'Call me lucky': Sterling gives, receives thanks in emotional farewell

April 20th, 2024

NEW YORK -- If there was any question about how John Sterling might handle a sendoff after more than three decades broadcasting winning baseball in the Bronx, the answer arrived early Saturday morning, as the longtime radio “Voice of the Yankees” settled into the seat of honor outside the team’s clubhouse.

Recognizing his surroundings from manager Aaron Boone’s daily press conferences, Sterling leaned into a microphone and quipped: “Is this where Boonie says, ‘I think he’s getting close?’”

The remark filled the room with laughter. And it was perfectly appropriate for a man who spent all those innings entertaining in his unique, unapologetic and boisterous style.

Famously celebrated for his booming baritone, sing-song inflections and signature home run calls, Sterling thanked his audiences while savoring the acknowledgment of a career done to a fare-thee-well as the club honored his service with a ceremony before Saturday’s game against the Rays.

“What I really want to do is to thank you, and I’ll tell you why,” Sterling said. “I’ve been here with the Yankees 36 years, and in that time, person after person -- group after group -- have come to me with kindness, respect and love. How lucky can you be for people to celebrate what you do for a living?”

With Sterling’s four children and other family members watching from the field behind home plate, video messages from Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter were played. Tino Martinez presented Sterling, 85, with a silver set of cufflinks. Sterling received a pinstriped Yankees jersey with the number 5,631 -- an official tally of broadcasts that ended with his retirement last week.

Sterling’s longtime broadcast partners, Michael Kay and Suzyn Waldman, handed him a silver engraved microphone. Sterling -- who proudly said that he plans to enjoy retirement by watching the Yankees and other sports at home -- was then presented with an 83-inch television on behalf of the Yankees, as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” played over the stadium loudspeakers.

“I can’t believe this has happened to me,” Sterling said. “I retired because I just can’t do it. I can do the games. The games are easy, and working with Suzyn is a lark. But I just don’t have the strength and stamina. My first day on the air was Feb. 1, 1960. I’m looking forward to not being on the air, which will start tomorrow.”

Known for his gyrating “Sterling Shake” victory call (“Yankees win … theeeeee Yankees win!”), humorous phrases tacked onto play-by-play action (“Back to back, and a belly to belly!”) and personalized home run calls (“Bern Baby Bern!”), Sterling called 5,060 consecutive games from September 1989 to July 2019 -- every at-bat of Jeter’s career, every inning of Mariano Rivera’s, and more.

“He’s synonymous with those five championships (1996, ’98, ’99, 2000, ’09),” Kay said. “If you’re coming into people’s homes, at the beach, the pool or their car, and you’re constantly telling them good news -- it made him part of the Yankee firmament. He became a part of forever, because those championships are never going to go away.”

Boone spoke of Sterling’s kindness and graciousness while calling him “a voice for generations,” noting that he will “be forever connected to the Yankees.”

“It’s like he gets in that chair and it shoots life through him,” Boone said. “He’s at home when he’s in his office. It’s a remarkable career, to be able to do it like that and as long as he did it. He’s left quite a mark on this organization and the game of baseball.”

A native New Yorker who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, 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 achieved success, hosting a talk show on WMCA from 1971-78, and calling the Nets (1975-80) and Islanders (1975-78) for WMCA, WVNJ, WWOR-TV and SportsChannel.

Waldman, Sterling’s partner in the booth since 2005, called him “one of a kind” and noted that each day working together had been a “unique, funny, strange, wonderful experience.” She recalled their first encounter in 1987, when she was delivering updates on WFAN.

“He came in and did a talk show,” Waldman said. “He stood up for four hours with his hand in his ear. I said, ‘This is a really interesting human being.’ He just knew about everything. He could talk about anything.”

Travel became more difficult for Sterling in recent years, though he had planned to work many home games while making select road trips this season. Sterling experienced fatigue after the Yankees’ season-opening road trip to Houston and Arizona. He called his final game on April 7, an 8-3 victory over the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium.

Speaking to his fans, Sterling said: “You’ve been so fabulous to me. I’m a very, very fortunate individual. You know, when he was about mid-career, Bing Crosby wrote a book and he called it, ‘Call Me Lucky.’ That’s me.”