Baseball Broadcasting

Historian Curt Smith Assesses John Sterling after 36 years on Yankees radio; He’s one of a kind!


If you were raised in Upstate New York in the 1950s and early ‘60s, as I was, you could not escape the ubiquity of the New York Yankees. From Albany to Buffalo, the public daily turned to their 1939-64 lead radio and TV play-by-play man, Mel Allen, an institution who made “How About That!” a national idiom and seemed more compelling than even being at the park.

Born in New York City in 1938, John Sterling was mesmerized, too. When Allen died in 1996, the Yankees’ 1989-2024 radio Voice likened Mel to “Sinatra, or Crosby, or Astaire.” Recently Sterling, 85, retired after 64 years behind the mic, having worked 5,060 consecutive, 5,420 regular-season, and 211 postseason games, and won 12 Emmy Awards, including two as host/voice-over of TV’s Yankees Entertainment and Sports (YES) Network Yankeeography. How to remember him? With the reappraisal that John deserves.

Several truths once made this difficult. Historically, the Big Apple has lent itself to excess. Sterling himself could radiate an off-putting pomposity. At Yankee Stadium, he worked at first in the shadow of past Voices Allen and Red Barber. Finally, few are impartial about the Pinstripes, The New York Times writing, “It is impossible to think of any other franchise like the Yankees”—witness 40 pennants and 27 world titles. Sterling did its lineage proud.

By late in John’s career, much of the Bombers’ universe appeared to regard him almost as Allen’s preternatural heir: Born sixty years and a day after George M. Cohan, Sterling, like ex-musical theater actress and 2005-24 radio partner Suzyn Waldman, could be heard warbling such Broadway tunes as My Fair Lady’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” By fit and start, we grew accustomed to John’s persona: too outsized for, say, Kansas City but boffo in the Bronx. “Everything about him is unique,” said Waldman. “He’s one of a kind.”

During World War II, Britain’s Winston Churchill had beseeched Franklin Roosevelt to “Give us the [military and economic] tools, and we will finish the job [of defeating Hitler]!” John’s tools included zest, panache, baseball knowledge, storytelling skill, phrases ideal for the occasion, and a silken, elegant baritone. Sterling grasped, as Harry Caray stated, how to tell the difference between a “a game you have to carry [a 13-1 snooze] and a game that carries you [a 9-8 thriller].” It took a long time for critics to acknowledge this. Some never did.

As with Mel, some prayed that laryngitis would silence John forever. Far more felt that a florist must have decorated his voice. Flagship station WFAN observed, “Yankees radio will never quite sound the same without [Sterling’s] signature wit and humor,” clear even as a student at St. John’s College in Annapolis and in early jobs with WMCA New York, Morgan State football, and the hockey Islanders and basketball Nets, shouting in one playoff game, “Give it to Julius [Erving]!” The 1961 Chicago Cubs’ College of Coaches had rotated skippers. In 1983, John left hoops for Atlanta Braves radio/TV. Five years later, he said, “It was time to move on,” but where?

By late 1988, Sterling entered a rotating door of his own, named the 17th announcer in a decade of Bombers radio/free/cable TV coverage. Soon he, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Angel, Tony Kubek, Tom Seaver, DeWayne Staats, and Al Trautwig shared Yankees play-by-play and color. “Splitting radio and free and cable TV, we had separate teams,” said analyst Kubek. “The result was that [except perhaps for Rizzuto, as a player dubbed “Scooter”] no one guy really dominated the rest” or became the team’s true Voice. Ultimately, Sterling rewrote that script.

After baseball’s 232-day work stoppage, the 1995 Yankees made the franchise’s first post-season since 1981. A year later the team began the sport’s most successful reign since Allen’s 14 pennants in 1949-64 and Atlanta’s 14 division titles in 1991-2005. In the 1996 American League Championship Series opener v. Baltimore, a 12-year-old spectator, Jeffrey Maier, stole New York’s Derek Jeter’s drive to the seats at Yankee Stadium, umpire Richie Garcia signaling homer. The ‘96ers later beat the Braves for their first Series title in 18 years. (Smith – L)

In 1998, the Bombers won a then-league-record 114 games, swept the Fall Classic, and finished an otherworldly 125-50. Next year they drew 3 million at home for the first time. Sterling’s true Bronx laying-on of hands may have begun that July 18, David Cone pitching with 1956 Series Perfect Game’s Don Larsen in the Bronx. “He popped him up! He’s going to get it! [Scott] Brosius down from third!” Sterling said, Cone pointing skyward and grabbing his head in disbelief. “Ball game over! A perfect game! … David Cone has attained baseball immortality!”

In 1999, the Yankees again swept the Classic, v. Atlanta. The 2000 Subway Series v. the Mets ended with center fielder “Bernie [Williams] back! Away back! … He makes the catch! Ball game over! World Series over!”—for baseball’s Capella, its third straight title and fourth in five years. Sterling and 1992-2001 partner Michael Kay, formerly of the New York Post and Daily News, MSG Network,, and ESPN Radio, emceed the victory party. John’s triptych to mark a victory—“Ball game over! Yankees win! The-eh-eh-eh Yankees win!”—echoed from City Hall to every borough in the city.

Indeed, Sterling’s catchphrase  became his trademark—another, “It is high! It is far! It is gone!” upon a homer, filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for use on T-shirts and sweatshirts. Other Sterlingisms included ”Theeee pitch!,” French “De-TAWH” for Detroit, and dialogue with Kay, Charley Steiner (2002-04), and Waldman. Material might include John’s triplets  (Veronica, Bradford, and Derek, born October 11, 2000), fashion (Kay’s “interlocking NY”), and baseball’s philistine pace before it adopted new rules in 2023. Sterling’s repartee helped make it bearable.

In 1989, John said of his new club, “You could be here till 2525, and Mel will always be the Voice of the Yankees.” By 2024, a newer generation might have picked John. Allen made players extended members of the family. Eddie Lopat became the “Junkman”; Vic Raschi, “The Springfield Rifle”; and Hank Bauer, “The Man of the Hour.” Oklahoman Indian Allie Reynolds was named “Super Chief”; Gene Woodling, “Old Faithful”; and left- and right-hand hitting Mickey Mantle “The Switcher.” When slugger Bill “Moose” Skowron batted, Mel invariably chanted, “The noise you are hearing is ‘Moose’—not boos.”

Sterling’s tack slightly differed. After saying “high … far … gone!,” John’s wordplay named the batter. His “Bern, Baby, Bern!” identified the 1991-2006 outfielder: according to the New York Post, strangers often repeating it to greet Williams on a street. A blast by infielder Robinson Cano prompted “Robby Cano—don’t ya know!” When All-Star Alex Rodriguez homered, a New Yorker heard “An A-bomb from A-Rod!” Catcher Jorge Posada preceded “Jorgie juiced one!” A listener awaited such bits as eagerly as a visitor to Nashville once awaited Minnie Pearl’s.

John spawned “Gio Urshela, the most happy fella,” singing lyrics from Frank Loesser’s 1956 same-title Broadway musical. Parroting Babe Ruth’s sobriquet the “Great Bambino,” Sterling called Jason Giambi “the Giambino.” Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had fought “The [1975] Thrilla in Manila.” Hideki Matsui occasioned “A thrilla from Godzilla.” When Mark Teixeira went long, John cued “He sent a Tex message!” A 2018- utility man led him to paraphrase insurer Allstate’s slogan, “Like a good Gleyber, Torres is there.”’ Back-to-back homers, especially by left- and right-handed swingers, evoked Harry Bellefonte’s “Zombie Jamboree”’s “It’s back-to-back … and belly-to-belly!”

Day after day the beat went on. John aired future Hall of Fame skipper Joe Torre’s 1996-2007 ledger of six pennants and four world titles and every inning of 1995-2013 Hall reliever Mariano Rivera’s 82-60 record and 652 saves. Upon Sterling’s April 15, 2024, retirement, Cooperstown Class of 2020 Derek Jeter wrote, “Congrats .. . on an amazing career. He is a major part of Yankee history.” Jeter’s 1995-2014 had been a major part of John’s, the Voice of the Yankees improbably calling all of the team captain’s 3,465 hits.

In Kay’s last year on Bombers wireless, Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez’s Game Seven 2001 Series bloop precluded another crown. Next year Michael began YES Network play-by-play. The 2003  Red Sox-Yanks ALCS Game Seven passed midnight in the Bronx. In the 10th inning New York’s Aaron Boone, later the club’s manager, arced Boston’s Tim Wakefield’s five-all pitch for a pennant-waving blast. Steiner described it on radio. Unable to desist, John bayed, “The-eh-eh-eh-eh Yankees win!” A city caroled his bouquet. “I’d rather do my own thing,” Sterling said later, “than be a straight-laced, homogenous, play-by-play drone.” Mission accomplished.

As memorably, Yankees 2016- slugger Aaron Judge launched 62 homers in 2022 to set a new American League record. “All rise! Here comes the Judge!” Sterling waxed, asking spectators to stand. A section of outfield seats was renamed “The Judge’s Jury.” Was John ostentatious and affected, or, as he stated, “highly stylized?” A “terrific talent, enormously popular,” said Kay, or “frequently awful and laughable,” claimed the good gray Times? Sterling Time meant that neutrality took a holiday. Ultimately, as with Allen, the jury voted for the defense.

“Listening to Mel, I knew this was my life,” Sterling said of his boyhood idol. Like Allen, he became the Big Apple’s largest baseball announcer in a great baseball city—over the top and/or  rainbow, said the Daily News: “The Voice some love, and some love to hate.” Leonard Koppett once wrote, “I can imagine a world without baseball, but I can’t imagine wanting to live in one.” It may seem sacrilegious to liken Sterling to Sinatra, Crosby, or Astaire—or even Mel, late in his career still the pastime’s, not just Yankees’, Voice on TV’s This Week In Baseball. It is natural, though, if you cherish baseball on the air.

Retiring early this season, John said, “I am a very blessed human being. As a little boy growing up in New York as a Yankees fan, I was able to broadcast the Yankees” for 36 years. His exit may spring from the Pinstripes missing the 2023 playoffs, Sterling finding that he loved more leisure time. “I should have stopped then,” he said. “I just don’t want to do any more work,” turning 86 in July. “My time has come.” The Bombers held an April 20 pre-game on-field ceremony to salute him: fitting if less riveting than John’s artistry in the booth. An unnamed successor will have quite an act to follow.

Mel Allen was a household name from Portland, Maine to Oregon. John Sterling, his voice rising and falling like a buoy off Long Island Sound, became the quintessence of New York during six American Presidencies: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush; Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. That seems a grand way to be recalled.

Curt Smith

CURT SMITH is the author of 18 books, including Voices of The Game, recently named by Esquire magazine among “the 100 Best Baseball Books Ever Written.” His latest is the official Hall of Fame book, Memories from the Microphone. USA Today calls Smith “the leading voice of authority on baseball broadcasting.” He wrote more speeches than anyone for President George H. W. Bush, The New York Times styling his work “the high point of Bush familial eloquence.” Since 1998, Smith has been Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Rochester, teaching Public Speaking and Presidential Rhetoric.

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