George Steinbrenner is not known for his reticence with the
press. Yet for the first two years that Suzyn Waldman covered
the New York Yankees as a beat reporter for WFAN sports radio,
the team's principal owner wouldn't give her time for an
extended interview. Waldman was also snubbed by the Yankees by
not being invited to the annual luncheon the team had for beat
reporters at New York City's "21" club.
So Waldman sent an overnight letter to Steinbrenner at his
office in Tampa. She pointed out that more people heard her
daily reports on the highly rated Mike and the Mad Dog show than
read the local sports pages, and she included a breakdown of the
advertising rates the station received for her spots. "I'm
coming down to Tampa next Wednesday, and I expect an interview,"
the missive concluded.
In his office the next week, Steinbrenner bluntly told Waldman
that he was not thrilled about women covering sports. "That's
too bad," Waldman responded. Then she began asking questions.
She's still asking. Eight years later Waldman, 50, is the most
senior reporter on the Yankees' beat, having been with the team
from Lou Piniella to Joe Torre, through seven managerial
changes. Last year she joined the Yankees' television
play-by-play starting rotation, becoming the only woman
currently broadcasting baseball and one of the few color
commentators who didn't play the game professionally.
Over the past decade Waldman has covered everything at Yankee
Stadium except the national anthem. Actually, once in a while
she even does that, singing The Star-Spangled Banner before a
game. That's because before she walked the Yankees' beat in the
Bronx, Waldman had a successful run a world (and 14 subway
stops) away, on Broadway, where she appeared in leading roles in
musicals such as Man of La Mancha, Nine and No, No, Nanette.
Waldman was not your typical actress, however. A once-rabid Red
Sox fan who attended her first game at Fenway Park at age three,
the Newton, Mass., native could keep score at age four. Later,
in the 1970s, when she was traveling with road companies of
musicals, she would pass the time before her evening
performances by going to the ballpark, often singing the
national anthem in return for admission to the game.
One afternoon in 1979 in Minneapolis, while awaiting her cue in
the visitors' dugout at Metropolitan Stadium, Waldman struck up
a conversation with the not usually gregarious Red Sox
outfielder Jim Rice. She was curious how he was adapting to the
steady diet of off-speed pitching the American League had been
feeding him. Former Los Angeles Dodger Wes Parker, who was
working for NBC as a broadcaster, overheard the discussion and
asked Waldman if she had ever considered a career as a sports
reporter. "I'd never seen Wes Parker before, and I haven't seen
him since," says Waldman, sitting at her regular WFAN perch in
the front row of the Yankee Stadium press box during a recent
afternoon game. "But the man changed my life."
Shortly after that, Waldman auditioned for the lead in Evita, by
composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. "He told me that I was going to
have to take the tone out of my voice," she says as she fills in
an at bat on her scorecard. "The star of the show was becoming
the music, not the girl." Pince-nez glasses hang from her neck.
"I told him 'Thank you very much. Now, I guess I've got to find
something else to do with my life.'"
Spurred by the coincidental "collaboration" of Parker and Lloyd
Webber, Waldman enrolled in a broadcasting course while she
supported herself with cabaret gigs and commercials. She was
hired to do quarter-hour updates for a new, all-sports radio
station, WFAN, when it went on the air in New York City on July
Her distinctive voice was not initially appreciated in the radio
business, either. "Get that broad with the Boston accent off my
afternoon drive time," were the instructions from an executive
of WFAN's corporate parent at the time, Emmis Broadcasting.
Waldman was moved to the overnight shift in hopes she would
quit, but she didn't. About a year later, the station manager
asked Waldman what she wanted to do. Realizing that studio work
was not her forte, she volunteered to cover the Yankees as well
as the New York Knicks.
Early on Waldman experienced predictable difficulties with some
players, reporters and listeners. The mail brought letters
asking her whom she had slept with to get her job, packages of
condoms and even death threats. For a while a security guard
accompanied Waldman as she walked through Yankee Stadium.
"Everyone in this locker room realizes what Suzyn has gone
through and what she must have had to put up with," says Yankees
pitcher David Cone. "It hasn't been easy for her."
Radio fits Waldman's unapologetically emotional approach to
reporting. Her daily dispatches, delivered at an animated,
rapid-fire pace, are peppered with colorful statements such as,
"That kid pitched his little heart out." She says she tries to
give listeners a sense of the players as people and of how their
personalities affect their performance as professionals. "I know
this man so well, and I know that man so well," she says,
pointing to the Yankees aligned defensively on the field.
"That's something different I can bring."
In 1995 television took notice of Waldman. The Baseball Network
tapped her for three broadcasts, making her the first woman to
announce a nationally televised game. That winter, New York
City's WPIX/Channel 11 signed her to work 13 Yankees games
during the 1996 season. Things couldn't have been better for
Waldman. Then doctors found a cancerous tumor in her breast.
Surgery soon followed. Spring training was just weeks away. "I
wasn't going to give up," she says. "I worked too hard for that
shot on television." She decided she was going to try to return
to work. "They were going to have to cart me away. I was going
to have to die for me not to be on the air." When she arrived at
the Yankees' complex in Tampa, a number of players and coaches
welcomed her back with hugs.
During the first half of the '96 season Waldman underwent
chemotherapy. She had to give herself daily injections to
maintain her white blood cell count. The Yankees stored her
medicine in the clubhouse, on charter flights and in press boxes
around the league. Her hands often shook and she suffered from
constant nausea. "There wasn't a day in six months when I wasn't
worried about throwing up or passing out," she says.
Nevertheless, Waldman persevered through the daily grind of an
entire baseball schedule, including the Yankees' postseason
play. She only occasionally missed games. After the Yankees won
the World Series, she went through a course of radiation.
"Suzyn was like an injured athlete getting her body ready for
the game," remembers John Sterling, the Yankees' radio
play-by-play announcer. "It was amazing how she was able to
answer the bell."
"She has great courage," says Steinbrenner, now a supporter of
hers. He has closely observed her battle to establish herself as
a reporter and then to overcome cancer. "Suzyn is fearless." Her
doctors believe the cancer is now gone.
This year Waldman is doing 25 Yankees games on the Madison
Square Garden cable network as part of a rotating crew of
announcers that includes former major leaguers Jim Kaat, Ken
Singleton and Bobby Murcer. Waldman handles the color
commentary. Her contribution is magnified because the Yankees
produce so much behind-the-scenes, off-the-field news. (Some
might say a theater background is good preparation for covering
the soap opera created by Steinbrenner.)
These days Waldman's mail brings mostly letters from her fans,
including many young women and girls interested in being
sportscasters. Waldman says she often telephones them with
encouragement, sometimes even critiquing tapes that they send in.
"Don't let them tell you no," she counsels aspiring Suzyn
Waldmans. "If they say no, don't believe them. It's all about
sticking it out. If you think you can do it, don't let anyone
laugh at you. There shouldn't be some six-year-old girl out
there thinking she can't be an announcer because 'women can't do
Waldman knows how far she has come in 10 years. She says, "Now
when I get letters from fans who disagree with me, they no
longer say 'You're a stupid woman.' They just say 'You're wrong.'"
John Solomon, a freelancer in New York City, is a frequent
contributor to SI.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN In the booth at Yankee Stadium, Waldman and Kaat share duties on the rotating TV broadcast team. [Suzyn Waldman and Jim Kaat]
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE KALINSKY Waldman still belts out the national anthem on occasion. [Suzyn Waldman singing]