You have to believe that when Yogi Berra’s memorial service is said, it can’t be your typical funeral surrounded by misery and gloom. There will be tears, but they will be tears of laughter at what Berra, who passed away at 90 last night said in his time. He was one of those guys like Harry Caray and Phil Rizzuto who were just such lovable and funny men you couldn’t really be gloomy at their funeral, once the initial surprise at their passing had been felt.
He was born Lawrence Peter Berra, and as late as the 1949 World Series the Brooklyn public address announcer Tex Ricard introduced him as larry Berra. The nickname Yogi came from his American Legion baseball days. He had the habit of sitting with arms and legs crossed, both while waiting his turn to hit or after a lost game. A boyhood friend, Bobby Hofman said he looked like a Hindu yogi. The nickname stuck, with everybody except Tex Rickard.
Berra grew up on the same block in St. Louis with Joe Garagiola, and later in life Jack Buck would live on that block, which is now known as Hall of Fame Place.
Berra could always hit, but early on his defense could have used the Navy slogan “Not just a job, an adventure.” In the minors, he threw to second and hit the umpire. Thing is, in the minors there is no second base umpire, so he hit one of the other umps with a spectacularly off target toss. Former Yankee catcher and Hall of Famer Bill Dickey taught him the finer points of catching, and Berra who was known for saying funny things said in total seriousness, “I owe everything I did in baseball to Bill Dickey.” He wore his mentor’s uniform number 8, which the Yankees retired in honor of both Hall of Fame catchers. His 14 World Series and 10 World Series wins are records that will never be broken. One of his notable records came in his first World Series in 1947. In game 3, he hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history. Considering the first fall classic had been held in 1903, this fact is that much more surprising. He led the team in RBIS 7 years running, from 1949 to 1955, amazing considering all the great hitters the Yankees could boast in that period. The most famous Berra baseball moment as a player is known to all fans. After Don Larson struck out Dale Mitchell to end his perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Berra jumped into a celebratory hug with the much larger Larson. The film is shown with Bob Wolf’s radio call dubbed in, since no recording of Mel Allen and Vin Scully describing the event on TV is known to exist.
Jim Bouton played during Berra’s last two playing seasons (1962 and 1963,) and his year of managing the Yankees, 1964. Bouton has funny stories about everybody but some of the funniest are about Berra. Bouton tells of being in a car with Berra and some other Yankees. One said “We’re lost,” to which Yogi said “But we’re makin’ good time.” Bouton says Berra would be asked the time and he’d say “Right now?” I started saying that when I bought the watch I now wear. It has to be opened so I can read the braille numbers inside, and the action to open it is tricky to work. So when my former wife, (who owned a good six watches,) asked me what time it was roughly a dozen times a day, I’d go Yogi and say “Right now,” while trying to work the action on my watch. Bouton’s funniest Yogi story of all is about a bus ride to the airport in Chicago after the Yanks had blown a doubleheader. Yogi was managing by then. Bouton’s good friend Phil Linz, Yankee infielder had bought a harmonica and started playing the only song he knew, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He must have had the same effect on Yogi that I had on my friends at camp when I played the Oscar Mayer Weiner song, the only song I knew on my harmonica. Yogi told Linz to quit playing. Says Bouton, Linz didn’t hear Yogi and asked what he said, to which Mickey Mantle informed him Yogi wanted him to play louder.” This Linz did, prompting Yogi to tell Linz to shove the harmonica up his —. A scuffle ensued and the harmonica was knocked out of Linz’ hand. Stories like this one which weren’t usually printed by the media at the time, appeared in Bouton’s book “Ball Four,” and got Bouton banned from Yankee Old Timers’ Day” for decades.
The Mets were eager to grab Yogi as a coach after the Yankees fired him following a losing World Series in 1964. He coached until the sudden death of Gil Hodges in spring training of 1972, after which Yogi was named manager. The 1973 season gave birth to the most famous Yogiism of them all, and there are more than you can count. Yogi himself said of them, “I never said half the things I said.” This one he never denied. With the Mets in last, a reporter asked if the race was over, to which he responded, “it ain’t over till it’s over.” That phrase has lasted ever since, while in the immediate pennant race Tug McGraw’s phrase “Ya Gotta Believe,” was on every lip on the 7 subway line leading to Shea Stadium. The Mets won the eastern division, then beat the Reds to make their second World Series, which they lost in 7 games to Oakland. Berra lasted as Mets manager until August, 1975. From 1976 to 1983 he coached for the Yankees, managed them in 1984 and for the first 16 games of 1985. After a 6-10 start in those 16 games, not even 10% of the 162-game season, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner broke his promise not to fire Berra before the end of the season. Worse than that, he sent one of his executives Clyde King to do the firing. Yogi would have nothing to do with the Yankees until 1999, when Steinbrenner went to New Jersey to apologize. As fate would have it, when Berra did return to Yankee Stadium with Don Larson, Yankee pitcher David Cone threw a perfect game, the third in Yankee history after Larson and David Wells.
Listening to sports radio today, you hear story after story of Yogi Berra the Regular Guy, so different from today’s players. A Jersey store owner tells of Yogi coming in, talking to him, buying some of his product and leaving. Another man tells of almost catching a foul ball at Shea, and Yogi saying to him “You dropped it.” This was when Yogi was a Mets coach. Today’s superstars would send somebody out to get what they need, and not even acknowledge somebody’s attempt to catch a foul ball no matter how good the attempt was. When Yogi played, players were working men. My brother-in-law was driving home from work one night in the 1980’s. He saw a gold Lincoln Continental with “Yogi” on the license plate, in front of him on the New Jersey Turnpike. He saw Yogi’s wife Carmen driving the car, and Yogi with another man in the back of the car.
My brother-in-law said Yogi’s “little bald head” was unmistakable. His point was, there was no chauffeur-driven limo for Larry Berra.
His Yogiisms will be the most lasting part of his legacy. His book “When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It,” came from him giving directions to his New Jersey home to his boyhood chum Joe Garagiola. The most poignant Yogiism I know was said of his old teammate Phil Rizzuto. The Scooter was near death, and his old catcher said of him “The last time I saw Phil, he wasn’t there.” Now both Phil and Yogi are there, and Baseball Heaven is a funnier place. R I P0
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