With Yankee radio broadcasts likely to switch next year from WCBS to WFAN, the inevitable question is whether John Sterling will be back.
Like him or not, he has become thuuuuuuuh voice of the Yankees. He has served since 1989 and broadcast throughout the glory years from 1995 onward. His 25 years in the booth give him the second longest tenure in Yankee history, behind Phil Rizzuto, who did radio broadcasts from 1957 to 1986. To borrow a phrase from Mel Allen, how about that?
Sterling's home-run calls are often over the top. Calling Jason Giambi the Giambino, an obvious allusion to Babe Ruth, was pure sacrilege, like comparing the lounge singer at the local Holiday Inn to Bruce Springsteen. For years, Sterling's gaffes have been fodder for radio/TV columnists, and his personality has grated on some. (Post columnist Phil Mushnick has called him "a narcissistic, condescending blowhard"). However, Sterling grows on you. There's something comforting about turning on the car radio in the evening and hearing that familiar voice.
Sterling, who is in his 70s, has broadcast more than 3,500 consecutive Yankee games. Before signing on with the Yankees, he broadcast Atlanta Braves' and Hawks' games for nearly a decade and Nets' and Islanders' games before that. Fans with a long memory will recall his radio talk show in New York in the early 1970s when his impatience with callers made Mike Francesca look like Mr. Rogers.
Sterling is idiosyncratic. As Joe Torre once remarked, "He does a lot of things nobody does, like dressing for TV every day even though he works on radio."
The Yankees have the right to approve their broadcast team, but there is no word yet on whether they will insist that Sterling (or Suzyn Waldman) be retained.
The history of Yankee radio broadcasting is a strange one. Radio stations have been on the air in New York since the 1920s, but the Yankees did not put their games on the radio until 1939. Ownership felt that broadcasting gave away the product for free and would hurt ticket sales. Times have changed. The rumored new contract would pay the Yankees $15 million to $20 million per year for 10 years.
The dismissal of broadcasters is a touchy subject.
The Yankees suffered a PR nightmare in 1964 when they fired the popular Mel Allen. Allen had broadcast his first Yankee game in 1939, when his predecessor was fired for screwing up a commercial (mispronouncing Ivory soap as Ovary soap). Allen was much like Sterling: a quirky personality with a distinctive voice who became synonymous with the Yankees. Allen gave many of the Yankees their enduring nicknames: the Yankee Clipper (Joe DiMaggio), Old Reliable (Tommy Henrich), the Springfield Rifle (Vic Raschi) and the Superchief (Allie Reynolds). His home-run call was "going, going, gone" and in the glory years, he used it frequently.
The Yankees had another PR disaster in 1965, when they fired Red Barber, who had broadcast their games since 1954 and Dodgers' games before that. Barber had done the first TV broadcast of a baseball game in 1939 and was a legend in his own right. He had a distinctive, Southern-tinged vocabulary. An argument was a "rhubarb." When a team was going well, it was "sitting in the catbird's seat." A team on a hot streak was "tearing up the pea patch." He kept a three-minute egg timer in the booth to remind him to give the score at least once every three minutes, something appreciated by fans tuning in during a game. (Are you listening, John and Suzyn?) In the end, Barber angered Yankee management by calling attention to the team's poor attendance in 1965.
For trivia buffs: over the years, the Yankees have broadcast on WABC (770), WOR (710), WINS (1010), WHN (1050), WMCA (570) and WCBS (880) and the radio broadcast crew has included noted people such as Curt Gowdy (1949-50), Jerry Coleman (1963-69), Bill White (1971-86), Jay Johnstone (1989-90) and Michael Kay (1992-2001).