Thursday, September 24, 2015
I think I was kind of disappointed when I learned his name was Lawrence Peter Berra. And I'd never heard of Teaneck, NJ. I preferred Yogi. Until Yogi Bear came along, I'd never known anyone else with that name. Still haven't. I remember that my dad explained to me how he got the name Yogi (because he squatted like a yoga dude--don't know if it's true; I hope it is).
This information about his name I acquired in boyhood from my set of baseball cards (Topps), acquired with purchases of bubble gum down at The Hub in Hiram, Ohio, the village's only hangout back in the day (mid-1950s). (Like most every other doofus from that era, I later tossed them all--putting away childish things.)
I was a huge Yogi fan, had begun being so when I'd first started catching on our summer baseball team in the summer of 1957. I had just finished seventh grade. Hiram was forming its first-ever team. I had played for a Kiwanis-sponsored team back in Enid, Oklahoma, before our move to Hiram in the late summer of 1956. But I hadn't been a catcher. I had been a barely competent outfielder and an incompetent infielder. (When I played short, a bouncer to me was a double.)
So as the Hiram team formed, our coach (who was he?) asked if anyone had ever played catcher. Seeing no hands in the air, I raised mine. A lie that earned me a starting position and a love for catching that extended clear through high school.
And a hero in Yogi Berra.
Back in those days there were not many MLB games on TV. In Enid, we'd had nothing but the NBC Game of the Week on Saturday afternoon, a game that often involved the Yankees, the era's dominant team and, of course, a huge market. NBC was not stupid, not back then. Show the Yankees on Saturday. Get a huge audience for your smiling sponsors. I became a Yankee fan then, and it was quite a while after our Ohio move before my heart allowed the Tribe in.
There were other things about Berra that puzzled me. How could you throw right-handed and bat left-handed (as he did)? Whenever I tried swinging from the left, I was more than pathetic. I also broke a bat or two (not pleasing the coach of our impecunious Hiram team)--this was the Era of the Wooden Bat. No sissy aluminum for us!*
I liked that he was sort of, well, homely (like me) and not too swift afoot (like me). The resemblances pretty much end there.
For Christmas one year I got a Yogi Berra plastic action figure (okay, doll, really--about a foot high, as I recall). He was in full catcher's garb ("the tools of ignorance," I later heard them called), had his mask in his right hand, and was looking skyward for a pop foul. This item disappeared in one of my childish-things decisions. Another dumb move. The image you see is it, I think. (Thank you, Pinterest.) I don't see the mask. My memory is that it was in his right hand. Could be wrong. Or maybe this previous owner lost the mask, as I think I did.
I remember Yogi playing left field later in his career. The Yanks had a younger, more agile catcher, Elston Howard, who would also move to left field, where in one of those Series games against the Milwaukee Braves he made an important catch on his knees.
So what did I admire about Yogi? Great catcher. Could hit. Said funny things. In one of my favorite paperbacks from boyhood, Curve Ball Laughs, there's an entire section devoted to Berra called "Strawberras and Cream."
I sort of stopped following Berra after he retired from playing with the Yanks. Oh, I know he did some things for the Mets, managed the Yanks for a while. But by then my catching days were over--my final season was the summer after my freshman year in college when, playing for an American Legion team, I found that I could not really handle pitchers who threw too hard. I ended up at 1st base, where I soon displayed my ineptness with grounders.
So ... Yogi is gone now. Still, he had a long and enviable life. And, sure, I can smile at all the Yogi-isms that spread across Facebook and elsewhere after his death.
But that's not the Yogi I want to remember. It's that hitter, who--calmly, no theatrics--stood at the plate, watching, then smacking the hell out of the ball. He didn't like to walk. He could hit any damn pitch. My dad told me he once saw Yogi hit a double on an attempted intentional walk; another time, he hit a pitch that bounced first.
Or--even better--the catcher looking skyward in search of the ball and knowing--knowing--he is going to catch it.
*Later, our son would bat left, throw right, and field with far more grace than I. Some genes, fortunately, do not travel directly from father to son.