“ Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” Simon and Garfunkel sang in their 1960s song Mrs. Robinson. Baseball...
It was a Tuesday, June 6, 1944 when thousands of Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France. Among the many young men who fought bravely was a nineteen-year-old kid named Lawrence Peter Berra from Saint Louis, Missouri. He was a sailor, a Coxswain on a U.S. Navy rocket boat. The war was in full swing and the kid they called “Larry” was in the middle of the D-Day invasion when his rocket boat capsized off the coast of Omaha Beach. With shooting going on all around him, he managed to survive his unexpected swim.
Larry was like so many other kids who went to war, all strangers thrown together and not knowing anything about each other. Throughout his tour of duty, between battles, the subject of conversation was usually about their personal lives: “What are you going to do after the War?” and “What did you do before the war?”
Larry would say, “Oh, I played some baseball in the minor leagues at Norfolk.” His buddies would look at him with his bandy legs and say, “Are you pulling our leg? What the hell kind of ball player are you?” and “Were you a bat boy or something?” They never took Larry very seriously and every once in a while, they would kid him. But Larry never took it to heart. He would just smile and laugh when they laughed.
Then one day after the war, there was a spread about the New York Yankees in Life magazine along with a picture of the kid they knew as Larry. The guys that kidded Larry during the war, now found his picture in Life magazine staring back at them. There was no mistaking that face. But they knew him as “Larry,” not “Yogi.” The comments became, “That's Larry, good God. That's Larry. He really did play baseball!”
Lawrence Peter was a likeable young man, perhaps a little awkward but determined and focused in everything he did. Lawrence was the youngest of four boys born in Saint Louis, Missouri to Italian immigrant parents. The family lived on Elizabeth Street in a poor Italian neighborhood known as “Dago Hill” or “The Hill.”
From his earliest years, Lawrence and his brothers showed signs of athletic abilities. Whatever sport was available is what they played, be it roller hockey, soccer, football or baseball. Although Lawrence was the youngest of the group, he was not to be underestimated. His competitive spirit was matched by his determination and his qualities as an athlete and, though he enjoyed playing many sports, his preference for baseball was apparent almost from the time he could walk.
The brothers loved the game and they played it as often as they could while managing to hold down jobs to contribute to the family's financial support. Lawrence felt that he also needed to contribute to the family's support, so after completing the eighth grade, he quit school to look for work. His jobs ranged from working in a coal yard to a shoe factory to driving a truck. As busy as they were, the brothers still found the time to play baseball. There was no doubt that Lawrence was destined to become famous in the field of baseball, but he would not be known by the name “Lawrence” or “Larry.”
It seems that one day, quite by accident, a close friend of Larry named Bobby Hofman happened to see a movie in which a Hindu yogi was seated cross-legged while charming a snake. Bobby was so amazed at how closely Larry resembled the snake charmer in the movie that he jokingly began calling him “Yogi” not once, but several times. Before long the name stuck and Lawrence Peter Berra became known as Yogi Berra.
At age seventeen, Yogi was playing minor league baseball when he was approached by Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Saint Louis Cardinals. As the story goes, Branch Ricky had first spotted Joe Garagiola, another kid from the Dago Hill neighborhood and offered Garagiola $500 to sign with the Cardinals but when he approached Yogi he offered him a mere $250 to sign.
Yogi felt that the scales of fairness were not evenly balanced and consequently he declined the offer. The general manager of the Saint Louis Cardinals was stunned by the fact that this young kid had declined the chance to get his foot in the door of major league baseball. It's just unheard of. After being turned down by Yogi, Branch Ricky was reported to have said, “He'll never make more than a Triple A ballplayer at best.” However, there were others who disagreed with Ricky's estimation of Yogi's talents. The Yankee Scout Leo Browne convinced the Yankees that Yogi was worth the $500, so the Yankees signed him.
“He isn't much to look at and he looks like he's doing everything wrong, but he can hit. He got a couple of hits off us on wild pitches,” said Hall of Famer, Mel Ott.
It was not unusual to hear coaches and managers talk about Yogi Berra. They considered him a fantastic and phenomenal ballplayer with words like, “He could hit any kind of wild pitch; you never knew what the hell he was gonna hit.”
Yogi Berra was the kind of ball player who never met a pitch he didn't like. He would swing at practically anything. Coaches were heard to advise him that he should not swing at bad pitches, to which Yogi would respond by saying, “Yeah, but I hit it, so it's not a bad pitch.”
It was his sense of humor along with his quips which seemed to endear him to the nation. They were his personal witty remarks replete with nonsensical redundancies and paradoxical contradictions which often caused his audience to smile while contemplating the confusing nature of what they had just heard.
For the most part, the quips contained the elements of surprise and spontaneity as well as a tendency to grab people unawares. They made no sense, but they were funny. Only Yogi could do that: that is, to come out with a quip that lightens the moment. Out of a clear blue sky he would say, “You can observe a lot by watching.” and “When you come to a fork in the road...take it.”
At this point, we've come to the fork in the road, so we'll take it and continue next time with the exploration of the personal qualities of a family man of deep religious convictions and moral values.
To be continued ...