R.I.P. Yogi Berra

By Bob Elliott

Sometimes you meet someone you have seen on TV or read about for years you can be disappointed.

Because the initial encounter is nothing close to what you formulated in your mind’s eye.

That wasn’t the case with Lawrence Peter (Yogi) Berra on a night in 2008 at Yankee Stadium when the Blue Jays were in the Bronx. 

As he sipped a tea standing outside manager Joe Girardi’s office, the Hall of Famer told a story about a recent trip. A traveller approached and said something commonplace from passers-by in airports.

The stranger asked: “You know, you look a lot like Yogi Berra.” 

Berra replied: “A lot of people tell me that.” 

Tom Haudricourt of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked Jack O’Connell, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers of America Association to be introduced to Berra at a reception a few years ago at Cooperstown.
O’Connell said “be prepared.” After the intros, Berra explained to he’d gotten lost on the drive to upstate New York. As Haudricourt said he was sorry about getting lost, Berra said, “Oh no, it was OK, we made good time.”   

Berra was credited with saying many memorable things:

“When you come to a fork in the road take it.” 

“Never answer an anonymous letter.” 

“I usually have a two-hour nap from 1-to-4.” 

“It’s deja vu all over again.” 

“Nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded.”

What Berra said became Yogisims, yet when you thought about it there was something to what he said.

Obviously when you come to a fork in the road you are going to take one or the other. And who wants to go to a restaurant so crowded you have to line up to get in? 

Is Berra more popular for what he said or for what he did on the field?

“A reason for his popularity was his Madison Avenue appeal,” said Yankee broadcaster Al Leiter. “Think about it, you had to be over 65 to see him play. Then it was once a week on your family’s black and white TV. Yet, my kids loved Yogi.”

Berra was in the early Lite Beer from Miller commercials, as well as VISA, Puss N Boots cat food, Kinney shoes, Yoo-hoo chocolate drink, Florida orange juice, and Aflac Insurance ads where he even confused the duck.

We saw him on the black and white with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese broadcasting. We saw him in the lobby of the Statler Hotel in Detroit in 1961 for my 11th birthday but Mickey Mantle, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and Ralph Terry were the athletes cousin Geoff and I spotted.

Only 5-foot-7, he was a Hall of Famer. He won 10 World Series rings with the Yankees in his 19 year career. Three times he won the American League MVP. Four other times he finished in the top four in voting. When he won the MVP in 1951 and 1955 he struck out 20 times each season. What is that in this era ... a month worth of whiffs for someone who averaged 27 homers a season?

You can argue nowadays whether Josh Donaldson or Mike Trout has the higher WAR rating.

Berra’s WAR? It was WWII. The Big One. Berra was a war hero. He joined the Navy at age 18, served his country. On D-Day, he was on a rocket boat off the coast of Normandy’s at Omaha Beach. 

“An officer, six men, twin 50s (guns) and rockets,” Berra said. “We’d be 300 yards offshore, provide cover if the fellas were bothered.” 

Who says “fellas” any more as Berra did in 2008?

Recalled from the European theatre he served at a naval submarine base, but “never went down in one.”  

After the war he played 77 games for the Newark Bears of the International League who visited Maple Leaf Stadium in Toronto.

“They had that ‘Hit sign, Win suit’ sign in left-centre, didn’t help me much as a left-handed hitter,” Berra said. 

Elston Howard said the Tip Top Tailors offer kept his father in suits as a Maple Leaf in 1954. Howard took over full-time catching duties for the Yankees in 1961, forcing Berra to move to left. 

“I didn’t care, I wanted to play,” Berra said. “These kids nowadays, they have to wear their number. I tell ‘em your uniform number doesn’t help you hit.” 

He spent his days at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center at Montclair State University in Little Falls, N.J. 

Larry Florio, stage director of the New York Metropolitan Opera when Luciano Pavarotti used to belt them out, retired and volunteered at the museum, moving from serving one illustrious Italian to another. Berra said “He knew more about me than me.”

When Berra was fired 16 games into the 1985 season he vowed never to speak to Yankee owner George Steinbrenner again or return to Yankee Stadium. He stuck to his word. 

My mother used to say “when you are Irish there is nothing too small to snit about.” But she also would say “enough it enough.”

Berra’s enough moment came thanks to Suzyn Waldman, The Fan radio in New York, who played the role of peacemaker Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1999. Steinbrenner flew from Tampa and arrived at Berra’s museum for the scheduled meeting.

The two went behind closed doors, there was screaming and yelling, Yogi’s wife Carmen entered and the yelling stopped.

The two emerged with Waldman starting: “Mr. Berra you know Mr. Steinbrenner, Mr. Steinbrenner I think you know Mr. Berra.” 

Fences mended.

Since then Berra had been a familiar face, throwing out ceremonial first pitches and attending old-timers’ days. 

A tribute was shown on the video board before Wednesday’s game as both teams stood outside their dugouts.

Deepest sympathies are extended to his and the Yankee family at Berra’s passing on Tuesday at ago 90.

Bob ElliottComment