FAREWELL, YOGI—A Paean to Yogi Berra
by Mike Silverstein
I [Rebecca] received this article in my inbox, along with this note:
Homer lost one of his idols, and one of his favorite people today. He lost the guy who watched the most famous baseball in Pittsburgh sports history sail over the left field wall of Forbes Field. He lost a man who lived a wonderful life.
Even though this blog is dedicated to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Yogi Berra transcended sports. If you need a hook to hang it on, I guess you can say that his son Tim played against the Steelers. Tim Berra returned kicks and played wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts in the early 1970’s.
Sports may be the sandbox of life. It’s the place we go for a little fun and relaxation. We go there in search of happiness. Occasionally, we may meet people or learn lessons that enrich our lives. Lawrence Peter Berra brought happiness and enriched the lives of countless millions of people.
I got up early this morning, and drove Katie to the dog park a little earlier than usual, because Pope Francis is in town and I wanted to beat whatever traffic there might be in advance of the street closures in my neighborhood. (As I write this, the Pope is three blocks away)
It was when I got in the car and turned on the radio that I got the news that Yogi had died.
The news was sad, but the juxtaposition of the Papal visit and Yogi’s death brought a smile to my face. You see, there’s story about Yogi meeting the Pope. It seems there’s always a story about the most universally beloved baseball player who ever lived.
Yogi and his wife Carmen were in Vatican City and had an gained an audience with Pope John XXIII.
“Hello, Pope,” said Yogi, upon meeting the Pontiff.
“Hello, Yogi,” answered His Holiness.
Like another famous Italian-American who also lived in New Jersey, Yogi did it his way. And the world loved him for it.
And though he may be best known for his malaprops, he was a three time American League MVP. And as good as he was in the regular season, he was to the World Series what Terry Bradshaw was to the Super Bowl. No one in the history of Major League Baseball was as great in the World Series as Yogi Berra. He was the original Mister October. His World Series records still stand.
Yogi was one of the last bridges to a bygone era. He was born in the Roaring Twenties in an Italian neighborhood of St Louis known as Dago Hill. He grew up during the Depression. He played one year of minor league ball, before serving in the Navy in World War II. He was there on D-Day, at Ohama Beach. He was in the heart of combat and was grazed by a bullet. Yogi never talked much about his wartime experience, and never sought fame or credit for his service.
After the war, he came back, resumed his minor league career, was brought up by the Yankees, and homered in his first two Major League games. Quickly, he became the cornerstone of the great Yankee dynasty of the late 40’s and the 50’s.
He married Carmen Short in 1949, and they lived in the same house in Montclair NJ for more than half a century. Yogi and Carmen were inseparable, and, at a time when many ballplayers were hellraisers, Yogi was best known for being a solid family man, who preferred not to burn the midnight oil while on the road. His three boys all played professional sports, one in Major League Baseball, and one in the NFL.
Yogi opened up a bowling alley in New Jersey, with his teammate Phil Rizzuto. And he invested in Yoo-Hoo, a chocolate soft drink.
New Yorkers of a certain age will smile and recite Yogi’s line from the commercial. “It’s mee-hee, for Yoo-Hoo!”
Once (it was in a radio interview I believe), a woman asked him if Yoo-Hoo was hyphenated. “It’s not even carbonated,” Yogi responded.
Yogi Berra was a successful baseball player, a successful businessman, and a successful family man. But he grew up dirt poor and saw the horrors of World War II, and never forgot where he came from.
When a kid from Paterson NJ – Larry Doby – became the first Black player to integrate the American League, Yogi went out of his way to welcome him, visiting him in the Indians’ locker room.
Yogi extended a similar warm welcome to Elston Howard, who integrated the Yankees in the 1950’s. Howard and Berra were both catchers, and Yogi willingly shared catching duties with Howard, eventually moving to left field so that both could be in the starting lineup.
In fact, that’s Yogi in left field, with his back to home plate, watching Bill Mazeroski’s home run disappearing over the 406 mark at Forbes Field in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series. Howard was behind the plate.
Yogi was what social scientists call a civic worthy. If you had a good cause, he was there to help. Whether it was to promote religious or racial understanding, raise money to help fight a disease, or to fix up something in the community, you could count on Yogi. Late in his 80’s, he lent his name to a group promoting acceptance of LGBT athletes. He said he didn’t feel anyone should be discriminated against.
Yogi had a big heart, but he was no pushover.
When Yankees owner George Steinbrenner fired Yogi as manager, Steinbrenner sent a couple of henchmen to deliver the news. Yogi was furious that Steinbrenner didn’t have the decency to tell him, and by the way he was treated after more than thirty years with the Yankee organization. For the next 15 years, he boycotted all things Yankees, including Old Timers games and reunions.
Finally, Steinbrenner apologized. Yogi accepted the apology and returned to the fold. Fans greeted his return to Yankee Stadium with a thunderous welcome.
Yogi may be best known for his sayings and the way he looked at life. After all, as he said, you can observe a lot just by watching. He knew he could butcher the King’s English, and he knew that people loved to laugh at him. And he had the courage to be himself and laugh along with the rest of us.
But he was also a great observer of the finer points of baseball. He was a great teacher, and more than a few Hall of Famers have called Yogi the best teacher they ever had.
Once, Derek Jeter was in a bit of a slump and he asked Yogi for advice.
“You’re swinging at bad pitches,” Yogi told him.
“But you used to swing at a lot of bad pitches,” Jeter said to the Hall of Famer who was known for his tomahawk swing.
“Yeah,” said Yogi. “But I hit them.”
I would be remiss (this is Rebecca again) if I didn’t take this opportunity to remind all of us, myself included, to remember to thank the people who have meant something to us in our journey in life. Some of those might not even be great people, but they had things to teach us, and for that we should be grateful.
Some of them, like Berra, may not be someone we as an ordinary citizen can thank, although social media and especially Twitter gives us an unprecedented opportunity to connect with even the rich and famous. But most of those people are going to be the ones we take for granted—members of our families, teachers, co-workers, even a store clerk or someone else we don’t actually know much about, but whose demeanor touches us.
Take a moment and say thank you, because the next moment might be too late. No one ever appreciated the most eloquently eulogy as much as the simplest heartfelt word or two while they still lived. Or so I assume, since I can’t access the data on the former…