Suzyn Waldman first says it was OK but then immediately corrects herself — a habit potentially born from years of battling the death threats, the harassment and the ostracizing.
That iconic voice — the Boston accent that found its home in the Bronx — hardens with a twinge of defiance when she talks about the feces and bodily fluids sent to her in the mail. By her own description, she shuns mediocrity, doesn’t quit and hates to fail — that’s how she became a longtime radio voice for the Yankees — so when abuse rained down on her, Waldman braced herself and kept marching.
There were those angry, vile letters, the envelopes stuffed with used toilet paper and contraceptives. There were nights she feared for her life. And then there was the icy exclusion from her peers in sports media.
“It wasn’t OK, and I don’t know why I’m saying that [it was],” she said from her hotel in Tampa, another spring training done. “I had a freaking security detail for a solid year because people were trying to kill me . . . It was horrible. To this day, I’m nervous about everything.”
The front line can be a gruesome, suffocating place, but that’s where Waldman has lived for her entire media career.
Hers was the first voice ever heard on WFAN. She is the first woman to serve as a full-time, season-long color commentator for a major-league baseball team. In 2009, Waldman became the first woman to call a World Series game on the radio. Her microphone is enshrined in Cooperstown, and a generation of Yankees fans is growing up with her voice — heard alongside John Sterling since 2005 — on WFAN. For many, Waldman is the matriarch of Yankees baseball.
But still, even now, at 72 years old, “I’m tolerated,” she said, “not accepted.”
It was an immense undertaking to even be tolerated, and Waldman did not so much blaze a trail as hack away at one with a well-worn machete.
The former musical theater actress and lifelong baseball fan made a career change as she approached her 40s. After going back to school for broadcast journalism, she was hired to do updates by upstart WFAN in 1987. Immediately, she said, some higher-ups criticized her gender and her accent.
“It’s amazing to be middle-aged and realize that because you’re a female, they think you’re stupid,” she said. “I’d never seen it. [In theater], you’re either right or you’re wrong [for the part] . . . And I’d never seen hatred just because I was a female. I didn’t know what that was.”
Waldman said she was shipped to overnights in an attempt to get her to quit, but instead, overnight host Steve Somers taught her everything she needed to know about the medium. While the bigwigs at the station thought of ways to dissuade her, Waldman sought to make herself indispensable, she said. It was then that she offered to drive to the various arenas and stadiums —Yankees, Knicks, even Devils — to get sound bites.
Back then, Waldman explained, WFAN was beholden to reporters on the scene for their news updates, and those reporters generally would save the best stuff for the next day’s newspaper. Waldman decided to cut out the middle man and, along the way, she said, eventually became the first electronic beat reporter in the country. Necessity bred career survival, though just barely.
Soon she was covering the Yankees full-time and bearing the brunt of an environment hostile to both women and radio. Blue Jays outfielder George Bell infamously started screaming at her when he saw her in the clubhouse. Writers at the time hated that she could beat them to stories simply because her show aired overnight and newspapers didn’t come out until the next morning.
And then there were the letters.
“I used to get things in the mail at the FAN,” she said. “I would get used condoms in the mail. I got toilet paper with feces on it . . . They were really ugly and disgusting letters, the most vile stuff. You know, it’s not in cyberspace. It’s sitting in your hand. In 1989, it started really early. We got a lot of letters to the station, got letters to the stadium.”
George Steinbrenner, who had grown to respect Waldman, wouldn’t hear of it. She was getting death threats, and there were concerns that she would be stalked and hurt. He charged Yankees security with keeping her safe.
Bill Squires, then director of operations at Yankee Stadium and now operations consultant for the New York Giants, was in charge of security then and remembers the time well.
“I could see from the look in her eye that she was scared,” said Squires, who previously was a lieutenant commander for the Navy. “She was a strong woman, and there was no way she would come to me unless she was really, really scared . . . The big thing was making sure she got home safely. On occasion, we would have someone follow her to make sure she got home, because we were worried a stalker would follow her.”
Waldman said at times she would go to her car after a game and see that someone with the Yankees already had started it, “which meant to me they had gotten a letter,” she said. She got to know the cops from precincts near Shea and Yankee Stadium, and the stadiums were littered with undercover police officers. Squires said security sometimes would follow her in a car all the way upstate, though Waldman didn’t know it at the time.
She still grapples to understand it.
“Why would somebody want to kill me because I have a Boston accent and I’m a girl? Are you kidding me? I was terrified. It’s terrifying.”
While she dealt with that, WFAN still was trying to get rid of her, she said. In 1988, she said, the station began firing women and she was told she’d lose her job after the World Series. New York, however, was the first state to ban discrimination based on gender — back in 1945 — and Waldman took it to her union. The women who were fired got payouts, she said. Waldman just asked for her job back.
At the ballpark, newspaper reporters stopped speaking to her, she said, and Steinbrenner — despite their relationship — still excluded her from things, including the Christmas luncheon with all the beat writers. More than a party, it was a prime opportunity to get information from the don of Yankees baseball.
In an effort to get invited to future male-only dinners, an annoyed Waldman sent Steinbrenner a letter showing that more people listened to her spot than read all of the local tabloid sports sections. She demanded an interview as recompense and got one during spring training. Steinbrenner’s secretary said she had Xeroxed Waldman’s letter and given one to every woman in the building.
“I walked in and [Steinbrenner] said, ‘Now what do you want?’ ” Waldman said.
“’Well, let me tell you something, woman,” Waldman recalled him saying. “’I don’t like women cops. I don’t like women firefighters. I don’t like women in the military. And I don’t like women in sports. I like women to look pretty and spend my money.’ And I said, ‘OK, I can do that.’ And then I took out my tape recorder and I said, ‘I want to talk about the roster.’ ”
“He started laughing and we sat down, and we talked about everything. He was just awesome. He was testing me . . . George liked people to spar with him, I think.”
The shadow slowly started to lift. Waldman was covering the 1989 World Series between the Athletics and Giants in San Francisco during the earthquake. Phone lines went down everywhere, but Waldman’s didn’t, and she did what she did best: She talked on the radio, all while Candlestick Park shook around her. While most reporters left, she remained in San Francisco for days, reporting and helping people reach loved ones. She won an International Radio Award and the respect of some of her peers.
Then and now, in the booth with Sterling, she chooses to focus on the story over the stats. Some fans love it, others don’t; she stands by it.
“It’s the humanity, that’s what I wanted to bring,” Waldman said. “Why do people take their little children to games? They want them to feel what they felt when they were sitting there [watching] with their mother or their grandfather or their father.”
In 1994, she became the play-by-play person for WPIX’s Yankees telecasts — again, more uproar. In 1996, she battled breast cancer, and along with it, a legion of well-meaning men who suggested that maybe she should just stop for a while.
“If you have breast cancer, men want you to go away,” she said wryly. “I remember thinking at the time, Marv Levy had prostate cancer and nobody told him to stop coaching the Bills ever. But when people found out I was sick, it was like, ‘All right, sweetheart, come back when you feel better.’ ”
BLAZING TRAIL FOR OTHERS
She worked through the cancer and the chemo and now she’s here — a world in which she’s no longer the only one but will always be one of the first. There are more women in locker rooms everywhere, but not everything has changed. “The problems are different,” Waldman said, “but they’re still there.”
Jessica Mendoza is blazing her own trail on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, and the online detractors are many. Sarah Kustok, with the Nets, is the first solo female basketball analyst. They all fight different battles for legitimacy.
“The fact that [Waldman] went through all that . . . it’s mind-blowing,” said Mendoza, who remembers marveling at the female voice the first time she heard Waldman. “Who do you even tell when [that abuse] happens? Who can do anything? I deal with a lot, but nothing comparatively. I have allies now, but in that day and age, they’d say, you’re a woman, now get out.
“I bow to her, because thank God. Thank God she stayed. Thank God she fought. It’s not for the weak-willed or weak-minded, and thank you for doing it.”
Waldman doesn’t want anyone to follow in her footsteps, she said. She wants women to reach their own summits.
When she hears girls and women say they want to be her, “I [say], no, because if you’re me, that means I’m not here and there’s only one of us. If you’d be you, then there’s two of us,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to be shaped by me. I want someone to know that they can do whatever they want because I did it, or Claire Smith did it or Lesley Visser did it or Christine Brennan did it.”
“Follow your own path.”