Yankees Mag: One of a Kind

John Sterling did it his way, thrilling and delighting Yankees fans for 36 years

May 7th, 2024
After 5,631 games behind the microphone for Yankees radio broadcasts, Sterling (center, with his four children) said farewell in April. The 85-year-old, who called every game of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera’s Hall of Fame careers, was radio listeners’ guide to seven American League pennants and five world championships. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

It was early in the 1992 baseball season, and Michael Kay couldn’t help but feel distracted. John Sterling sat by his side in the broadcast booth at Yankee Stadium, and the veteran play-by-play announcer was repeatedly reaching for his mute button, muttering unprintable words while furiously annotating a series of weak Yankees pop outs and ground balls into his oversize scorecard.

Kay was flustered. Having transitioned from a newspaper background, where impartiality was an occupational requirement, he could not understand why his new partner seemed so invested in the outcome of any individual game, inning or at-bat.

“It would change his mood, even during the game. He’d really get upset,” Kay said. “I just asked him, ‘John, why do you care so much if they win? They don’t care if you have a good broadcast.’ And he said, ‘Michael, my boy, if you give people good news, they’re going to like you.’”

Over more than three decades and a staggering 5,631 games as the radio “Voice of the New York Yankees,” Sterling gave his audience plenty to cheer about. Famously celebrated for his booming baritone, sing-song inflections and signature home run calls, Sterling entertained and informed unapologetically, his distinctive voice providing the indelible narration for five World Series–winning teams and seven American League pennant winners.

Recognized for his exuberant “Sterling Shake” victory call (“Yankees win … theeeeee Yankees win!”), witty phrases woven into play-by-play action (“Back to back, and a belly to belly!”) and personalized home run calls (“Bern, baby, Bern!”), Sterling called an impressive 5,060 consecutive games from September 1989 to July 2019 — every at-bat of Derek Jeter’s career, every inning of Mariano Rivera’s, and more.

“How lucky can you be, for people to celebrate what you do for a living?” Sterling said on April 20, during a memorable send-off at Yankee Stadium to recognize the 85-year-old’s retirement after 64 years of broadcasting — the last 36 calling Yankees games.

Scanning the emerald green field in the Bronx that day, an audience of more than 47,000 fans showing appreciation for the driving force of their favorite team’s soundtrack, Sterling thought of Bing Crosby. In 1953, the legendary crooner had penned an autobiography titled, “Call Me Lucky.” Sterling now believes he knows how fortunate “Der Bingle” felt.

“It was easy,” Sterling said. “I could always open my mouth and talk.”

Sterling was “one of a kind,” according to Suzyn Waldman, who served as Sterling’s radio partner from 2005 until his final game on April 7. She described each of their days working together as a “unique, funny, strange, wonderful experience.”

“I do hope people really understand, this is the only thing he wanted to do his whole life,” Waldman said. “Can you imagine having that dream, having it come true, and then deciding when you’re going to stop? He lived life on his terms, and by the seat of his pants.”


A native New Yorker who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, frequently taking the IRT subway line to Yankee Stadium, 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). He hadn’t applied for the job, never auditioned, and got it anyway. “Isn’t that amazing?” Sterling said. “What a nutty business.”

It marked a return to the town where he first achieved success, hosting a talk show on WMCA from 1971 to ’78, and calling the Nets (1975–80) and Islanders (1975–78) for WMCA, WVNJ, WWOR-TV and SportsChannel. New York was also where his obsession with the microphone began.

“When I was a little boy, the radio was on, and the music swelled, and this guy with a great voice said, ‘Live from Hollywood, it’s the Eddie Bracken Show!’” Sterling said. “I didn’t want to be Eddie Bracken. I wanted to be the guy who said, ‘Live from Hollywood!’”

Sterling knew he had to be on the air, a career that began on Feb. 1, 1960, at a tiny long-gone radio station in Wellsville, New York. He became an entertainer who dressed for the occasion, outfitted impeccably in Brooks Brothers suits, French cuffs and ascots even though his audience could not see him. Sterling’s dulcet pipes were strong, crackling forcefully through AM speakers, even as his first Yankees teams were anything but.

Manager Dallas Green was fired with 40 games remaining in Sterling’s inaugural season at the team’s microphone, and successors Bucky Dent and Stump Merrill hardly enjoyed better success the following season. Sterling looked longingly back toward Atlanta as the Braves began to field a strong team in 1991, wondering, “What have I done? Did I make a mistake?” But he received a vote of confidence from principal owner George M. Steinbrenner, who once told him: “I just want you to know you’ll always be the Yankee announcer, and if they try to hire anyone (else), I’ll veto it.”

Radio is a particularly intimate medium, and fans develop strong bonds with the team’s voices over the course of long seasons. Sterling’s relationship with broadcast partners Kay and then Waldman (right) came through perfectly clear to those in the booth and others listening in from all around the country. “We finish each other’s sentences, and we’re very close friends,” Waldman said. “We have the same point of view on things.” (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

Better days were soon to come for both Sterling and the Yankees. Sterling counts the 1996 season as his favorite, residing on the ground floor for the birth of a dynasty. Sterling struck up a fast friendship with the new manager, Joe Torre, bonding over Frank Sinatra’s music as they became frequent companions for late-night steaks and martinis during road trips.

“The most exciting year was 1996,” Sterling said. “They weren’t expected to do anything. They got into first place early and stayed there for the whole year. All the playoff games were great. That year was jammed.”


The personalized home run calls for which Sterling would become synonymous were never intended to become a cottage industry. It began with a Bernie Williams homer, as Sterling punctuated his call with some variation of, “Bernie goes boom! Bern, baby, Bern!”

Sterling had done this before; while calling the Hawks’ NBA games, he’d jazzed up Dominique Wilkins’ exploits by remarking, “Dom-in-ique is mag-ni-fique!” The Nets’ Bernard King might be called “B.B. King” or “Sky King.” But the nicknames sizzled in baseball, given the heightened emotion of a homer over a two-point jumper. Williams said he was “glad that I was the first.”

“It was never intended for every player because, frankly, I’m not smart enough to do something for every player,” Sterling said. “But I did the best I could. It’s amazing that it became so big.”

So, too, would his “Theeeeee Yankees win!” catchphrase, especially as the Torre-era clubs continued to win, win and win some more. At airports, bookstores or delicatessens, scarcely a day passed without an admirer mimicking one of Sterling’s calls back to him.

“If you’re coming into people’s homes, at the beach, at the pool or in the car, and you’re constantly telling them good news, it made him part of the Yankee firmament,” Kay said. “He became part of forever. Those championships are never going to go away, and his calls of those championships are never going to go away.”

Avid listeners recognized that they could tell if the Yankees were winning or losing, just by gauging the octave of Sterling’s voice.

“He wants them to win so badly, and you can hear it on every pitch,” said longtime WFAN reporter Sweeny Murti. “But he also has the ability to draw reference points from Casey Stengel to Aaron Boone, from Mickey Mantle to Aaron Judge, and everything in between.”

Kay moved to the YES Network in 2002, and after Sterling was paired for three seasons with Charley Steiner, Waldman entered as his final partner. She was a kindred spirit who could match his encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway musicals and the Great American Songbook.

“John and I talk in lyrics and dialogue,” she said. “We finish each other’s sentences, and we’re very close friends. We have the same point of view on things. If a game in Detroit got snowed out, and we knew we had to come back for a doubleheader, I’d say, ‘John, we’ll always have Detroit.’ And he’d know immediately that it’s Casablanca.”


It was early morning at a Westin hotel in Seattle, sometime in the mid-1990s, and Kay eyed Sterling curiously bounding through the lobby. Sterling preferred to sleep late on the road, and if the sight of him awake before noon wasn’t odd enough, Kay’s partner had just purchased two dozen red roses.

“I said, ‘What are you doing?’” Kay said. “He said, ‘I’ve met the girl I’m going to marry, Michael. Oh yes, this is the one.’”

Sterling would indeed marry Jennifer, with whom he would have four children: first Abigail, then a set of triplets, Veronica, Bradford and Derek.

“The trips,” as Sterling would affectionately call them, were born during the Yankees’ 2000 postseason run. As such, third baseman Scott Brosius was stunned to see Sterling board the team’s flight to Seattle between Games 2 and 3 of the American League Championship Series.

“It’s done,” Sterling told Brosius. “What more can I do?”

Another example of Sterling’s unflappable nature came on a different Yankees flight, a charter ferrying the club to Minneapolis during the 2008 season. Intense lightning storms had created dangerous turbulence, and as oxygen masks fell from overhead, howls and prayers were heard from a phalanx of fearful players and coaches.

The Yankees’ radio booth will be a bit less debonair now that Sterling has retired. For 36 seasons, the native New Yorker entertained and informed listeners with his distinct broadcasting style, all while dressed to the nines. Although Sterling is stepping away from the microphone, his voice and his memorable calls will live on forever at Yankee Stadium. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

Deep into one of his trusty novels — Ed McBain, Ken Follett and Lawrence Sanders were favorite authors — Sterling offered a belly laugh, batting away the mask like a kitten toying with a ball of string.

“He’s got a different worldview,” Kay said. “He just doesn’t stress about things. It’s like, ‘Nothing bad is going to happen to me.’”


Sterling’s string of 5,060 consecutive games, plus 211 more in the postseason, represents a remarkable feat of longevity, to which he credits a combination of genes, rest and exercise. Though Sterling happened to broadcast the game in which Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. sat down after 2,632 straight, it took a while before anyone noticed his own streak — including Sterling himself, who simply prided himself on stepping up to the microphone when the schedule said he should, week after week.

“I never once turned on the radio and said, ‘Boy, John sounds tired.’ He always brought his ‘A’ game,” said Blue Jays and ESPN broadcaster Dan Shulman. “I think of him a little bit like Dick Vitale, who I worked with for many years. They understood that this is entertainment, as well as anybody who’s ever done it.”

In 2014, as Jeter prepared for his final games, it was brought to the captain’s attention that Sterling had called every inning of his career. Jeter believed that his parents, Charles and Dorothy, had probably seen all his games in person or on television. Still, Jeter couldn’t think of anyone besides Sterling who had been physically present. “He’s probably tired of seeing me, too,” Jeter said then.

Jeter’s retirement signified a farewell to the “Core Four,” and soon a new batch of “Baby Bombers” would be on the scene. After Aaron Judge hit his first homer in August 2016, going back to back (and a belly to belly) with fellow rookie Tyler Austin, Judge’s father, Wayne, found Sterling’s call on YouTube that night and proudly played it repeatedly.

“He was so witty, smart,” Judge said of Sterling. “As a kid, you always heard it. You watch old Yankees games; you hear the old broadcasts. Getting a chance to hear your own name for the first one, that was pretty special.”

Sterling earned admirers from the new generation of Yankees during a home game in June 2023, when he was clipped in the head by a foul ball hit by Justin Turner of the Red Sox. Although what Sterling described as a “glancing blow” opened a small cut above his eye, Sterling hardly missed a beat, continuing his call of the inning. Turner later autographed the ball for Sterling.

“That’s John, right?” manager Aaron Boone said. “There’s a youthful exuberance to the way he goes about things that is uniquely John and unapologetically John.”

Sterling’s reputation as a gamer was cemented, but when the Yankees missed the postseason last fall, he had a clearer schedule than usual. There were frequent dinners with family and friends, plus many hours to enjoy sports and movies on a five-television setup inside his treasured Edgewater, New Jersey, apartment, one with windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline.

As spring neared, Sterling found that he had mixed feelings about the approaching season. A journey through New York’s LaGuardia Airport to meet the team in Tampa, Florida, did little to change that, nor did a seven-game road trip to Houston and Arizona. Sterling felt his tank was close to empty. The actual games were fun, and working alongside Waldman remained “a lark,” but Sterling recognized that his time to unplug the microphone had arrived.

“Boy, I knew that was it,” Sterling said. “I didn’t want to work every day. If you work 64 years, and on your next birthday, you’re going to be 86, I think it’s time.”

Kay and Waldman both hope to see Sterling enshrined in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, where they believe he belongs alongside longtime broadcaster Mel Allen and iconic public-address announcer Bob Sheppard. Sterling seemed flattered when the thought was presented to him.

“Look, anything that has happened to me now is all grist for my mill,” Sterling said. “I never, ever dreamt that I’d be recognized. So if it happens, it happens.”

After the retirement send-off, Sterling promised to watch all of the Yankees’ games, now free to become the team’s biggest fan. The club’s gift of an 83-inch LG television, presented on behalf of the players and coaches, would allow him to do so in style.

“I’m going to love watching and listening, I really am,” Sterling said. “I know what I’m going to do, and I’m going to enjoy it.”