in 1959, he tragically lost his first wife. She left him with four children. In the telling, 51 years later, the event is reduced to a single sentence, yet can you imagine what pain and heartache he endured, to have to say goodbye to the person who meant everything in the world to him at the time?
Faced with the prospect of having to make a living and raise four children on his own, Bob was introduced to a nanny named Mary who lovingly cared for his kids. They fell in love with her and soon thereafter, Bob fell in love, too. Mary was by Bob’s side on Sunday when he gently slipped away.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a story behind every story. No matter how large or seemingly small a person’s profile, there is a drama unfolding behind the scenes. If I have learned anything over the years, it would be this: instead of judging someone, instead of sizing them up and trying to sort and place them into well-defined camps, it’s a good idea to remember that every life (but one) is layered, complex and imperfect – and in the Lord’s eyes, no man or woman is superior to the next.