Yogi Berra – Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972
You can’t understand what it is like to lose Yogi Berra.
Not unless you were there; a teen kid growing up in Brooklyn in the ‘50s. A time when New York had three baseball teams dominating the late 1940s and the middle ‘50s. A time when no one followed the NFL; a time when baseball ruled.
I was a rabid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and my friends were too. I didn’t want a “friend” who was a Yankee fan or worst still a Giants fan. The Giants played at the Polo Grounds in northern Manhattan while Yankee Stadium was well, Yankee Stadium. It was the considered opinion of us kids that every Giants or Yankee fan should live elsewhere. Certainly not in Brooklyn.
I was 13 years old in 1955; the year the beloved bums finally beat the Yankees in the World Series for their first series victory. The Yankees had beaten the Dodgers in 1947, ‘49, ‘52 and ‘53. It was always “Wait till next year!” for the bums.
The bums lost the pennant in ‘51 to Bobby Thompson’s home run in the 9th inning. God! We felt like taking cyanide. The Giants lost to the Yankees. Who cared?
These were the days before any championship series, before night games in the series, before designated hitters. The days when the series was played in September or the first days of October. The days when the players lived in the neighborhoods. When they weren’t paid like the 1%, When kids went to the ball park on Saturday afternoons on the subway – by themselves.
And these were the days of the ancients.
The Dodgers were Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Gil Hodges Carl Furillo and Jackie Robinson. It was the team of the yet to be greats Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. Sandy went to my high school
The Giants were Willi Mays, Monte Irvin and five players who went on to be major league managers; Eddy Stanky, Bill Rigney, Alvin Dark, Wes Westrum and Whitey Lockman.
But the Yankees – Oh! The Yankees! They were Mickie Mantle, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, Tommy Byrne, Eddy Lopat, Elston Howard, Hank Bauer, Billy Martin, Gil McDougled and Enos Slaughter.
And Yogi Berra.
In high school there were constant arguments as to who was the greatest center fielder – Snider, Mantle or Mays. And who was the greatest catcher – Yogi Berra or Roy Campanella.
During a “subway series”, which meant no days off between games, the radio in school was on in the lunch room, broadcast from the Principal’s office over the speakers.
Kids took days off to watch the games on our little 12″ black and white televisions. Everyone did. Especially a 7th game. It was expected. They might as well have closed the schools.
So it was 1956 and again the Dodgers, would face the hated Yankees.
It was the year Yogi Berra would break the heart of a 14 year old kid.
As the 1956 season came to an end the Dodgers had a one game lead over the up and coming Milwaukee Braves (they would win the pennant the following year – and eventually move again. They were originally the Boston Braves). It was the year of a young Henry Aaron coming into his own. I saw him hit for the circuit during the season at Ebbets Field.
A one game lead with two games to play. A doubleheader – two games in a row on Saturday (not a day – night double header) against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pittsburgh Pirates of Roberto Clemente.
Half our high school went to the game. If the Dodgers won both games they could not be caught. If they won both games they were in!
We were along the right field line – screaming our lungs out! Dodgers win! Dodgers win again!
The World Series opened against the hated Yankees in Ebbets Field, packed to the rafters with 34,000+. It wasn’t called a “band box” for nothing.
And three batters into the game Mickie Mantle slugs one out on to Bedford Avenue. But Jackie Robinson delivered a homer and Gil Hodges did the same as the Dodgers won 6 – 3.
Don Newcombe, who was 27 – 7 that year started game two – and didn’t survive the first inning. He was always our “ace” and he always seemed to collapse in the big game.
He gave up a first inning grand slam to guess who? Yogi Berra, who would become his arch nemesis in this series.
We were depressed; it was already 5 – 0 at the bottom of the first inning. Then joy and rapture as Dodger bats came alive, scored six in their first and took the game 13 – 8. Leading the series two games to none.
The Dogers lost the next two in Yankee Stadium. The Yanks got complete games from Whitey Ford and Tom Studivant, homers from Mickie, Hank Bauer and Enos slaughter. Hank Bauer’s, which put game three away came off of Don Drysdale, the future Hall of Fame Dodger pitcher yet to mark his name in the history books.
This set the stage for game five and starting pitcher Don Larsen. I watched this game at home on t.v. The Dodgers started Sal Maglie, the former Giants star acquired during the season. Maglie was a “junk” man, a lower speed change-up pitcher. He had pitched a no-hitter earlier in September.
Yogi Berra was catching Larsen, calling the pitches. And he called them brilliantly.
Larsen pitched the only perfect game in Series history – no Dodger reached base. Twenty seven up and twenty seven down. The Dodgers lost 2 – 0. Berra leaped on Larsen at the end of the game and the picture is preserved in history.
Dodger fans were depressed. I was depressed. It was back to Brooklyn for game six. Win or die.
The Dodgers were running out of pitching so they started their relief ace Clem Labine. Scoreless innings went by. The tension was just unbearable. The Yanks couldn’t hit Labine but the bums could’nt beg a hit off of “bullet” Bob Turley. On and on it went.
With men on late in the game, the Yanks decided to walk Duke Snider and pitch to Jackie Robinson. We thought that was an insult. But the Yanks got Robinson out and the inning was over.
Same situation occurred in the 10th inning. Dodgers on base, Snider up. Again the Yanks walk Snider. They would rather pitch to Jackie.
We were screaming!! Jackie Robinson was going to be the hero or the goat.
Robinson swung and we watched the ball sail toward left field and bounce off the wall – a hit! A walk-off hit! Dodgers win 1 – 0! Series tied!
It was all anti-climactic. Next day the ace Don Newcombe started. I mean how can you not start a 27 game winner?
Yogi Berra tagged Newk for two home runs in his first two times at bat and a 5 – 0 lead. The Dodgers would lose 9 – zip; their bats sounding like banana stalks.
Yogi Berra broke my heart. But he wasn’t the only one.
After the ‘57 season the Dodgers moved to L.A. and the Giants to San Francisco. Both wanted new ball parks; the Dodgers were insistent that the park be in Brooklyn. Robert Moses, the “great builder” would have none of it. He wanted the teams to play in Flushing Meadows. The teams refused and California came calling.
Roy Campanella, who was bi-racial and one of the greatest to ever play, ran a liquor store in Harlem during the off season. In January 1958 while heading home to Glen Cove he was in an auto accident, leaving him paralyzed and in a wheel chair for the rest of his life. He never played in California. Campy’s tragedy broke all of our hearts.
Yogi’s passing brought all of these memories back this week. His greatness as a player was underestimated. He is more remembered today for his “yogi-isms” but only because I forget how old we have become.
He led an exemplary life, married for 65 years. She passed away last year and perhaps Yogi didn’t feel like waiting around too long without her.
There are many stories of Yogi which reveal the man.
Yogi and Phil Rizzuto lived near each other in Northern New Jersey. When Rizzuto neared the end of his life he was moved to an assisted living facility half an hour from Yogi’s home.
Each day, Yogi would drive to see Phil and play cards with him. Two old team mates. They would play until Phil began to fall asleep; Yogi would hold his hand until he was in the arms of Morpheus and then he would leave.
Yogi did it every day until Phil Rizzuto died.
Yogi once said “If you leave later, you get there earlier”, referring to NY traffic.
Yogi stayed until 90. I’ll bet he got there earlier, welcomed by the heroes of my youth, playing cards with Phil. “Holy cow! It’s Yogi!”.
Rest in peace Yogi. You lived a really good life.
And unless you’re and old man from New York, you can’t understand what it is like to lose Yogi Berra.