In this installment in our “Working the Game” series of interviews, in which we seek to reveal what it is like to work as a baseball media professional on a day-to-day basis, we feature John Sterling, the long-time radio play-by-play announcer for the New York Yankees.
Sterling joined the Yankees broadcast team in 1989 from Atlanta’s TBS and WSB Radio, where he called Hawks basketball (1981-89) and Braves games (1982-87). It marked a return to the town where he first hosted a talk show on WMCA from 1971-78, and called the Nets (1975-80, and as a fill-in, in 1997) and Islanders (1975-78) for WMCA, WVNJ, WWOR-TV and SportsChannel. Sterling also previously called Morgan State Football (eight years) and Washington Bullets basketball in 1981. In addition to his seven
years at WMCA and a year at WSB in Atlanta, he has also hosted talk shows on WFAN and WABC in New York. He has not missed a broadcast of any kind since the fall of 1981. Sterling has won a total of 12 Emmy Awards since 2003.
When did you become aware that you wanted to seriously pursue a career as a baseball broadcaster?
I knew I wanted to be on the air when I was a little boy. I think when I got to be in my teens, early teens, I realized I wouldn’t be good enough to play pro ball. So then I just wanted to get on the air. I knew I was going on the air. I’m very lucky—I have four kids, and I wonder whether they know what they’re going to do with their lives. I’m lucky that I knew when I was 9, 10, 11 that I was going on the air. I listened to every disc jockey show, every newscast, every play-by-play of sports. I loved sports since I was a child. So even though this helped me in my vocation, it’s also my avocation. I didn’t have any problems with that. I knew what I was going to do.
What was the first baseball game you ever broadcast, and how did you get that gig?
I’d been on the air a long time. I did so many things, and any broadcaster does on their way up. I did, quote-unquote, “a big talk show” in Baltimore, one on radio and one on TV simultaneously. I started putting sports in my talk show, and then I started filling in on basketball and football with the Bullets and the Colts. Then I got a big sports talk show in New York, and I did hockey and basketball and football. I made friends with Tal Smith, who was Gabe Paul’s assistant GM [with the New York Yankees]. So when Tal went to Houston to be president [of the Astros], I called him and said, if there’s ever a chance I can fill in there, I’d love to do it, because I wanted to do baseball. So the first baseball I did was I did was a weekend in Philadelphia for the Astros. Then I got to Atlanta and Bob Russler, who’d brought me there, put me on the Braves games in 1983. That’s the first time I was a regular, and I did radio and TV with the Braves, and then I got to the Yankees in 1989, and I’ve been here ever since.
When did you realize you were going to make it—really, truly make it—as a baseball announcer?
With the Braves, I was the junior partner of the four, and we used to rotate innings among us. Now, Atlanta is a great city; I was unmarried at the time, I had no responsibilities except to myself, and I loved it. But when I took the Yankee job I took a big chance, because they had a habit of letting announcers go after a couple of years. But I took the Yankees because I didn’t want to become an old man saying [in stereotypical old drunk’s voice] “Ahh, I shoulda done the Yankees!” So I took the chance and left Atlanta, and it was thrilling to me because now I was the #1 announcer, and I did all nine innings. I’ve never missed a game in 27 years, but there’s no one point in which you pinch yourself and say, “Wow! I’m doing the Yankees! Gee, I’ve made it as a baseball announcer!”
I’ll tell you this, though: the Yankees were terrible when I first came in. But when Buck Showalter came in, in ’92, and I got Michael Kay as a partner, and the Yankees improved, and I started hearing a lot of what I did on the air come back, I think that is when I realized, “hey, this is really working.” I never thought I would connect with an audience the way I connect with the Yankee audience. And then “the Yankees win” and the home run calls became a thing—I didn’t know they were going to become a thing. It just happened to work out.
So the home run calls you’re now famous for, you first did those with the Yankees? You didn’t have that in Atlanta?
Well, the home runs, I first did in Atlanta. The old ballpark was called “The Launching Pad”, and it was double tiered stadium all the way around, a circular cookie-cutter football-baseball stadium. So when the ball was hit out, the stands framed it, so you knew right away it was going to be out. One day Doc Gooden threw Dale Murphy a breaking ball, and Dale hit it, and I could see it right away and that’s when I said “it is high, and it is far, and it is gone.” I just did it, and that became a home run call.
I always kidded with ballplayers’ names. When I did the [NBA New jersey] Nets, Bernard King was a big star for them as a rookie, and I called him “Bernard Sky BB King”. In Atlanta, with Dominique Wilkins [of the NBA Hawks], he would make a great play and I would say, “Dominique is magnifique”. And the Washington [Wizards of the NBA] coach Randy Wittman, who played for Atlanta, would do something and I would say, “Randy delivers a ‘Wittman’ sampler”. Just nonsense, but it would catch on. Now, I never knew it was going to catch on to the point where I would need a home run call for every player. It began with Bernie Williams and “Bern, baby, Bern” and “Bernie goes boom”.
So for every player who comes up to the Yankees, from the very first game, are you thinking to yourself, “OK, I gotta get a home run call for this guy before he actually hits one”?
Well, the newspaper guys give me home run calls, and the fans do, too. And in the winter, when we pick up a new player, I’m always asked, “well, what’s your home run call going to be for so-and-so?” It wasn’t supposed to be a cottage industry—well, nothing is supposed to be. I mean, there are no rules. But it’s a fun thing, and the fans get a kick out of it, and I get a kick out of it. And the players, I might add, also get a kick out of it.
Let’s talk about game day: What do you do to prepare for a game before you get to the ballpark? You wake up in the morning, and you do … what, before the game?
I have a really good answer for this: I have prepared to do a ballgame by being a fan since I was about seven years old. I do everything that a fan does: I read newspapers—I’m a big newspaper junkie, and I wish they weren’t dying and I wish New York still had eight of them because I’d read them all; I watch SportsCenter; I watch MLB (Network); and don’t forget, I’ve broadcast baseball games since 1983, which is 32, 33 years, so how many games have I broadcast? And I haven’t missed a game with the Yanks. So one game prepares you for the next game. I don’t have to have a checklist of what to do. So it’s easy. Very easy.
So, how do I prepare? I’ve been watching baseball since I’m a little boy. Today, in my hotel room, I’m reading the Sunday papers, and I’m switching between the NBA playoff games and MLB. They had the Detroit-Kansas City game on, but they also had their whiparound, where they go game to game, and I love it.
What I don’t want to do is sound like some officious stuffed shirt: “Well, I work very hard, and I get there early, and …” You know, it comes easy to me because I love what I’m doing. The words come easy, I know the sport inside and out, and I love it. How could I have made every single game for 27 years if I didn’t love it?
How long before a game do you arrive at the ballpark, and is it different at home versus on the road?
On the road, I usually catch the last bus, so I get here very early. Not as early as most people, but I get here a couple of hours before the game. At home, I’m driving, so the first thing is, can I get over the bridge? I live in New Jersey, so that’s the first step. I try to get there an hour and a half before, something like that.
In the years past, I did the pregame manager’s show. Joe Torre is a buddy of mine, and I did that the 12 years he was there. He was just a seat of the pants guy, like I am. You know how people are described as “anal” or “anal compulsive”? Well, I’m the opposite. So I would just grab Joe at some point and just do it. With Girardi, he was good enough to let me do the same thing. Some managers have strict rules: “You have to be here at four o’clock!” But now Suzyn [Waldman, Sterling’s broadcast partner] does the show, so I don’t have a pregame tape. So I could literally … I used to have a radio show in the penthouse of the building I was living in. Can you imagine that? So I could go up to work in my pajamas if I wanted to. But I could literally do the game and no one would notice when I got there, if I lived in the ballpark. Bill Veeck and his wife used to have an apartment at Sportsmen’s Park in St. Louis, and I read a thing about the Giants had an apartment at the Polo Grounds … anyway, I could get there just before the pregame would start and it would be OK. But I don’t, I usually get there earlier. And if I have to talk with a player or talk with the manager, I will.
What are the key things you do at the ballpark before the game starts?
You know, it’s much easier than you’re making it out. You’ve been to the press box—they give you more information than you can use. Don’t forget, I’ve just done a game last night, so that prepares you for today. I write down my lineups, and … well, that’s it. Then you broadcast the game. I broadcast by the seat of my pants, and that works for me. Someone else brings a big bag of media guides and rule books and stopwatches and all that stuff. I don’t do that. I have a very little baseball bag in which I carry pens and phone numbers and hard candy. I have a very little bag. That’s worked for me.
So while the broadcast is in progress, is everything super easy for you? Or is there, say, one thing you do where you can say, “this is the hardest thing I have to do during the game”? Is there anything like that at all?
No. I hate rain delays because you’re sitting around. I hate these eight o’clock Sunday night games because you’re always flying someplace afterwards. But everyone hates the Sunday night ESPN games, it’s so late. You know why I’m lucky? I told you earlier in this conversation, I’ve been able to combine my avocation and vocation. I started out as a disk jockey because I love music. I know as much about music, American popular standards and Broadway, as I do about baseball. These are the two things that have occupied my mind my entire life.
What do you do in between innings and during the seventh inning stretch?
Go to the bathroom. Everyone does, because in Yankee Stadium they sing “God Bless America”, then “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”, so we have a little more time.
What are some common pitfalls to avoid while broadcasting baseball games? Or is it smooth sailing the whole time?
Everything I do is off the cuff, and the people I’ve worked with, Suzyn and Michael Kay, have worked that way with me. I call every pitch of every game, and I don’t find it [to be] work. We’re very busy. I’m sure you’ve heard it—we have a million drop-ins, and we have a lot of stuff to get in, like scoreboards. I don’t try to figure out what I’m going to say, I just say it. I don’t know how you can do sports and figure out what you’re going to do. You have to react to what’s on the field.
Curt Gowdy once said—he was preparing for the first Super Bowl, and he was nervous as hell because there were all these network people in the booth—he took himself out for a little walk. And he said to himself, “Look, you’ve been doing this all your life! Just follow the ball!” I just know the game by osmosis—look how many baseball games I’ve done. So I don’t have to figure out what I have to say. I just open my big fat mouth and say it.
When the team has a day off, how do you spend your time?
Oh, that’s easy. I entertain myself very well. I swim for exercise—my knees are shot from all those years on hard courts playing tennis and basketball. I get up late. I have a healthy brunch of fruit and coffee and read the papers. That’s how I prepare, see? I have ESPN SportsCenter on and MLB [Network] on. That’s how I prepare! See, what I’m trying to tell you: I don’t try to prepare. I love what I do, so I find it very easy.
When you’re traveling with the team, what is your favorite thing to do on the road?
Not much. I don’t sightsee. You know how much I’ve travelled? [Laughs] If I’m off, and someone is appearing in town that I love, like—I have to figure out someone who’s alive now—if Tony Bennett or Vic Damone was somewhere, I’d go see them, or if there’s a Broadway play, probably a musical, in that town, I would go to see that if I have a day off. But for the most part it’s work. The average day is, I get up late, have a healthy brunch, swim for exercise, read the papers, watch ESPN and MLB, shave and shower, make myself beautiful, then go to the ballpark.
How do you spend time over the All-Star break?
With my kids, I have four kids. That’s one time we get together. They range from 14 to 17 in age.
And the same thing during the offseason? Do you do any broadcasting in the offseason?
Yeah, I don’t do talk shows or play-by-play or voiceovers or appearances. I’m pretty busy because I have the great ability to entertain myself. I’m very lucky: I have a very good life, and I live it very, very well.
What baseball announcers do you most admire, both retired and currently active, and why?
If you said to me, “Who’s your favorite singer”, well, obviously it would be Sinatra. But I must like a hundred different singers. I like different people for different reasons. I think [Vin] Scully is the best, but I don’t want you to think it’s only Scully. I loved Mel Allen; I loved Bob Prince; I love Harry Caray; I loved Skip Caray. All guys who are different—every one of them is different. Every broadcaster brings his own style, and there isn’t [only] one style that’s acceptable.
This is really true: every broadcaster I have met in any sport helps the other broadcasters. Everybody gets along, and if you need something, you go to the other broadcasters. There are no egos, and there’s tremendous camaraderie among the fraternity. Especially now with interleague and you don’t see these [teams], if you go to one of their broadcasters with questions, they’ll give you everything. In this vein, when that fire destroyed my home this winter, I heard from everyone in the business. It was very heartwarming.
What are some of the things, or maybe even the one big thing, you wish ordinary fans knew about your job?
That it’s very easy to do, and very tough to get. That’s the broadcast business [in general].
If you were the King of Baseball Announcing and you could make any changes or improvements to the broadcasting profession, what would they be?
I would eliminate broadcast positions like this one in Washington where you’re so far away and so high that it’s very tough to see everything. I would make all broadcast positions great. And I would make the ballparks small. Everyone who built an enormous ballpark—Detroit, San Diego, Seattle, and the Mets—they’ve all shortened the distances. People want to see runs and home runs and doubles off the wall and guys running around the bases, or at least I do. I like offense in every sport. That’s about it. And I would have the National League use the DH.
Well, John, really, thank you very much for your time. You’ve given me a tremendous amount to work with. Would you like me to share the link to the article with you via email, to make sure I’ve gotten everything right?
No. I don’t have an email address, unfortunately. Well, for me it’s fortunate!