Article courtesy of Pine Island Ridge Post, November 2015-Page 8
“It Ain’t Over to It’s Over” was one of numerous statements (Yogi-isms) attributed to Yogi Berra. He supposedly said this when he was manager of the Mets in 1973 when they came from last place to first place during the last month of the season as they went on to reach the World Series. Well we will now apply that statement to the beloved and iconic catcher of the New York Yankees who died September 22 at the age of 90. All the Sports world and beyond mourned his death as President Obama said, “Yogi Berra was an American original and we’ll miss him.” New York’s Cardinal Dolan presided over his funeral Mass at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Montclair, New Jersey, his home and the church where he attended Mass with his family for many years. The immensely popular Berra was so well known that Sports Illustrated and The New York Times published separate magazines about his life soon after he died.
Mayor Bill DeBlasio of New York City declared two days of mourning for Yogi as all flags were flown at half-staff. Berra touched so many lives, including an incident that occurred in The Big Apple years ago. Yogi was at a reception for Mayor John Lindsay at Gracie Mansion (mayor’s Manhattan home) on a very hot day as the mayor’s wife Mary told Yogi “You certainly look cool.” Berra responded, “You don’t look so hot yourself.”
Lawrence Peter Berra was one of five children born to Italian immigrant parents in St. Louis in 1925. He got his nickname growing up when his friends nicknamed him Yogi because he looked like a yogi from India because he often sat with his arms and legs folded. He was a good athlete who did well in many sports, but baseball was his passion. He wasn’t a good student so he quit school at the age of 14 and got a job to support his family as he pursued his dream of being a major leaguer. He grew up with his lifelong friend and fellow catcher, Joe Garagiola. Berra was very upset when Branch Rickey and the St. Louis Cardinals selected Garagiola over him in 1942. Later that year the Yankees signed him to a $500 bonus. Garagiola played nine years in the majors, and went on to become very successful as a very funny baseball sportscaster and TV personality.
Yogi was in the Navy for two years and took part in D-Day at the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. He was 19 and one of six sailors along with a commanding officer on a Landing Craft Support boat (LCS.) The purpose of the LCS was to spray bullets with machine guns at the heavily fortified Omaha Beach to protect the Allied troops that were landing to overtake the German troops stationed there. Berra was grazed by a bullet from a German machine gun, earning him a Purple Heart. He never applied for it because he didn’t want to worry his mother.
He broke in with the Yankees in 1946 with a home run in his first at bat for the start of his 19-year Hall of Fame career as arguably the best catcher of all-time.
Bobby Brown, who I met at a 2014 baseball convention in Houston, Texas told the following story. He and Berra were roommates with the Yankees and the third baseman Brown was studying to be a doctor so he was always studying his medical text. Meanwhile Yogi was always reading comic books so one night each was reading when Brown was ready to go to bed. Berra spent a few more minutes finishing his comic book and as he was ready to turn out the light he said to Brown, “Gee that was a good one. How did your’s turn out?”
Yogi was a left-handed bad ball hitter who never struck out more than 40 times in a season. Casey Stengel, his manager for 12 seasons, said “I never had a player who had a better understanding what a team needed to win.” Stengel had him work with coach Bill Dickey, the Yankee Hall of Fame catcher. It worked as Dickey helped improve his defensive skills as Yogi became adept at handling the pitching staff as well as throwing out runners trying to steal. Berra had a 49% rate , which was better than the American League rate of 45%.
Both Dickey and Berra wore the number 8 so years ago when I was a tour guide at the old Yankee Stadium I would point this out when I showed visitors Monument Park. Yogi played on the most championship teams, having been on 10 championships while appearing in 14 World Series. The highlight was catching Don Larsen’s Perfect Game in the 1956 Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He went on to become a coach in five World Series and managed the Yanks and the Mets to the 1964 and 1973 World Series, respectively. He was also a three-time American League MVP for one of the most illustrious careers ever.
George Steinbrenner became the Yankees owner in the early ‘70s and hired Berra as manager in 1985. He was fired after just 16 games. Steinbrenner never told Berra directly, upsetting Yogi so much, that he vowed he would never have anything to do with Steinbrenner’s Yankees, which lasted for the next fourteen years. It took Yankees radio announcer, Suzyn Waldman to arrange a meeting at Yogi’s Museum in Montclair that finally brought them together. Steinbrenner apologized and Yogi once again was part of the annual Old Timer reunion at the Stadium and Spring Training in Tampa.
Yogi was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1972. During his induction speech he intentionally led off with a Yogi-ism by stating, “I guess the first thing I should do is thank everybody who made this day necessary.” He returned faithfully for many years, including for his teammate and good friend, Phil Rizzuto’s induction in 1994. He along with all the Hall of Famers present, was seated behind Rizzuto as he gave one of the funniest speeches ever. Rizzuto rambled on with many anecdotes throughout his talk, telling the Hall of Famers they could leave anytime they wanted. All of a sudden near the end of his presentation, two of them got up and walked out! It was Johnny Bench and Yogi and it was a joke as they returned soon after. Yogi was very close to Phil and visited him everyday when he was dying.
It should be noted that Yogi was well respected for his baseball knowledge as evidenced at this year’s induction. Craig Biggio, was one of four inductees, and he had a 20-year career with the Houston Astros. Yogi was a coach with them when Biggio broke in and during his speech he called Yogi the smartest baseball person he ever met!
Yogi loved to talk to opposing players and umpires when he was catching. Most of them enjoyed it, but at times it could be a distraction and a problem. Once when Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians, and the American League’s first black player, told the umpire as he was about to bat, “Please tell him to shut up!”Cal Hubbard, a Hall of Fame umpire, once was behind the plate and the Yankees were playing. Berra kept complaining about his calls so Hubbard told him, “ No sense in both of us umpiring the game, but since I’m being paid to do it and you’re not, it breaks my heart, but the guy who has to go is you.” Berra never said another word.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Yogi speak at a function in White Plains, New York where they were honoring his former teammate and friend, Elston Howard. Elston, the first black player on the Yanks had passed away so when Yogi got up to speak he got very emotional and couldn’t continue. Yogi’s wife Carmen went up to the microphone and finished his speech. This was one example of how Carmen was always there for Yogi.
I will conclude this tribute with a statement from the baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred. “Yogi Berra’s talent, courage and inimitable way with words made him a universal beloved figure in baseball and beyond.”
Author of: Induction Day at Cooperstown-A History of the Baseball Hall of Fame Ceremony
I can be reached at [email protected] or 954-533-6242 / 914- 769-8819