Memories & Dreams: Suzyn Waldman

            For New York Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman, it has all been an “impossible dream.”

            She could never have imagined being part of the legacy of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

            But the two of them were going to make history together.

            Suzyn was still in the early years of the second act of her professional career, developing a following and establishing her credibility as a radio reporter on the Yankees beat.  One day, Steinbrenner turned to her, (she was chasing him for a comment on some breaking news), pointed a finger at her and said, “One of these days, Waldman, I’m going to make a statement about women in sports.  I’m going to make you a Yankee announcer – and I hope you can take it.”

            Technically, that honor had been filled.  But no one had yet stepped in to do it fulltime, or to do it for a reason other than a promotional stunt.

            In 1964, Kansas City Athletics’ owner Charlie Finely hired a “weather girl,” Betty Caywood to do color commentary for Monte Moore and George Bryson’s play-by-play on A’s broadcasts.  She told him she didn’t know baseball and was not qualified, but he told her she didn’t have to know baseball, she had the “gift of gab.”  And he told the press, “She’ll appeal to the dolls.”  She did one season, traveled to road games, and her sportscasting career was over.  (She is now 87 and still lives in Kansas City). 

            Then came the late Mary Shane, hired by Bill Veeck to move into the crowded broadcast both of the 1977 Chicago White Sox, joining Harry Caray, Lorn Brown and Jimmy Piersall.  Mary was better versed on baseball, but that was a broadcast booth long on ego and short on space.  She was a “guest” announcer for only 20 games, which did not include the disastrous “Disco Demolition Night.”  The reviews on her work were politely mixed, mostly recognizing that the inexperience showed.  But she went on to become a respected sportswriter for the Worcester Telegram.

            And there, the progress seemed to end for women in the broadcast booth.

            But Suzyn Waldman was coming along and already making history of her own.

            Born and raised in Boston as a big Ted Williams fan, she was blessed with a remarkable singing voice, and headed for the stage as a career.  The pinnacle was her role opposite the great Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha, the show that ironically gave us the memorable song “The Impossible Dream.”

But she saw changes coming to traditional musicals and felt that medium might no longer accommodate her particular talents.   

            Now, she was about to embark on her own impossible dream.

She decided on a career change and embraced her lifelong love of sports.  This was her quest.  (Her throwback to the stage days remained her attention-getting performances of the national anthem at Yankee Stadium and other venues).

            Determined to make it in her adopted city of New York without apprenticeships in smaller markets, make it she did, becoming the first voice heard when all-sports WFAN went on the air in 1987.  She was soon hosting talk shows and NBA pre and post-game shows. She eventually became a groundbreaking Yankees beat reporter, traveling with the team, breaking news, conducting interviews.  No radio reporter had ever been a “beat” reporter before; radio people had typically just gathered material written by the newspaper reporters.  (She held a similar position with the Knicks basketball team). 

            Two years into the job, she was in the upper deck at Candlestick Park when the 1989 World Series was hit by an earthquake.  She was lucky – her phone line never went dead, and she stayed on the air, live, reporting from the scene back to her New York audience.  It was a turning point in her career.

            In the mid-1990s, she began doing occasional play-by-play of Yankees baseball when games were shown on WPIX TV, the MSG Network and WNYW/FOX 5.  (Only Gayle Gardner, with one game for the 1993 Colorado Rockies had broken that male-dominated glass-ceiling to that point.)  She worked some nationally televised games for The Baseball Network, the 1994-95 entity that presented baseball on NBC and ABC. 

            The road wasn’t easy, particularly when she was dealt the awful news in 1996 that she had breast cancer.  The chemotherapy was not going to break her, and arrangements were made to have her daily medication available in all clubhouses the Yankees visited on the road.  She told Steinbrenner, “I am not going to lose this job because of breast cancer.  I promise you I will not throw up in the broadcast booth, and I won’t be bald on the air.  I’ve waited my whole life to broadcast for the New York Yankees and I’m not going to miss this.”

            She beat the cancer and has long been cancer-free.  And she is a frequent speaker at schools and at cancer centers, offering inspiration for students to follow their dream, and to patients to hear what she went through and how she persevered.

            A big moment for her came in January 1999, when she personally intervened to end a 14-year feud between Steinbrenner and his long deposed manager, Yogi Berra.  Berra had vowed to never return to Yankee Stadium, resenting the manner in which he was told he was fired. (Not by the owner himself).   Steinbrenner privately regretted the estrangement from the beloved Yankee figure.

            Waldman took it upon herself to use the venue of the recently-opened Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Little Ferry, New Jersey to coax the two to meet.  Not only would she resolve a painful dispute between the two high profile Yankee figures, but she would do her WFAN radio show from the museum and have them live on the air, together, to bury the hatchet.  Clearly, it could not have happened had not Steinbrenner respected her.  This wasn’t going to happen for just any enterprising radio host.  It was an enormous event and elevated Waldman’s standing in the New York sports community.

            In 2002 she left WFAN to join the new YES Network, the groundbreaking cable entity that would televise Yankee baseball going forward, and in 2005, the Steinbrenner prophesy came to be, when she was selected to join John Sterling in the Yankees’ radio booth on a daily basis.

            The idea of a woman in the booth on a daily basis had long been on Steinbrenner’s mind.  In the ‘70s, he brought a Tampa on-air reporter named Pam (Boucher) Jones to work for the Yankees with the idea being that she would become a broadcaster.  She wound up doing promos and out-of-town scores between innings, but never “the real deal.”  Now, the moment had arrived.

            Televised Yankee games are at various times on different stations and networks, and as many as eight different announcers rotate in and out of the TV booth on YES Network alone.  But it’s Sterling and Waldman, like most radio teams, who are there every day, every game, on through the post-season, a remarkable workload, to the point where the historic nature of Waldman’s presence, now in its 13th year, is almost taken for granted.   

            Which, after some hostile letters and threats when it all began, is just how she likes it.

            In 2016, Sterling (who has not missed a broadcast in 29 seasons) and Waldman were inducted into the New York State Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame. 

            In 2006 the Hall of Fame included Waldman in its “Women in Baseball” exhibit as the first fulltime female color commentator, and her scorecard from the 2009 World Series resides in Cooperstown as well, marking the first woman to broadcast a World Series.