Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Yogi Berra, R.I.P.

A great baseball player, coach, manager, icon,
patriot, and a real piece of Americana has gone to
glory. Yogi Berra, all-star catcher with the New
York Yankees in the twilight of their glory years,
passed away on September 22 at the age of 90.

Having spent my first eight years of life in my
native New Jersey, the early 1960s were the
tail-end years of the great Yankees baseball
dynasty when they were almost always in the
World Series, and everyone followed the Yankees.
Even people who were merely casual fans, or not
even baseball fans but still knew the Yankees were
a special team with a magic that no other team in
baseball --- or any other sport --- has ever possessed
before or since. And Yogi Berra was one of the
players who contributed to that magic. As a wee
lad, I was in the thrall of that team and its catcher.
The Yankees were my team, and Yogi was my
favorite Yankee --- and my favorite player in the
big leagues!

A true defensive stalwart behind the plate, Yogi was
just as effective at the plate, batting .285 while clouting
358 home runs during his 19 seasons playing the game.
He caught the only perfect game (no batter getting on
base by any means: hits, walks, dropped third strike, or
hit by a pitch) in World Series history, the rare gem pitched
by Don Larsen in the 1955 World Series against their then-
crosstown rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, a series that Yogi
and his teammates would go on to win. Yogi could beat you
with his glove or his bat, and usually beat opponents with

Yogi was known as much for his off-the-field exploits
as much as those during a game. His unique and humorous
way of stating things, be it a game, a season, the World Series,
a teammate, the weather, a popular restaurant, a movie,
his family, whatever or whoever. Some examples, which
have come to be known as "Yogi-isms":

"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded!"
(Yogi remarked about Rigazzi's, a popular restaurant in
Saint Louis)

"It ain't over 'til it's over!"

"It's deja vu all over again!"
(Yogi exclaimed when teammates Mickey Mantle and
Roger Maris hit back-to-back home runs in a game,
something that they did many times!)

"You can observe a lot by watching."

"Thank you for making this day necessary!"
(Yogi said to the crowd assembled at Yogi Berra Day,
held at Sportsman's Park in Saint Louis)

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it!"

"90% of the game (of baseball) is half-mental."

"Always go to other people's funerals; otherwise they
won't go to yours."

There are so many more of these delightful malapropisms
and unintentional witticisms from the man, too many to
share here but can easily make a book, one of many

Born Lorenzo Pietro Berra in a mostly Italian Saint Louis,
Missouri neighorhood called "The Hill", on May 12, 1925,
his parents Italian immigrants to the United States.
Just across the street from his home lived childhood friend,
fellow baseball catcher, and fellow major league prospect
Joe Garagiola who would go on to play for the hometown
Cardinals, also playing in the World Series (1946). The two
were lifelong friends as well as baseball contemporaries.
A question: does anyone know of another case of two kids from
the same neighborhood, from the same street, both baseball
players playing the same position, both signed by major league
baseball teams? Imagine the odds!

Yogi, having signed with the Yankees, then interrupted his
baseball career to enlist in the U.S. Navy when WWII came
along, wanting to contribute to the war effort. He returned home
a decorated sailor and resumed his budding baseball career,
coming up through the minors to the Bronx Bombers themselves,
playing in 14 World Series, ten of which he and his teammates
won --- both are major league records for a single player.
Yogi was a class act on and off the field, never engaging in
any activity that would cast shame on himself or his team,
becoming the idol of many Little Leaguers and of baseball
fans of all ages. Yogi set many baseball records for a catcher,
and captured the attention, the imagination, and the fancy of
the country not just as a player but as a coach and as manager
for the Yankees and the crosstown Mets (leading both teams
to the World Series). Yogi was a coach for the 1969 "Amazing Mets"
who, after many successive seasons of losing, rose up to win
the National League East Division crown, sweep the Atlanta Braves
in the League playoff series, then whip the heavily favored
American League champion Baltimore Orioles in the World Series,
needing just five games to accomplish the feat. But through it all,
Yogi never let his success make his baseball cap size grow.
He remained humble and was ever thankful for his success,
including being thankful to all who helped develop him into
a premier catcher and ballplayer. Contrast Yogi to many of the
star athletes in sports today; also Yogi never took any "performance
enhancing" substances. He was a natural in the fullest sense of the
word! And along the way Yogi became a part of not only baseball
lore but of Americana, as a true American original.

The beloved Hannah Barbera cartoon character, Yogi Bear, was
named for Yogi Berra. This honor made Yogi Berra an even more
ingrained part of Americana.

So now the Yankee's great number 8, their standout catcher, their
inimitable star has joined the Angels (and I don't mean Anaheim!)
to hold a permanent spot on their roster. God couldn't have drafted
a finer ballplayer, nor a wittier fellow! Rest in peace, Yogi,
and thanks for all the fun!


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