Mr. Berra

In October of 1955, the first of several mysterious illnesses that began to plague me annually at about that time of the year found me at home rather than at school. The Brooklyn Dodgers were in the process of finally beating the hated New York Yankees in the World Series, and I was thrilled and mesmerized by the exploits of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Sandy Amoros and, especially, Johnny Podres. The Yankees had famous stars as well but I couldn’t like them or root for them because, after all, as someone said, rooting for the Yanks was like rooting for General Motors, which was sort of the Google or Apple of the time. That’s how relentlessly successful New York had been in those Eisenhower years of American complacency.

At nine years of age I was living in a mostly working class neighborhood and our Irish and Slovak family liked the underdogs, except for Notre Dame. I was on the living room floor expressing my thoughts on this prejudice when my mother, who was paying just as much attention to the game as I was while doing some ironing, startled me by saying “yes, but I like Yogi.  I’ve always liked Yogi.”

Holy mackerel! That was equivalent to her saying that she was going to go to a Protestant church next Sunday.

The next season at World Series time, for some reason I was in school. However,our classrooms at St. Joseph’s all contained something new that year–televisions. Consequently, the principal, Sister Angelus, who was hotly rumored to have a brother who pitched for the Pirates and who regularly joined in with our lunch hour ball games, allowed the televisions to be turned on this day so that we could watch the fifth game of the 1956 World Series during lunch. Wow! Some prayers did get answered! St. Joe’s had a combined fifth and sixth grade room that year so my brother Jimmy, a sixth grader, and I were in the room together. The TV got turned off after three innings and he and I noted that at that point both the Dodgers and Yankees had no runs, no hits, and no errors.  It was Sal Maglie for the Dodgers against Don Larsen of the Yanks. The Dodgers, having won the Series in ’55, looked like repeaters after winning the first two games in Brooklyn, 6-3 behind Maglie and 13-8 as Larsen didn’t make it out of the second inning. Then, at Yankee Stadium, the Yanks tied the series by having Whitey Ford and Tom Sturdivant outpitch  Roger Craig and Carl Erskine. So the final game at Yankee Stadium was going to give the winner a 3-2 edge in games before they headed back to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.  So it was back to geography and all that other bullshit with no knowledge of what was happening in New York for the fifth and sixth graders at St. Joe’s.

Then, without the intervention of the pope or even the parish priest, another miracle occurred.  Not only did we now have televisions, we also had a PA system so that the sound of God, via his agent Sister Angelus, could boom into every classroom at once.  About an hour after lunch, this voice announced that we should turn the televisions back on.  Sure enough, we were to witness the end of that fifth game! Angie, as she was called only far behind her back, was a real fan! Trust me, I wanted Dale Mitchell to reach base. He struck out, and Don Larsen had pitched a perfect game in the World Series. Yankees catcher Yogi Berra rushed out to the mound and leaped on Larsen like he was his daddy coming home from the war.  It was then that I, too, began to like Yogi.  It was then, also, that I was confirmed as a lifelong baseball addict.  And Angie, much to my surprise, was cool.

Yogi died at 90 years of age last week. He was an all star in 15 of his 19 seasons and won World Series money often (13 times) during an era when that money was meaningful. He was also a coach and a manager. People know him well for his crazy, wise sayings but I’ll not be redundant here; you’ve heard them all again this past week.  I’ll remember him for other things as well.  He was in left field when Bill Mazeroski hit my all time favorite home run. He managed the Yankees to a very difficult pennant in 1964 and got the sack when they lost the World Series to a better St. Louis Cardinals team, and the Yankees went twelve years without returning upon his exit. He managed the Mets in 1973, when they finished barely above .500 and then almost stole the World Championship from the vaunted Oakland A’s. He managed the Yanks again in between a couple of Billy Martin reigns and was gracelessly sacked by reptilian George Steinbrenner.  That was one of my favorite things about Yogi, the way he refused to have anything to do with Steinbrenner’s circus for many years until relenting. Hardly anyone was treating George like the asshole he was in those days. Between 1950 and 1956 he caught between 133 and 149 games every season and the Yankees were World Champs all but two of those seasons and in the Series all but one. His lifetime slugging percentage was .482, he had 358 career home runs, and he stuck out 414 times in his career despite his penchant for swinging at “bad” pitches. I am still a Yankees hater after all these years, but this guy is Mr. Berra to me.

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