The Kid From The Hill (part two)

Yankees manager Yogi Berra with George Steinbrenner in 1984

Yankees manager Yogi Berra with George Steinbrenner in 1984

 

There was something about Yogi Berra that simply did not attract attention.  Even his military buddies doubted his ability to play baseball, a judgment which was based solely on his appearance.  Not long after being discharged from the military, Yogi Berra, still in the minors, was assigned to the Yankees' New London, Connecticut, club. He was just another player vying for a spot in the major leagues.
 
In the business of baseball, scouts are everywhere.  They seem to come out of the woodwork looking for new talent. One day, as fate would have it, there on the New York Yankees' practice field, where Berra was busy playing his favorite sport, was a man named Mel Ott, who just happened to be the general manager of the New York Giants.  Mel Ott's attention was drawn to young Berra, and after studying him for a while, Ott offered to pay the Yankees $50,000 for Yogi's contract. 
 
In 1946, $50,000 was considered to be a lot of money: enough money for Douglas McPhail, the New York Yankees' general manager to conclude that if Mel Ott was willing to pay $50,000, it was worth taking another look at this young man who everybody called “Yogi.”  After realizing what he had, McPhail had Berra apprenticed up to the Newark Bears of the International League.  The following autumn, 1946, Berra was elevated to the New York Yankees where he would play for the next seventeen seasons. 
 
The Yankees placed Berra in the position of catcher, a position he had seldom played.  He found the transition difficult at first, but in time, he would make it his own, becoming the most celebrated catcher of his time.  He also made his mark as a hitter. As was his habit, when he walked up to bat, he didn't waste time.  He would swing at just about anything that came across the plate, even at what seemed like impossible pitches.  His idiosyncratic style of batting made him unique. It was during the 1947 World Series that he became the first pinch hitter to hit a home run in a World Series. 
 
However, Yogi Berra's life wasn't only about baseball.  It was 1948 when he began to frequent “Biggie's,” a restaurant owned by star outfielder Stan Musial of the Saint Louis Cardinals.  As the story goes, Yogi liked more than just the food at Biggie's.  Working the lunch shift was a lady of eighteen years named Carmen Short.  Yogi was in love. To hear Carmen tell it, Yogi walked into the restaurant from what she thought was a round of golf because he was wearing spiked shoes.  She describes him as “not exactly a Gary Cooper look-alike: five feet eight inches in height with floppy ears and an overdeveloped snout and a gap-tooth smile.”  But love is said to be blind and by 1949, Yogi and Carmen were husband and wife.
 
After seventeen years as a player, Yogi Berra was ready for something more challenging.   Starting in 1963, Berra moved from player to player/coach for the Yankees. The next year, as manager he led the Yankees to the World Series, which was lost to the St. Louis Cardinals. The loss resulted in his being replaced.  In 1965, he joined the coaching staff of the New York Mets until 1972.  In 1972 he managed the Mets until 1975.
 
The following year, Berra returned to the coaching staff of the Yankees and in 1984, Steinbrenner, the principal owner of the New York Yankees, offered Berra the job of manager.
 
Now it is important to mention here that in the baseball business, when managers don't maintain a sufficient number of wins, they get fired. It happens a lot and Steinbrenner was notorious for his propensity for whimsical firings. Berra was well aware of the dangers of baseball firings but agreed to take the job after receiving assurances by Steinbrenner that he would not be fired. But the impatient Steinbrenner did fire Berra. However, instead of firing him in person, Steinbrenner sent Clyde King to deliver the sad news.  The fact that Berra was fired was, in and of itself, devastating, but the way in which the firing was carried out had left a bitter taste in Berra's mouth.  Consequently, Yogi vowed never to return to the Yankee Stadium so long as Steinbrenner owned the Team. 
 
In 1998, the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center at Montclair State University in New Jersey opened its door for the first time.  The statement of its philosophy reads in part “... to preserve and promote the values of respect, sportsmanship, social justice and excellence.” Not surprisingly, they are the qualities which Yogi Berra has exemplified throughout his career. In six decades as a public figure, Yogi Berra maintains a reputation without scandal or vice and his celebrity has flourished.
 
After more than a decade, the standoff between Steinbrenner and Berra endured.  As the years passed, Steinbrenner became more and more apologetic and wished to make amends, but Berra would have none of it.  Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle tried desperately to get Berra to return to the Yankee Stadium.  Even Berra's sons tried to coax their dad saying that Berra's grandchildren had never seen their grandfather in a Yankee uniform.  But still Yogi wouldn't budge. Yogi's wife, Carmen, would ask, “Why are you mad at George?” and Yogi would reply, “You just don't understand.” 
 
Finally, in 1999, radio broadcaster Suzyn Waldman brokered a deal between Berra and Steinbrenner.  Steinbrenner would reach out to Berra personally, to apologize for the firing and to welcome Yogi Berra back to the Yankee Stadium wearing his old number “8” uniform.
 
Yogi thought about it and decided to do it his way or not at all. The meeting would have to take place on Yogi's turf, The Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center at Montclair State University in New Jersey. When Steinbrenner arrived fifteen minutes behind schedule, Berra greeted him at the door saying, “George, you're late!”  Yogi's fourteen-plus year feud with George Steinbrenner was at an end. 
 
From 1947 to 1962, the son of Italian immigrants, Lawrence Peter Berra and the Yankees won ten World Series titles. Berra holds records in World Series games, at bats, hits, singles and doubles. But what he is also well-known for are his witticisms.  Yogi Berra had a knack for nonsensical phrases.  Perhaps you have heard some of them:
 
“The future ain't what it used to be” and
“Never answer an anonymous letter” and
“Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours.”
If these saying sound familiar to you, it might be because , “It's deja vu all over again.”

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