Yogi

Yogi Berra lived a life of heroism, triumph and love

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The image that lingers is of Yogi Berra looking at the sky. He wears a New York Yankees jacket and a New York Yankees hat, and he seems to be shivering just slightly, though the air is warm. He looks up at the sky, and it is an unrelenting gray, not a sliver of blue anywhere in the state of New Jersey. A hesitant rain falls as if the sky itself cannot decide.

“They’ll play,” Yogi says quietly, almost a whisper. “They’ll play baseball today.”

* * *

The image that lingers is of Yogi Berra looking up to see Rachel Robinson. In September 1955 — sixty years ago, almost to the day — Rachel’s husband, Jackie Robinson, took off from third base in an effort to steal home. This was in Yankee Stadium, and it was just Game 1 of the World Series. But the story was old. The Yankees and Dodgers had played in the World Series before, four times in the previous eight years. The Yankees had won them all.

The Dodgers trailed by two runs, and this was the moment when Jackie Robinson sought to break the Yankees’ iron grip on Brooklyn’s dreams. Jackie hopped up and down one time, and then he broke for the plate – no baserunner has ever been more daring. Yogi stepped up immediately and caught the ball in position to make the tag – no catcher has ever been quicker in front of the plate. If Dodgers pinch-hitter Frank Kellert had swung at the pitch, he would have hit Berra in the head.

Kellert stood frozen instead, Robinson slid. Berra tagged. Home-plate umpire Bill Summers did not hesitate; he immediately called Robinson safe. Robinson looked at the safe sign and calmly jogged back to the dugout. Berra ripped off his mask and began to scream at Summers and would not stop for a long time.

There is no telling, as the years passed on, what that play meant in real terms. Kellert followed with a single that would have scored Robinson anyway. The Yankees ended up winning the game anyway. But, players would say, something within the Yankees broke in that moment, and something inside the Dodgers was freed. Brooklyn won the World Series in seven, the only time Brooklyn ever won a World Series, the only time Brooklyn ever beat the Yankees.

Long after the Dodgers left Brooklyn and the Yankees left Yankee Stadium, Yogi Berra and Rachel Robinson would see each other from time to time. They would see each other at reunions and book readings and special events. The image that lingers is from the last time at Yogi’s last birthday party. Yogi looks up; he is 90. Rachel is 92. Their eyes meet. They say what they always say when they see each other.

“Safe,” Rachel says.

“Out,” Yogi says.

And then they hug for a long time.

* * *

The image that lingers is of Lawrence Peter Berra wanting to look up to the sky. He has just turned 19 years old, and he is on a rocket boat closing in on Omaha Beach. He does not know this will become known as D-Day, does not know that he is spearheading the most overwhelming military attack in the history of the known world, certainly does not know he will become one of the great players in baseball. At this point, he has played just one season of minor-league baseball, in Norfolk of the Class B Piedmont League. He hit .253.

He is on this boat because of boredom, mostly. When the Navy asked for volunteers, Berra raised his hand. Why not? He was young enough to feel invincible. And he just wanted some action. All his life, he wanted action. This was before he met Carmen, before the 21 World Series in which he took part, before he made the comment that you can observe a whole lot just by watching.

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Action. He craved it so deeply, it hurt. But where would the son of Pietro Berra find action? Pietro had come from Northern Italy for a better life. He worked in the brickyard, worked in the heat of the kiln. A better life came with heavy responsibility. Lawrence’s brothers all went to work. Lawrence himself quit school at 14. He made shoes. He delivered Coca-Cola in a truck. He shoveled coal. The baseball he played, like the soccer he played, came from a yearning that he could never explain well enough to his father. “Stop wasting your time,” Pietro would yell at him. But Lawrence wanted something more than a better life. He wanted action.

In this moment, as the rocket boat leads the invasion, he lifts his head to look up. It is a scene beyond the imagination of Pietro Berra’s boy. Planes overwhelm the sky and block out the sun. Explosions blaze and then flicker. The sound roars and detonates; it is beyond comprehension, all of it. Lawrence Berra cannot help but think how hauntingly beautiful it all is.

“Get your head down,” his commanding officer shouts, “unless you want it blown off!”

* * *

The image that lingers is of Yogi Berra turning and looking up indignantly at umpire Cal Hubbard. Yogi loved talking to umpires. He loved talking to opposing players. He loved talking to anyone as long as it was a part of baseball. He was painfully shy away away from the diamond. So many of the Yogiisms, the famous Berra quotes that have for the last 60 years kicked off an uncountable number of banquet speeches, emerged from the simple shyness that overwhelmed him.

“Thank you,” he told a St. Louis crowd on Yogi Berra Day, “for making this day necessary.”

On the field, though: He was an unstoppable stream of chatter. “Shut yer yap, I’m trying to hit here,” Ted Williams had told him. “If you don’t pipe down, I’m throwing one in your ear,” Bob Feller had told him. “Please tell him to shut up,” Larry Doby once said to an umpire before Yogi had yet said a word.

He talked out of nervousness and out of joy and, mostly, because he wanted an edge. Yogi Berra’s teams always won. Always. He was rarely the most famous person in the championship photo, but he was always in the photo. He won a World Series before Casey Stengel was manager and after. He won three World Series before Mickey Mantle came along, and he won six World Series after Joe DiMaggio retired.

A famous piece of trivia: From 1957-81, New York teams appeared in 13 World Series. This ranged from Casey’s Yankees to the Mantle-Maris Show to the Miracle Mets to the Ya Gotta Believe Mets to the Bronx Zoo Yankees. Yogi Berra – as a player, coach or manager – was on every single one of those teams.

Yes, he wanted an edge. He needed to win. He hid the competitive fury well enough that people would think of him as lovable – and, in his many ways, he was lovable. But Yogi wanted to beat you. He ferociously negotiated for more money. He pushed pitchers through their moments of doubt. He proudly fought back against all the vicious insults people made about his looks and his awkwardness and his intelligence. The newspaper boys called him “homely.” The ballplayers called him ape. A sportswriter once wrote, “Yogi Berra is barred from baseball for life because he’s not photogenic enough.”

“You’re ugly, Berra,” one player said to him in one of the less witty jibes of the time.

“So what?” he said as he dug in. “I don’t hit with my face.” And, in memory, he lashed a double into the gap. He lashed 321 doubles, most of them into gaps, and he slugged 358 balls over walls, and he struck out just 414 times. He won three MVP Awards. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He won so many World Series that, after a while, he started asking for something other than a ring. A man only has so many fingers. He got a watch one year, a cigarette box another.

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This day lingers: It’s fiery hot, and Berra decides he can use a day off. Berra never asked for actual days off. When he was young, he asked to sit out the second game of a doubleheader. He heard Joe DiMaggio say to someone: “Berra’s too (bleepin’) young to be taking games off.” Berra’s face reddened, and his hero’s words echoed in his ear. In Berra’s career, he would catch both ends of a doubleheader 117 times.

Berra decides if he can’t ask for a day off, he will simply get himself thrown out of the game. This seems an easy trick. Cal Hubbard is umpiring. He is a legendary football player (some credit him with inventing the linebacker position) and as an umpire he is known for not taking guff from ballplayers. “Mike,” he once said to Mike Tresh after some griping about balls and strikes, “if you don’t shut up, I’m going to hit you so hard on the top of the head that it will take a derrick to get you back to level ground.” Yes, Yogi figures, it should be easy enough to get himself thrown out.

Yogi starts in the first inning, just with a few little snide remarks. “Was a strike,” he mutters when the ball was called outside or “He swung,” he says when the batter held up. This goes on for a little while. Hubbard, uncharacteristically, ignores him.

Then, Yogi turns up the complaints. Louder. Less respectful. Still, he gets nothing from Hubbard.

Finally, as the heat flares higher and Yogi starts to feel his chances of a little rest slipping away, he turns to look up at Hubbard after a call, the ultimate no-no for a catcher. Here is Yogi Berra doing what he never does, showing up an umpire for all to see. He waits for the inevitable ejection. Instead, Hubbard just smiles and stares straight ahead.

“Berra,” Hubbard says calmly. “If I have to be out here in this heat, so do you.”

* * *

The image that lingers is of Yogi Berra looking up through the glass at a letter he wrote to Carmen. The letter is an exhibit now, a little piece of history on display at the Yogi Berra Museum. People look at this letter and the others and they sigh. But they only can see how the story turned out.

Yogi and Carmen married in 1949. There was a photograph of them in Life Magazine that year, she just 19 and he only 23, and she leaned over to kiss him on the cheek, and he smiled broadly like the happiest man in the world. In that moment, they only knew then that they loved each other, they had no idea what would follow. They were married for 65 years, they raised three sons, they doted on 11 grandchildren, they leaned on each other and lifted each other’s spirits and cared for each other in their moments of need. They went to shows together, to the opera, to a million ballgames. At the end, she would make sure he took all his medicine and would tolerate his weekly poker games. At the end, he would always be there and do what he could to make her feel comfortable.

To museum visitors, the letters are the beginning of that bewitching and gorgeous love story. But to Yogi Berra, those letters expressed the desperation of his youth. He could fight off the insults about his looks with a baseball bat in his hand, but out of uniform and away from the park he felt ugly. He had seen her in a restaurant, she was a waitress at Biggie’s in St. Louis, and he had fallen for her so hard that there was no emotional room for anything else. He did not think he stood a chance.

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Hans Christian Andersen supposedly wrote “The Ugly Duckling” in response to the taunts and insults of boys who called him hideous and unlovable. When asked if he would write an autobiography, Anderson would say that “The Ugly Duckling,” was his autobiography.

Yogi Berra wrote love letters to Carmen. Again and again and again. He wrote them from hotel rooms on the road, from Central Park on off-days, in the clubhouse between ballgames. They are beautifully scripted – especially from a young man who dropped out of school at 14 – and they hold nothing at all back. The letters say what he could not say.

“Darling,” he wrote, “I love you very, very much. I will always love you as long as I live. There will never be another girl but you. I love you darling more than ever. I mean that. Aw gee do I miss you more and more every day. I can’t wait to see you again. You are always on my mind.”

As Yogi looks up at the letter behind the glass at his museum, he re-reads it and does not say a word. Carmen waits at home for him; she is having a bad day. He needs to get back to her. This is two years before she died.

* * *

The image that lingers is of Yogi Berra looking at the sky. He wears a New York Yankees jacket and a New York Yankees hat, and he seems to be shivering just slightly though the air is warm. He looks up at the sky, and it is an unrelenting gray, not a sliver of blue anywhere in the state of New Jersey. A hesitant rain falls as if the sky itself cannot decide.

He is waiting for the Yankees to play ball. That’s how he spent so much of his life or, as he might have said, life was just the gaps between Yankees games. Then again, he might never have said that at all. “I never said most of the things I said,” Berra once said (maybe).

All the famous things he might have said – “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” and “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” and “If people don’t want to come out to the park, nobody’s going to stop them,” and “It gets late early out here” and all the rest – do not tell the story of Yogi Berra. Those Yogiisms began as a sort of inside joke, a sly and sometimes cruel way for sportswriters to dig at him or to use his clumsy shyness to get some laughs. Over time, the little phrases became a way for Yogi to paper over his shyness, to fill the silences with laughter. He always said that his childhood friend Joe Garagiola was the witty one; he helped come up with some of the lines.

Then, after Yogi Berra won all those World Series, he found that whatever he said was viewed as witty and wise. He started getting credited for things Mark Twain had said or Will Rogers or Satchel Paige. He began to notice people waiting for him, expecting him to say something that they could share with his friends. And he rarely disappointed them.

“If I could just make ‘em up on the spot,” he told one couple of the Yogiisms, “I’d be famous.”

Berra liked that his words made people laugh. But they never told his story. He liked to listen. He liked to stay silent and just listen – to Vince Lombardi talking football or Derek Jeter talking baseball or his grandchildren talking about what they dreamed about or Presidents Eisenhower talking about D-Day or his friends as they talked about the old days. He never quite got over that he had lived a life that took him to all these places where he met all these people and he accomplished all these things.

Yogi Berra died Tuesday night near his longtime home in Montclair, N.J., and his was a 90-year life of heroism and triumph and loss and glory and embarrassment and love, mostly love. You cannot eulogize a life that big, not without reliving all 90 years. You can only hold on to a few images. The image that lingers is of Yogi Berra looking at the gray sky and somehow seeing sunshine.

“They’ll play,” Yogi says quietly, almost a whisper. “They’ll play baseball today.”