Besides all his countless sports records and accomplishments, New York Yankee Yogi Berra was a lovable person, loved by millions of people who never even met him. I should know. I’m one of them. I lived close to where he worked.
Yogi Berra was a remarkable player, coach, personality, an every man. He succeeded with roughly an eight-grade education, a poor boy from the “Dago Hill” section of St. Louis. He was a man who captured the hearts and imagination of even many fans who hated his beloved New York Yankees.
I write about Yogi from childhood experience. I grew up a Yankee fan, living on a hill in a neighborhood called Highbridge, which overlooked the old Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx. This was an experience I have previously written about in these pages, thanks to the efforts of my Irish partner, Liam Judge. ( http://gregorybresiger.com/whats-wrong-with-baseball-part-iii/ )
Growing up near what some have called “the Big Ball Yard in the South Bronx,” I began going to Yankee games as a skinny little boy back in the late 1950s. I saw Yogi toward the conclusion of his playing career, which ended with the Yankees in 1963 (Later, as a coach with the New York Mets, he would make a few pinch hitting appearances in 1965).
Much has been written about Yogi’s quirkiness; about his ability to hit in the clutch. He was an incredible World Series performer, who was as comfortable hitting in Yankee Stadium as he was in Ebbets Field, the home of the “Boys of Summer.” They were the fabled post World War II Brooklyn Dodgers, whose legend grows with every passing year as does their rivalry with the great New York Yankees of the 1940s and 1950s.
The Dodgers—affectionately known to their fans the “Dem Bums”—met the Yankees some seven times in the World Series between 1941 and 1956. But only once were the Dodgers able to defeat the Yankees, the miraculous year for Dodger fans, 1955. The Yankees had Yogi on all those teams save in 1941. I could cite countless statistics to prove Yogi’s greatness, but why do so? You’ve probably already read or heard all of them.
However, to have 10 World Series championship rings, as Yogi did, is still, to me, the greatest record. It not only required that Yogi—the starting catcher and later left fielder for the Yankees in the period between 1946 and 1963—was great, which he was, but that he was also lucky. Yogi always seemed to have a lot of commonsense combined with luck.
After all, this was a man who survived the D-Day invasions on June 6, 1944—and the Americans had the worse of it in the beaches they had to take—and he was also a man who could make a brilliant business decision that enriched him probably much more than the money he made when ballplayers were underpaid. Yoo-Hoo, a chocolate milk drink, once asked him to endorse the product.
“How do you want to be paid, Yogi, with a fee or in stock?” Yogi took the stock. He whooped it up for Yoo-Hoo. He told everyone to drink it. The product took off. Yogi made a bundle. Not bad for a guy without a high school diploma.
But then good things always seemed to happen to Yogi. A former teammate and later Yankee manager, the mercurial but brilliant Billy Martin, once noted that nothing bad could happen to the Yankees. Why? Yogi was seating across from him as a coach.
Why were so many people drawn to this magical little man?
I think Yogi was the everyman who soared. He was the guy who was diligent and lucky. He was also selfless and lucky. Let’s take his diligence first. He came to the Yankees in 1946, a raw rookie catcher with lots of holes in his game behind the plate. As a left handed hitter, he had a wonderful power stroke to right field, something that the Yankees could see could be a great advantage in a ballpark that was biased in favor of left handers. He was possibly the best bad ball hitter I ever saw. He practically golfed balls in the dirt into the right field seats, which were nearby.
The original Yankee Stadium was built in 1923. The Yankees had just been shown the door by the New York Giants, who were upset that their tenant, the up and coming Yankees, were starting to outdraw them at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan with a player called Babe Ruth. So Yankee Stadium, which was built across the Harlem River in the Bronx, was constructed in a way to help Babe Ruth hit even more homers.
But there was one problem back in 1946 when Yogi came to the majors: He was a butcher as a catcher. Still, the Yankees wanted that great Yogi bat in the lineup. So they had another great Yankee number eight—catcher and later coach Bill Dickey—tutor Yogi; getting his footwork and play calling ability just right. Yogi was a good student who worked hard. And, thanks to the coaching of the great Dickey, a member of the Yankees Murders Row lineup of 1927, Yogi became a very good catcher.
By the 1950s, Yogi was not only hitting up a storm, he had earned multiple MVPs. He wasn’t just doing it with the bat: He had become one of the better catchers in the game. But time came for an act of selflessness. Yogi, in mid career in the 1950s, agreed to switch positions because it would help the team.
The Yankees had been very late to integrate. The general manager of the Yankees—a brilliant but unlovable man called George Weiss—unfortunately believed that Yankee fans would never accept blacks wearing the pinstripes (Myopic policies like that would contribute to the Yankees downfall in 1965 and a decade of mediocrity, something that would delight Yankee haters).
Finally, Weiss reluctantly integrated the club with the great Elston Howard. He was a catcher who was better defensively than Yogi, although Yogi was slightly better than Ellie as a hitter. (By the way, Ellie Howard was a remarkable athlete and human being who could virtually play every position on the diamond. He had come from the Negro Leagues, where versatility was required. Negro League teams often existed on shoe-string budgets. They couldn’t afford a lot of players. As the first black Yankee, Ellie Howard carried a tremendous burden, not as big as what the great Jack Roosevelt Robinson carried or what the great Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians carried, but it was big enough).
What to do about Ellie and Yogi? Each major league team carried two or three catchers, but you could only have one starting catcher. So who would start?
Yogi, without a peep of compliant, learned how to play left field. Now the Yankees had both great bats in their lineup, which helped balance it and make it more effective. Yogi batted left. Ellie batted right. Yogi and Ellie would win four championships together. But was there tension between Ellie and Yogi? After all, in today’s game, with player agents and long term contracts, players who lose their jobs can go ballistic.
There was no tension. Actually the opposite would develop in the Berra-Howard relationship.
Writes Willie Randolph, a terrific Yankee second baseman of the 1970s and 80s, Ellie and Yogi “bonded.” They had a lifelong friendship that comes of two men who played the same position and wore the same uniform.
“Yogi,” wrote Randolph in the New York Post on September 24th “was always with Elston Howard. They were like twins. They were always together. And I loved Elston just as much as I loved Yogi. If you were talking to Elston, Yogi was right next to him.”
Selfless, diligence and friendship for everyone, these were the characteristics of the wonderful Yogi Berra. He was an immortal baseball player who actually became something greater than a Baseball Hall of Famer.