They’ve never slapped a 3-2 fastball through a drawn-in infield, broken up a double play, or handled a tricky carom in the left-field corner, but you’d be hard-pressed to find three guys at Yankee Stadium who are more consistently on their game than Bob Sheppard, Eddie Layton, and Robert Merrill. The Murderer’s Row of the Stadium sound system has been entertaining the masses a lot longer than Mantle, Mattingly, or Martinez ever did, and is as much a part of the sensory experience at the Big Ballyard as the sight of the right-field porch swallowing up another fly ball, the smell of spilled Budweiser in the corridors, or the sound of the Bleacher Creatures chanting, “Der-ek Jee-ter, Der-ek Jee-ter.”
Sheppard is working his 51st season as the Yankees’ public-address announcer, Layton is enjoying his 36th as the team’s organist, and this is the 29th year that Merrill has been called on to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “America the Beautiful” before Opening Day, Old-Timers Day, and other important events. That’s a combined 116 years of service, if you’re scoring at home.
“Talk about long-term deals,” Jeter says with a chuckle. “Maybe those guys have something on the Boss. Pictures of him doing things he shouldn’t have been doing.”
Think of a moment that has had Yankees fans rising to their feet, breaking into smiles, or dabbing at their eyes, and Sheppard, Layton, or Merrill likely played a part in it. In October 1951, when Joe DiMaggio stepped into the batter’s box for the last time, it was Sheppard who introduced him. When the final game was played in the old Stadium before it closed for renovations in 1973, it was Layton who played “Auld Lang Syne” as souvenir hunters jumped up and down on the wooden seats in an attempt to break off pieces. And in 1979 when the stands were awash in grief during a tribute to Thurman Munson, who had just died in a plane crash, it was Merrill who raised goosebumps with his powerful rendition of “Ave Maria.”
If the goings-on at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue are baseball’s version of a Cecil B. De Mille production, then Sheppard, Layton, and Merrill are its soundtrack. And if the Stadium is, as many have suggested, a sports cathedral, well, feel free to call them its Holy Trinity.
“They’re treasures,” says first baseman Tino Martinez. “The longer you’re here, the more you appreciate them.”
And if absence makes the heart grow fonder, then the Yankees and their fans were appreciating Sheppard even more after recent events. The Voice of Yankee Stadium fell victim to laryngitis during the fourth inning of the June 2 game against Cleveland. He was relieved by Yanks PR man Rick Cerrone, who also took over duties the next day. Sheppard returned on June 6, but it was just plain weird to hear another voice announce the linueps. It was odd for Sheppard as well: “After 50 years and three months of never missing a game because of illness [he thinks he’s missed about a half-dozen all time for weddings and funerals and such], it came as a shock to come down with laryngitis. It reminded me of how blessed I have been.”
About an hour before the first pitch of a game against the Red Sox, Sheppard is sitting in his tiny booth on the press level behind home plate and arranging his notes. “Ah, yes, the imitations of me,” he says, fully aware that anyone worth his weight in Yankee paraphernalia has a Sheppard imitation at the ready. (Merrill even dusted off his version while speaking about his colleague.) “Are they a compliment? Yes. Tiresome? Sometimes. Reggie Jackson does a good Bob Sheppard. But [ESPN broadcaster] Jon Miller is the best because he’s the only one who manages to get the Stadium echo into his shtick.”
Miller’s best bit is his take on Sheppard ordering breakfast. “And one day when my wife and I were down in St. Thomas, we went into a restaurant,” says Sheppard, who last year was honored with a plaque in Monument Park. “I told the waitress, ‘I’ll have the Number One. Scrambled eggs, buttered toast, and black coffee. Number one.’ My wife looked at me and said, ‘You sound like Jon Miller’s imitation.’ I wasn’t conscious of the fact that I was ordering the same way I’d introduce Billy Martin.”
During a game, Sheppard’s voice emerges from the giant speaker in center field, but it seems to be descending from the heavens. Jackson once said it sounds like the voice of God. It can make anything sound important, from a warning to stay off the field to an acknowledgment of the sponsor on one of those giveaway days. (“The Yankees and their fans say, ‘Thank you, Frito-Lay.’ “) When you first meet Sheppard, his simple greeting of “It’s nice to see you” sounds as though it’s being announced to 55,000 people during the seventh game of the World Series.
Two years ago, on the day DiMaggio’s monument was unveiled and Paul Simon made a surprise appearance in the outfield to sing a couple of verses of “Mrs. Robinson,” Sheppard read the same starting lineups that he did before Game 6 of the 1951 World Series—the Yankee Clipper’s farewell. Some of those old enough to have remembered that Fall Classic said they closed their eyes and thought they’d gone back in time. Sheppard’s sound and style hadn’t changed at all.
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-dum whenever 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.
“I’d sit on the bench before I’d go out, always nervous,” says Merrill, “and Thurman would make sure to say to me, ‘Don’t blow it, ya bum.’ ”
Not many guys can boast that they’ve sung with Luciano Pavarotti and Willie Randolph, but Merrill says the Yankees coach is “a hell of a tenor” who likes to work out his vocal chords in the tunnel leading from the clubhouse to the dugout. Ironically, though, Merrill never gets to team up with Layton. Because the Stadium’s audio system delays playing back the notes Layton hits, Merrill is forced to sing a cappella or risk having any musical accompaniment turn his words into an indecipherable mess.
Though he just turned 82, Merrill isn’t thinking of giving up his gig any time soon. “I still get nervous, but I always feel like a kid when I’m in front of the crowd,” he says. “The feeling is extraordinary, and I feel fortunate to be doing it. And it’s great to see that Bob and Eddie are still a part of all this. It would feel very strange if those boys weren’t around.”
You probably don’t give a whole lot of thought to Sheppard, Layton, and Merrill when you’re paying 33 bucks for an upper-deck box seat to watch Jeter, Williams, and O’Neill. But one of these baseball summers, those distinctive dinosaurs will be gone, replaced, no doubt, by a mundane p.a. voice, a less-imaginative organist, and a parade of guest stars turning the national anthem into their own personal showcase. When that day comes, maybe rhymin’ Simon ought to return to the outfield and sing another of his tunes, this time in tribute to the Holy Trinity. “The Sounds of Silence” would seem appropriate.