Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yogi Berra (1925-2015)


NYT caption: "George Steinbrenner, right, with Yogi Berra in 1985 before Steinbrenner made 'the worst mistake I ever made in baseball,' firing Berra as manager."

by Ken

I wish I could remember which game it was, exactly, because in my memory it was just a couple of games ago that Yogi Berra's name came up in the course of a Yankees telecast, in connection with one of the vintage Yogi-isms, and announcer Michael Kay sent along best wishes to Yogi, explaining that he knew Yogi watched every game. So the first thing I thought of when I heard this morning that Yogi has died, was whether Yogi had been watching that game.

If there was anybody who didn't love Yogi, I've never heard about it.

Lawrence Peter Berra was 90 when he died late last night, and I guess you can't complain about that. His health had been fading, and his wife, Carmen, died last year, at 85, and that must have been hard on him -- and on their three sons and their families. Still, he had, as far as I know, a pretty darned good life. For sure he had a great career, one of the all-time great baseball careers, starting with his 19 years as a player -- I saw a reference to him as the "backbone" of all the great Yankee teams he played on, and that seems right -- and continuing with his in-uniform stints as a coach and manager (of the Mets as well as the Yankees) and his sunny presence once he was out of uniform for good. Even a small dose of Yogi reminded you of what you loved about the game.

The stats, both team and individual, are pretty staggering, even without considering that he looked less like a possible professional athlete than just about any guy you could think of. Which always makes me think of his growing-up story.

He grew up in St. Louis, the youngest son of Italian immigrants, including a father whose whole life was work, and who expected the same of his sons -- if they weren't in school, they were expected to be laboring to contribute to the family's upkeep. By all accounts Yogi's older brothers (he had three, and also a sister), unlike Yogi himself, were natural athletes, and splendidly gifted ones who in happier circumstances would have had legitimate shots at pro careers. The story goes that when their baby brother's turn came, they made an apparently forceful case to their father that Larry was going to get his shot.

Yogi always credited his brothers for making possible everything that followed.

(Another bit of magic from Yogi's growing up: Living across the street from him was a friend -- I seem to recall the friend clarifying once that it was across the street, since the story comes in various variants -- another Italian-American immigrant son, nine months younger, who would also become a big-time Major League catcher, and later broadcaster: his lifelong friend Joe Garagiola.)

The darkest time I'm aware of in Yogi's adult life was when he declared Yankee Stadium off limits to him after George Steinbrenner fired him as manager of the Yanks. As I recall, it wasn't so much the actual firing as the cold, impersonal way George did it. This was hard on Yankee fans, because Yogi had been for so long the heart and soul of the Yankees, and had always seemed to be around. He came to spring training every year and was frequently seen at Yankee Stadium -- and always at team events. But of course the person who suffered most during those years of self-imposed exile was Yogi himself. How much pain that must have caused him, to be cut off from the organization that had for so long been such a central part of his life.

Eventually peace was brokered, and Yogi was once again a constant presence in the life of the team. The Yogi remembrances are pouring out and will no doubt continue to do so, but I was happy to see New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton focus on the rapprochement in this beautiful appreciation (links onsite).
Yogi Berra’s Second Act, as Elder Statesman, as Glorious as the First

By HARVEY ARATON | Sept. 23, 2015

After his return to the Yankees, Berra formed a lasting friendship with Ron Guidry, left, during their years at spring training.

The overdue and gloriously unscripted sequel to Yogi Berra’s wonderful Yankees’ life began on a cold Tuesday evening in January 1999, when the Hall of Fame catcher stood slightly hunched at the back-entrance doorstep of the recently opened museum named for him. He awaited the arrival of the man whose impulsive behavioral and operational tendencies had sent him into a 14-year self-imposed exile from his most cherished workplace in the South Bronx.

Berra, at 73, wore the stern look of a father counting the seconds his son was late with the car, but also fidgeted just enough to resemble an expectant boy awaiting the return of his father from a long day’s work. Even in his geriatric years, Berra had the fascinating capacity to appear proudly venerable in one moment and childishly playful the next.

Across the near decade and a half that Lawrence Peter Berra had refused to step into Yankee Stadium in protest of the way George Steinbrenner had fired him — through an intermediary — as manager in 1985, the Boss, five years younger, had come to represent both sides of the generational divide. Berra was furious and disappointed. He had expected more from Steinbrenner, the imperious owner who liked to lecture folks on the virtue and value of being a Yankee.

Berra, who died at 90 late Tuesday night on the 69th anniversary of his major league debut, stubbornly lived by that overriding doctrine. If he had to stay away from Yankee Stadium for the rest of his life to prove it, he absolutely would. Along with his three American League Most Valuable Player Awards, 10 World Series rings and interesting way of explaining things, Berra might also be remembered for one of the most principled stands — a virtual call for the worker to be treated with common decency — in the history of the game.

Not without trepidation — a person who rode with Steinbrenner that day in 1999 said he had never seen him so nervous — the Boss finally arrived at Berra’s museum on the campus of Montclair State in New Jersey. Berra had agreed to receive him only after some family pleading and with one stipulation. His wife, Carmen, had to be in the room when Steinbrenner said he was sorry.

“The worst mistake I ever made in baseball,” Steinbrenner told them in one of his finest moments and — make no mistake — smartest business decisions. In the process of bringing back Berra, Steinbrenner humanized himself and helped create one of the great second acts, symbolically launched later that year.

On July 18, Yogi Berra day, with his perfect-game battery mate Don Larsen in attendance on a piping hot afternoon, David Cone threw another one.

“Can you believe it — a perfect game on my day?” Berra said over and over to Carmen on the way home after the game.

Those who knew Berra best, who marveled at how this unpretentious and unimposing man somehow became one of America’s most successful and beloved athletes, would essentially say, well, of course.

The return to the Yankees was timed coincidentally but perfectly to the opening of the Berra Museum and Learning Center. There, Berra would hold court, greeting the community power brokers who created it, the baseball stars and insiders who enthusiastically would show up to promote it, and the students from schools all over North Jersey who benefited from the educational programs that sustained it.

Books recounting Berra’s history and his famous sayings began to appear on a fairly regular basis, a few on best-seller lists. Berra’s sons Tim and Dale launched a memorabilia business from the museum, though at this stage of life, the commercial benefits were of no great interest to Berra.

It was the uniform he craved, the baseball life recreated. The opportunity to return to spring training and work with the promising young catcher, Jorge Posada, the chance to hang around the clubhouse, kid around with the coaches, down his daily shot of Ketel One from the bottle that Joe Torre and later Joe Girardi kept reliably stored in a desk drawer inside the manager’s office.

Berra’s return to spring training formed the basis of the most enduring and endearing friendship of his post-exile years: a relationship with the former pitcher and spring training instructor Ron Guidry. Berra the coach had looked after Guidry when he was navigating the minefield that existed for young Yankees hurlers during the early Steinbrenner years in the 1970s. In return, Guidry became the aging Berra’s constant spring training companion in the early 21st century, his dining and golfing buddy.

It was Guidry who had talked Carmen Berra — who died last year — into agreeing to let her husband go to spring training in 2011 even as his health had become an issue. On the way to Carmen’s favorite salon in advance of Old-Timers’ Day in July of the previous summer, Berra had tripped outside his home and fallen, face down.

Ever punctual, he arrived for his appointment, bleeding profusely, with a towel pressed against his nose, insisting on his haircut and manicure.

He wound up in the hospital after that, missing the big event and later another of his favorites, Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y.

He was 85, slowing down. Of his spring training time with his pal, Guidry would say, “Someday this is going to have to end.” But he also suspected that the end might come sooner if Berra couldn’t again have that live connection with the game, to the people around the Yankees and other teams who delighted in his presence.

So with Guidry promising Carmen that her husband would be in good hands, Berra returned to spring training in 2011 and was back at Old-Timers’ Day, and again the next year, and even after moving to a nursing home with enough strength to stay only for the ceremony. When he returned home that day, pushing a walker through the lobby, still wearing his Yankees jersey, some of the attendants told him they had seen him on television and that he’d looked great.

“Thanks,” he said, softly, only wanting to get to his room, watch the game.

First and foremost, he was still and forever a Yankee, making up for lost time.
We hear that phrase "giving back" in life a lot. For all that baseball gave Yogi -- thanks to his own hard work, of course -- he gave back at least as much.

Obviously we've known that this day would come. That doesn't make it any less sad. Thanks, Yogi.

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At 9:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carmen Berra 85 when she died after 65 years of marriage

At 10:14 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Ah, thanks! I've corrected that. It sounded wrong, 65, but there I was, staring right at the date -- only it was, as you note, her marriage dates.


At 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful story about Yogi. Brings tears to my eyes. Baseball will never be the game it was back in Yogi's day which is a real shame.What an impact he had on life in America!


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