April 25, 2011
Suzyn Waldman is more than John Sterling’s radio play-by-play partner on Yankees broadcasts. The 64-year-old Waldman is a baseball-broadcasting icon in New York, having busted stereotypes for more than two decades, in a variety of roles, in the game‘s largest market. She is also more than just a sports personality. A native of Boston, Waldman has a degree from Simmons College and enjoyed a 15-year career on Broadway before becoming a familiar, and often controversial, voice of the Yankees.
Waldman talked about her pioneering career and history with the game earlier this month at Fenway Park.
David Laurila: Who is Suzyn Waldman?
Suzyn Waldman: That’s a hard question to answer, because I don’t think anybody is just one thing. I’m one thing here at the ballpark, I’m one thing at home, and I’m another thing with my parents. I’ve had a couple of different careers. I’m a lot of different things for a lot of different people.
DL: Who are you as a broadcaster?
SW: I’m a person that tells the fans what they cannot get in the newspaper or even from television. I try to tell the fans why something happened, not just repeat what happened on the field. Anyone can do that. There are always reasons why a play works or why a play doesn’t work. I also think that I have kind of a reporter’s instinct because I spend so much time with the players. I have a reporter’s style in trying to get to the whys and the stories about what happened. Sometimes it’s only when you talk to a player and spend time with [him] do you know why a particular thing happened.
DL: Broadcasters are not only reporters; they are also entertainers.
SW: You bet. Baseball is fun. This is entertainment. Baseball isn’t all stats; it’s not “this guy did this against five people last week.” To me, the past does not equal the present. It means something, but it also doesn’t. I don’t think you can allow the game to be boring. It can’t be just stats. Those people are going to listen anyway, or they’re going to be watching on television.
You have to be a person. You have to give fans something to relate to. I know to whom I’m speaking; I know who is listening to that broadcast. I’m an emotional person, and that comes out in my broadcasts. I don’t apologize for that. The people I’m broadcasting for are also emotional. They care about what happens to their team.
DL: Has the listening audience changed over the year?
SW: Well, the world is different. People are different. Of course it is changing, because there are so many different ways to get information now. When I was following baseball as a little girl, you listened to the radio every single day because you didn’t have television every day. That was how you found out what was going on in the game, so I think the broadcasters were a lot different. They actually had to tell you what was going on, and then they would entertain.
I remember when I was growing up, [Red Sox announcer] Ned Martin would read poetry. Curt Gowdy was “The Cowboy.” Everybody had a distinct style and that gets forgotten. Everybody now is stats and straight-arrow. None of those older broadcasters were, particularly not here in Boston.
DL: How would your audience react if you started to incorporate more advanced stats into the broadcast?
SW: I don’t have time. I’m watching a ballgame. I do give stats. For instance, I say what someone has done against a pitcher. We use enough stats. I don’t like broadcasts that become just statistics. I have a degree in economics, so I took stats classes, and you can make stats say anything. They’re something to go by, they’re not something to project. It never works out that way, because you’re dealing with human beings.
When I’m describing a game, I don’t have time to look up stats. I know what’s one against one, and one against one, but I don’t go back to 1943 unless it’s interesting. I think that stats can be too much.
DL: Are you held to a different standard because of your sex?
SW: Of course. And just because there are more women [in the game] doesn’t mean we’re more accepted. To this day, if a man makes a mistake on a broadcast—and people do; you’re on the air for four hours a day talking non-stop, so you’re going to make mistakes—it’s just a guy. If I make a mistake, it’s all over the internet. I don’t see that changing, but that’s OK. I understand.
DL: Do you see that ever changing?
SW: I don’t know about ever; I can only worry about me. I hope it does, but I also don’t see any young women getting into what I’m doing. I’m still the only one there. I’ve been in this job for 25 years and I don’t see anyone else coming into the booth.
DL: When you started out, did anyone tell you, “Don’t do it”?
SW: Everyone told me, “Don’t do it.” This was 25 years ago, when the times were very different than they are today. I was spit at, I got despicable things sent to me in the mail. I had my own policeman at Yankee Stadium for all of 1989 because I was getting death threats. It was very different.
DL: This spring, Justine Siegal became the first woman to throw batting practice to a big-league team.
SW: She did, and I think that’s terrific. I also heard that the guys said she was very good, which is important. Any time you do something that people laugh at, you’re changing a paradigm if you do it well. I’m all about changing paradigms. “The world is flat,” was a paradigm. At first, the people who said that the world was round were laughed at. There was also anger, but then it became, “of course.” That’s what I see with Justine Siegal. I give her so much credit.
We’re talking in Fenway Park, and I grew up in this park. I had my own season ticket with my grandfather starting when I was three years old. We sat right behind the Red Sox on-deck circle, so I literally could reach out and touch Ted Williams. This was in the early 1950s.
I learned my baseball watching in an almost empty park, because there weren’t that many people here in those days. I never knew they weren’t playing for me and I never knew I wasn’t supposed to know. My mother knew, my aunts knew, the nuns that Cardinal Cushing brought here every Wednesday afternoon knew, even while they were scoring the games. I grew up not knowing that you had to be a boy with a baseball glove under your pillow in order to know about baseball, or sports in general. I just did, because my family did and all of my friends did. I slept with a little [radio] crystal set under my pillow. I didn’t have a glove, because little girls in the 1950s didn’t do that.
Until I went into sports… I had already had another career; I had been in theatre, but I was getting older. In theater, just like in sports, when your body starts to give out you can’t do it anymore. The only other thing I knew was sports.
When you go into a business and all of a sudden you find out, after living half your life, that you’re hated on sight for being a female, it changes what you think. I don’t like to fail. I will fail, but I don’t like to fail and I don’t like people telling me “no” for no good reason. That is what this became for me.
I started with WFAN in 1987 and I got the job because the man who hired me thought I knew sports, I was funny, and I could talk. Then, all of a sudden, I have men around me changing my interviews with players to make me look like a fool, and I have them not putting me on the air. I got angry, and there was no way they were going to get rid of me. That’s who I am. George Steinbrenner once said to me, “You should write a book and it should be called, ‘She Shouldn’t have Succeeded, but She Did.’
I don’t like being told “no” for no reason. In theatre, you’re told “no” because they don’t want that voice, or you’re too old, or too fat, or too skinny. In theater, I could take that. But because I’m a female, I’m stupid? No. That I wasn’t going to take.
DL: Has New York been the perfect venue for you?
SW: Yes, absolutely. It’s not provincial in any way. I think it was the perfect place for me to break in. Everybody said things like, “Did you go to Omaha?”—no offense to Omaha or small cities—but I think I succeeded because it was New York. You have to have women and you have to have ethnicities—there are so many different kinds of people. Somebody is going to like you and take a chance on you.
DL: How have your broadcast partners impacted you?
SW: I think that John is a perfect partner for me, because he is really into play-by-play. He is an old-school broadcaster, and he’s really good at it. He doesn’t spend a lot of time with the players and coaches, and I do. I spend time talking to everybody and I love that part of it. I love the personal part of it, and he lets me do that, because it’s something he’s not that interested in. It makes for a perfect blend.
When I was doing television, Bobby Murcer was wonderful; Phil Rizzuto was wonderful with me; Tim McCarver was wonderful with me when I had to do stuff on Fox. Once you prove to whomever you’re with that you know your stuff, that becomes a given.
I know that I’m a personality. People like that or they don’t, but I love this game and I love what I’m doing. I think it comes out when I broadcast.