For those who ponder how and why the witty, yet eccentric John Sterling was hired to be the radio play-by-play voice for the Yankees nearly 30 years ago, the 79-year-old broadcaster is still trying to figure that out, too.
According to Sterling, who’s in his 28th consecutive season calling Yankees games, he wasn’t the best applicant.
In fact, he didn’t apply at all.
“This is one of the lucky things that happen in our nutty business,” Sterling told YES Network’s Michael Kay in a new episode of CenterStage which premieres Wednesday night. “I got a phone call… in September of ’88. From a fellow that you know, Steve Malzberg, at WABC. And he said, “Would you like to do [call] the Yankees?” He told me they have a new general manager and he doesn’t like the broadcast team—and they’re history at the end of the year.
“And I said, “Well, does he know who I am?” And he said, “He knows all about you. He listens to you all the time.” I didn’t have an agent, so I called a buddy of mine, who worked with me on the air, with the Nets, Mike DeTommaso, who’s a lawyer. And I said, “Would you call this guy?” And he called him and they made a deal. I never auditioned for the Yankees. Isn’t that amazing? What a nutty business. I didn’t apply for it and I didn’t audition. And I got it right away.”
Before entering the Yankees’ broadcast booth in 1989, Sterling — who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — broke into the business as the play-by-play voice for the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Baltimore Bullets (currently Washington Wizards) during the 1970-71 season. In 1971, he spent time as a New York talk show host for WMCA radio (570 AM), where he eventually served on broadcasts for the NHL’s New York Islanders and NBA’s New York/New Jersey Nets. After a stint in the Big Apple, Sterling found work in Atlanta, calling Braves and Hawks games for Turner Sports from 1981 to 1989.
Although the Yankees were far from competitors during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sterling recalls an early vote of confidence from owner George Steinbrenner, which has lasted with him to this day.
“The team was very bad. ’89, ’90, ’91, terrible teams, and I said [during a telecast], “Blame the players. They’re the ones who are making out. They’re the ones who can’t get anyone out,'” Sterling told Kay. “So two nights later, we’re in Milwaukee and there’s a rain delay. And so I’m walking around this maze of booths in this old stadium. And George [Steinbrenner] is sitting in one of the booths. And he stopped me and—think of how good this made me feel—he said to me, “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.”
Sterling, who will turn 80 next summer, hasn’t missed a game in nearly three decades, and he doesn’t plan on making any changes now.
“Well, first thing I have to do is I have to get four kids through college. After they’re all through… you know, we’ll see. I can’t imagine retiring,” Sterling said.