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Content with retirement and shying from praise, John Sterling reflects on his illustrious career



Speaking from his apartment in Edgewater, New Jersey, John Sterling starts going off a tangent.

“There’s an old British actor named Arthur Treacher,” he told The Daily News earlier this week. “He used to have a fish and chips thing.”

The two-sentence, incomplete biography seemingly comes out of nowhere, but Sterling isn’t done quite yet. After a brief pause, he continues: “Anyway, Arthur Treacher was in a whole lot of movies. He summed up what he did, and it sums up what I do.

“Treacher said, ‘I come, I hit my marks, I say my lines, I take my money, and I go home.’”

This is Sterling’s way of saying that he doesn’t want to make a fuss over his retirement, which he announced Monday. Or his legendary run as the radio voice of the Yankees, which began in 1989 and covered over 5,600 games. Or how his broadcasting career, which has spanned 64 years, came to be.

For all the color he provided with his quirky home run calls, unmistakable voice and boisterous broadcasts, “I don’t analyze too well,” the now former play-by-play man says of his life.

“If you want to sum it up, I’m very lucky,” the 85-year-old said before adding, “I don’t make as much out of things. I just do it and then leave.”

***

Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Sterling loved the Yankees. He used to play sports and attend games whenever he could. But he had passions outside of athletics.

He remembers desperately wanting to watch a baseball game one day as a young kid, but his sister and mother “dragged” him to a production of Kiss Me, Kate.

“Cole Porter’s greatest score,” Sterling now says. “I totally fell in love. I love music. I love melody, and I don’t know how you could find a better show. And then, because I had a love for it, I started seeing I was in the Golden Era. Guys and Dolls and South Pacific and on and on and on.

“I’ve never gotten over it.”

Sterling’s reverence for Broadway would go on to impact how he called a game, which he always did with a performative streak. The fancy suits he donned were his wardrobe. The booth served as his stage.

Yet Sterling never considered an acting career. His other love, radio, had a stronger hold on him.

Between ages nine and 11 — so long ago that he can’t fully remember — Sterling determined that his future would be on the air. He came to this realization pre-puberty, he notes, before his booming baritone developed.

While sports broadcasts influenced those ambitions, Sterling said something else set him on his path.

“The radio was on and this announcer says: ‘Live from Hollywood, it’s The Eddie Bracken Show,’” Sterling recalled before humming the show’s tune. “Well, I didn’t want to be Eddie Bracken. I wanted to be that guy with the voice.”

Sterling said that his pursuit of a broadcasting career “saved” him. He called himself a “terrible student,” but he never worried about school because he knew what he wanted to do.

Believe it or not, the Yankees had nothing to do with his original dream job.

“I really wanted to be a disc jockey at WNEW AM, which was then a great station,” Sterling said. “Kind of the darling of Madison Avenue.”

Sterling landed his first job at 21 and worked as a DJ until hosting a talk show in Baltimore in the 1960s. Other gigs, including play-by-play opportunities in Baltimore, followed before Sterling began hosting a show for WMCA in New York in 1971. From there, Sterling lent his voice to Islanders and Nets games while also doing pregame host work before Yankees broadcasts.

Sterling then headed to Atlanta, where he hosted a show and called the Braves and Hawks. In 1987, however, he returned to New York as a guest host on WFAN. That’s where he met the pioneering Suzyn Waldman, his future broadcast partner.

Her first impression? “This is a really interesting human being,” Waldman said.

Sterling took over as the Yankees’ radio voice in 1989. He missed two games that season after his sister, Jane, died. From there, he trounced Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games streak, calling 5,058 contests without an absence until 2019.

“I had an incredible run,” Sterling said, but “I never thought of it like that. ‘Oh, I gotta go add to the record.’ Nah, that’s my job. I’m supporting my family and that’s what I do.”

Still, the Yankees and their fans haven’t known anything else for decades. Which is why, despite Sterling’s attempts to downplay the significance of his retirement, he will be honored before Saturday’s game against the Rays in the Bronx.

“There will never be another one,” said Waldman, who spent two decades in the booth alongside Sterling. “There’ll never be another person like that. To have that kind of love for a team and that kind of love for his fanbase — I hope Saturday that everybody shows him that because there’s three generations who know nothing about Yankee baseball except for John Sterling.”

***

Travel had gotten tougher for Sterling in recent years, and he planned on doing fewer road games this season prior to announcing his retirement. Even before the campaign began, he had toyed with walking away.

Then, during the Yankees’ season-opening road trip to Houston and Arizona, Sterling realized he simply didn’t want to do it at all anymore while chatting with Aaron Boone.

“I was talking with Boonie and he said, ‘How are you?’” Sterling said. “And I said, ‘I’m starting to feel my age.’ And he said, ‘Well, you’re old.’ So this has been on my mind to do for a while, and I figured what am I waiting for?

“I think you’d agree with me: It’s enough.”

Sterling added that “If I was smarter — which I’m certainly not — I would have announced it March 1 or March 15.”

The Yankees’ failure to make the playoffs last season left Sterling with extra free time over the offseason, planting another seed for this decision. “I loved it!” said Sterling, who is looking forward to being able to do “what I want every single day.”

He considers himself “a tremendous loner” who can entertain himself with ease, but his plans will consist of finally being able to sleep in late, fine dining with family and the scribes he’s come to know, and watching lots of games on the two-screen setup he has at home.

Sterling also has a daughter that he wants to walk down the aisle in a year. His other children recently graduated college.

“I don’t want him to be tired,” Waldman said. “I want him to be able to see his kids get married and have kids. It’s very important.”

One factor Sterling did not consider when retiring is health.

“None,” he emphatically replied when asked what role it played. “Health had absolutely no concern. I just came back from a doctor’s visit and all the numbers were excellent. I am 85.5. But anyway, that’s gonna be whispered. What can I do about it? I can’t stop what people are gonna say. But the answer is no.”

Outside of reports on his health, people have mostly said kind things about Sterling since he stepped away from the microphone.

Boone labeled him a “giant in the industry.” Aaron Judge called him “a big part of the game.” Others, including Derek Jeter and fellow media icons, tweeted tributes, broadcasted impressions and shared their favorite memories.

“I’m bummed out about it, sad about it, but certainly just want him to be in a good spot and healthy moving forward,” Boone said. “I know that obviously this is the right time and the best thing for John. He’ll be forever connected to the Yankees.”

Sterling said he plans on watching or listening to every Yankees and Mets game going forward, but he doesn’t think he’ll come around Yankee Stadium much after Saturday’s ceremony. He has a message planned for Yankees fans, which he will deliver from the field.

Even with a speech prepared, he finds this week’s outpouring of support hard to believe. Unnecessary even.

“It’s very flattering to say, ‘Oh, they’re gonna miss me.’ But believe me, everyone is replaceable,” Sterling said, citing Johnny Carson as an example.

Others, of course, have a different take.

“Nothing will ever be the same,” Waldman said. “It can’t be. Life goes on and we all go on, but nothing will be the same.”

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