He was a team player in a world where stars dominated. The press was all about Mickey, but it was Yogi who we loved. And kept on loving long after his playing days were through, because although he was a member of the jockocracy, Yogi danced to the beat of his own drummer, he was not beyond feuding with George Steinbrenner, because winning isn’t everything, it’s how you play the game that counts.
But back then the Yankees were winning everything.
It was so different from today. No one flew, never mind went to spring training camp. But we couldn’t wait for the season to begin. We’d camp out in damp basements watching exhibition games when the snow had already melted but it was still too cold to go outside. We flipped baseball cards. We bought books. Baseball was the National Pastime.
Before the players grew moustaches and gained free agency. Before we discovered their foibles. Sure, Joe Namath transcended the stars who preceded him, he played both on and off the field and won in both arenas. But before that athletes were two-dimensional.
And then there was Yogi.
Maybe it’s because he was involved in every play, catching the ball. Sure, Bill Dickey had preceded him, but at this point stars were outfielders, pitchers, maybe shortstops, catchers were just part of the battery, integral but insignificant.
But Yogi could not only field, he could hit. You could count on Yogi.
He won the first game I ever went to.
That’s right, I was a baseball fanatic. Every day after school I walked down to the park for a pick-up game. I practiced with this contraption made of mesh and rubber bands that bounced the ball back to you. I owned my own glove and my own bat and my own ball. And although this made me privileged, it was a way for my dad to make up for the fact that he was the least athletic man in the neighborhood. We stopped playing catch in kindergarten, I’d superseded his ability. And he never came to my Little League games.
But he took me to Yankee Stadium.
When Schaefer ruled and no one you knew had season tickets and even though the bleachers were under a buck you never sat there. The outfield was for city kids. You can hear their stories everywhere, about a hardscrabble life of collecting returnable bottles so they could go to the game and get the autograph of a player. I grew up in the suburbs. After all, it was the sixties. When the economy was flourishing and our first generation parents wanted to provide a better life.
My father owned a liquor store. And brought home the wares for us to consume. And there was Cott grape and Schweppes ginger ale but also Yoo-hoo. With Yankees on the bottle. Gil McDougald, others just before my time, and then Yogi.
Whose fame only grew with the namesake bear. Being first, everyone believed the Hanna-Barbera animated character was a direct reference. Forget having your own video game, even your own E! show. Yogi was bigger than the Kardashians because you never saw him working it, he just was. And he didn’t take a victory lap and he didn’t pooh-pooh the accolades, he just laughed.
He was our favorite.
Because he endured.
Roger Maris broke the home run record. My dad took me to that game too, October 1st, 1961, the very last day of the season. It was a line drive to right, it didn’t clear the wall, which wasn’t even chest high out there, by much. I felt I’d witnessed something special, long before attendance at Woodstock was a badge of honor. The stadium was far from full. The game was meaningless, the Yankees had already sewn up the pennant. Mickey had fallen out of the race, he’d gotten hurt and his production went down and Roger was carrying the flag. Unloved Roger, who was challenging Babe Ruth’s record. He was soon traded away and forgotten, but no one alive back then didn’t know he broke the home run record. When the NFL was still a fledgling sport and if you made news, we knew it.
My mom and dad took me to Old Timer’s Day that year too. Three games in one season! Tickets were scarce so we had to sit in the upper deck. This was long before escalators, you had to walk up. And I stopped halfway and refused to go further. Because I’d been to the stadium and I knew on the third deck the seatbacks were bolted to the concrete and your legs swung free. At least it looked that way to me, the only other time I’d been at the ballpark. Lord knows how my ‘rents convinced me to keep climbing. And I felt embarrassed I’d cried, but I ultimately felt triumphant that I’d been there.
But back to that first game. In the spring. The women went somewhere else, the men went to the game. My dad and me and Harry and Michael. My dad’s long gone. He lived long enough to see cell phones in the car, but not the internet. He loved to talk on the phone. If he’d lived he would have died in a car accident, he’d have been distracted talking on the phone, yelling into it, making a point. My dad rarely listened and was rarely calm. He cared too much about what he was saying. Harry lived a lot longer, even though he had multiple heart surgeries. They drank beer, we ate hot dogs and the game went into extra innings.
This was New York, not L.A. No one ever left early. But it was a doubleheader, did the length of the first game preclude staying for the second?
No and yes. We stayed for half of the second game. Didn’t leave because the Yankees were losing but because we had to meet the girls. That’s what they called them back then, before feminism hit. And sure, there was discrimination and a glass ceiling and it was tough being an African-American, but this was before Vietnam, long after World War II and Korea, we were in a momentary state of bliss.
But the game was tied. And it was the bottom of the 14th. And it looked like no one was ever gonna win.
And Yogi pinch-hit.
I’ve seen Mickey Mantle strike out. It’s so weird when the game turns upon their appearance. If only he could drive one over the fence the Yankees would win. But Mickey never came through in the clutch, not when I went.
But Yogi did.
There were a couple of men on base. But we were no longer on the edge of our seats, it felt like the game would go on forever.
Then Yogi hit one between the infielders, took off towards first, touched the bag and then immediately circled back towards the dugout and ran right in.
I wasn’t sure what had happened. I was too young, too inexperienced. It had all occurred too quickly. But Yogi knew it was all over, that he’d sealed the deal.
Long before he was famous for malapropisms, Yogi was famous for clutch hits.
No one ever hated him.
Rather all of us loved him. Because he was always there and he always delivered.
Yogi’s success was not about statistics, most fans can’t recite his numbers. They’re actually wowed when they find out they’re so good. But Yogi contributed to the victory.
Sure, Whitey Ford mowed ’em down, but he didn’t play every day.
And Moose was an iron horse at first, and occasionally unloaded at the plate, but he frequently struck out, his average wasn’t that good.
Bobby Richardson was a choirboy. An incredible second baseman, you admired him, but you didn’t love him.
Tony Kubek and Clete Boyer were dependable. Never screwed up. But their personalities were not strong.
And by this time, Elston Howard was frequently behind the plate. As solid as Yogi, but without the persona.
In the outfield were Roger and Mickey.
And by this time, usually Yogi was in left, they needed his bat in the lineup and his arm was strong. He might have been a famous backstop, and not a legendary outfielder, but his rep didn’t take a hit, he could play the position.
The ’61 Yanks.
Who was better, them or the ’27 edition with Gehrig and Ruth?
I don’t know.
But I do know that although Joltin’ Joe showed up as an old timer, Lou and the Babe were dead, they’d played in a bygone era, it was now a modern game.
It was on TV, all the time, there were no cable channels.
And you played for all the marbles. There were no playoffs other than a World Series which took place in the afternoon, on weekdays while we were still at school.
It was all over long before the snow fell. They were truly the boys of summer.
Back before the Beatles. Back before long hair. Back before the assassinations. We had no idea the sixties would be an era of such turmoil. We thought it would be the same as it ever was. With ballplayers the biggest stars in the land. Regular people, selling cars in the winter, not relaxing down in Florida, our best selves. Or so we thought.
I’m not sure the younger generation has any idea who Yogi Berra was. At best, they can compare statistics. Then again, he wasn’t at the tippity-top, and that’s all that anybody cares about today.
But we cared about more.
And those of us who were there look back and can’t remember who won.
But we remember who was there.
And at this point, we recall Yogi just as much as Mickey. Mantle was the star, but Yogi was the Yankees’ soul. He not only played with dignity, he played for fun. Because, after all, it’s just a game. Simple, with rules. One that we all paid attention to.
So, so long Yogi. You’re in our hearts, it’s sad you’re gone, but you had a long run, you carried the torch of what once was, which so many of us baby boomers still want to believe in. You illustrated what life was about, giving your all in service to the team. Because without others, we’re nobody.
Without Yogi Berra, we’re so much less.
He was the American Dream personified. Making it from the lower class to the mainstream.
With Yogi goes some of our hopes and dreams.
But he entertained us along the way.
Without making an effort to do so.
Yogi never played to the crowd, all his attention was focused inside the diamond. We felt hanging with him would make our lives complete.
But we never got the chance.
He may not have had matinee good looks, he may not have been educated, but Yogi Berra had the goods.
He was anything but the average bear.