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By Tessa Stuart
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The former speech professor at St. John's got his start announcing football games in the '40s. He began working for the Bronx Bombers in '51, and has also called games for the football Giants for 46 years. Sheppard, who won't reveal his age, dismisses the notion that he's a legend, saying, "Only in the last 10 years did it dawn on me that my voice is so associated with this place. I've gone up to a bartender to order a scotch-and-water, and he's looked at me and said, 'You sound just like the man at Yankee Stadium.' I'm enshrined here, but it's because I've been doing it for 51 seasons and people never hear anyone else."
When asked if he ever grows weary of pronouncing, say, Juan Encarnacion's name 15 times over the course of a weekend, Sheppard says, "A lot of men go to work. I go to a game, and there's a philosophical difference there in attitude. I never get tired of coming here. Retirement is an open question. I'll be gone if I ever start doing it badly or Mr. Steinbrenner tells me I've had it. But until that occurs, I enjoy being a part of the Yankee tradition."
Sheppard is intensely private and somewhat aloof. But he is close friends with Layton, who eats dinner with him in the press room, plays the organ in the booth alongside him, and rides home with him after every game. Their relationship dates back to the '60s, those dark days when CBS owned the Yankees and turned the franchise into one of the American League's punching bags. It was that CBS connection, in fact, that first brought Layton to the South Bronx.
At the time, he was working as the organist for three of the network's daytime dramas: Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, Secret Storm, and Love of Life. His job, and this is no joke, was to play that spine-chilling duh-dumwhenever one soap-opera spouse caught the other cheating or someone discovered that their girlfriend was actually their long-lost sister. Layton would hit his haunting notes, jaws would drop in living rooms from coast to coast, and the show would quickly fade to commercial.
"When CBS first brought me to Yankee Stadium, I knew nothing about baseball," says Layton. "I thought a sacrifice fly had something to do with killing an insect. But during the first week, I played the 'Charge' call, the fans started a rhythmic clapping, and I got an immediate raise."
Layton, who has recorded 27 albums in his career and been a spokesman for Hammond Organs, is known for his quick wit (playing "Alley Cat" when a kitten scampered across the turf or "I've Got You Under My Skin" when one-time Yank Joel Skinner strolled to the plate) and instinct for which tunes will energize a crowd. One particular fan-juicer, played during Yankees rallies these days, is actually a piece from a ballet. But let's not tell Bernie and the guys, OK?
More so than Sheppard and Merrill, Layton has seen his role change through the years. Much of his playing time has been reduced to accommodate recorded rock music, commercials on the scoreboard, the ground crew's fancy-stepping to "YMCA," the "Cotton-Eyed Joe" dance, and a whole lot of other racket that does more damage to one's tympanum than Paul O'Neill does to a hanging curveball.
Says Layton, "It's just noise with a capital N. It's very annoying, but after all these years, I guess I deserve a break. When I first started at the Stadium, I played for an hour before the game and a half-hour afterward. Now, it's 15 minutes before the game, and when the last out is made, Bob Sheppard and I are already heading to the car."
Get Layton talking about some of his favorite music, and he'll tell you that he remembers buying Robert Merrill records years before he ever met the opera legend. Merrill, a star of stage and screen, a former host of his own radio show, and one of the great baritones of all time, is the man who can offer the last word on that great Yankee-Met popularity debate. The Yankees are more popular then the Metropolitan Opera by far, says Merrill. "I was with the Met for 33 years and I've signed far more autographs at Yankee Stadium," he says. "People who are lined up outside waiting to see the ballplayers notice me and yell, 'Hey, it's the oh-say-can-you-see guy.' "
Merrill's arrival at the Stadium came by way of Ohio. He was on a national tour with the Met in '73 when he attended a reception in Cleveland and ran into a local shipbuilder named George Steinbrenner. The businessman announced that he had recently bought the Yankees and informed Merrill that he wanted him to become a fixture at the Stadium. Though Merrill may have been the one singing, it was the Boss who hit the high note that day.
Because he always hangs out in the dugout while awaiting his cue, Merrill has had a much closer relationship with players and coaches than either Sheppard or Layton has. The singer is good friends with manager Joe Torre and coach Don Zimmer, whose head he regularly rubs for good luck. Merrill is also a favorite of Jeter, who tells him that the Pinstripers know it's a must-win game if he shows up to sing. And Merrill was very chummy with Munson.