Yogi Berra Today (1999)
By Marty Appel
It wasn’t very long after Joe DiMaggio’s passing that someone first used the term “greatest living Yankee” in Yogi Berra’s presence.
His reaction was very typical of this proud and honest man. “Oh, geez, you got Rizzuto, and you got Whitey…..I don’t know.”
But then he quietly came to accept it. He had reacted as he always does – with modesty, and as a team player. But when he realized that it might be true, and how much it meant to Joe D over 30 years, well, he sort of let it settle in.
He does, after all, know what he has accomplished. He knows that his World Series records will probably stand forever, that his three MVP awards and his leadership role on five consecutive world championship teams will always be his Yankee legacy. And that he was the only player to span the full tenure of Casey Stengel’s managerial term with the Yankees, and that he played in 14 World Series.
What is harder to package are all of the other things that have made him the man he is, so admired and beloved by Americans whether they know his baseball accomplishments or not. In fact, at 74, he has never been bigger than he is today in the hearts of the fans.
Hall of Fame journalist Leonard Koppett once wrote, “”People have made fun of Yogi all his life – but with affection and respect, a truly potent combination for popularity. But it was Yogi’s ability to accept and absorb the teasing, cheerfully and amicably, while never letting go of a firm grip on his own values, convictions and determination, that made the popularity permanent. In the brightest of publicity spotlights for more than four decades, Yogi remained completely himself – a rarer and more difficult accomplishment than making the Hall of Fame.”
When Tom Lasorda hinted that he might be interested in managing again, after he had been voted into the Hall of Fame by Yogi and the others on the Veteran’s Committee, Yogi was the first to publicly remind Tom – and everyone – that he had given his word that he was retired, and that was how he had earned election. You do not go back on your word in Yogi’s universe. Lasorda sat down.
Consider if you will, that while it is great to be in the Hall of Fame, great to have your uniform number retired, and great to have a plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium, there are also these remarkable accomplishments:
There is the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University in Little Falls, NJ, a newly constructed, free standing building, funded by friends and neighbors and fans as a tribute to the career of the man, and as an institution in which regular seminars and educational programs better man’s understanding of man and teach sportsmanship and ethics.
A portion of the Yogi Berra Museum commemorates the National Pastime during World War II, when Yogi was the only big leaguer – albeit a future one – to land at Normandy.
There is adjoining Yogi Berra Stadium, a beautiful new ballpark that is home to the Northeast League’s New Jersey Jackals and the Montclair State college team, with a special skybox at the Museum from which Yogi and his guests can oversee the action.
There is “The Yogi Book – I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said” – which was no less than the best selling sports book of 1998. It is based on all of those wonderful quotes attributed to him, some real, some not, but most of which find their way into everyday speech, and certainly into every politician’s speeches. “It ain’t over till it’s over”, by the way, was first spoken when he managed the 1964 Yankees, not the 1973 Mets. (He won pennants in both leagues, another rarity).
There is the standard reference book “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”, which includes no less than eight entries by Dr. Berra.
Did someone say Doctor? Oh yes, Lawrence Peter Berra, who had to leave school after eighth grade to help his family during The Depression, received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree a few years ago from Montclair State.
There is more. His friendships from baseball are warm and genuine, but he has many friendships far from baseball, far beyond what any fan might expect. Among his friends are Dr. Milton Friedman, the famed Stanford economist and Tim Russert, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He still calls Craig Biggio of the Astros a friend – Yogi coached at Houston at the end of his career, when Biggio was a catching prospect, and Craig has twice visited the Museum.
Yogi and Carmen celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on January 26. In what might have been a quiet and reflective time of their lives, it was instead as busy a period as they had ever lived through. The Museum had had its groundbreaking, its ceremonial opening and its public opening within a matter of months. Ted Williams had honored them by coming up from Florida for the dedication. (“A diamond in the rough,” Williams called him, and Yogi later was inducted in Williams’ Florida-based Museum). Yogi greeted the Toms River Little League champions at the Museum, and was tabbed to do new commercials for both Amtrak and New Jersey Tourism. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has become a new friend, with two visits to the Museum, including one to present the 1998 World Championship trophy for display.
There was the reconciliation with George Steinbrenner at the Museum, arranged by WFAN’s Suzyn Waldman with a big assist from Dale Berra, who said, “Dad, your grandchildren have never seen the hand you would get at Yankee Stadium.”
There was an invitation to ring the final bell at the New York Stock Exchange, a first ball ceremony on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, plans for the big “Yogi Berra Day”, a grand reception at the team‘s Welcome Home Dinner, and then, sadly, three events related to DiMaggio’s death – a national press conference at the Museum on the day of his passing, the memorial mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and presence at Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium when the monument was unveiled.
There will be a PBS special on Yogi in August, followed by a home video version. He was even inducted, as an opponent, into the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame in May.
As if this wasn’t enough, there is pride in the accomplishments of his three sons – Tim (a former player with the NFL’s Baltimore Colts), Dale (a former infielder with the Pirates, Yankees and Astros), and Larry (a former New York Mets prospect), who now run LTD Enterprises, – and the nine grandchildren they have given him, the oldest of whom, Lindsay Berra, just graduated from North Carolina and tried out for the U.S. Olympic hockey team.
Yogi shines in the collectibles world – a new limited edition lithograph of him catching a foul pop, painted by Bill Purdom and offered through Bill Goff Inc., is a hot seller. Autographed reprints of his rookie card are inserted in this year’s Topps baseball cards, and Leland’s Auctions recently sold an old Yogi mitt for more than $2,000. His photos are offered by the New York Times as a premium, and can be found on the walls of corporate America – from the Chief Financial Officer’s office at Burson Marsteller Public Relations, to the private office of Jerry Springer!
But of all the pride in accomplishment that Yogi must feel as he walks the golf course or pats you on your arm as he tells a funny story, or wonders aloud why his old chocolate drink doesn’t taste the same, or thinks that “Riv-i-era” is a helluva closer for the Yankees – there is one other item which stands alone as perhaps the most remarkable of all his baseball feats.
Counting his time as player, coach and manager, and including World Series and All-Star Games, Yogi Berra earned 38 rings, plus a 39th for being a member of the Hall of Fame. It is impossible to imagine that anyone in any sport will ever experience anything like that again. (Michael Jordan had 18).
Carmen, of course, has another record that will never be broken. “Nobody ever received as many plaques from the B’nai B’rith as Yogi did,” she says with a smile.
Or as much genuine affection from a sports-conscious nation. “If I had to do it all over again,” Yogi told the Toms River kids, tears forming in his eyes, “I’d do it all over again.”
Greatest living Yankee? A panel of sportswriters gave DiMaggio the honor in 1969. Somehow, in 1999, it doesn’t seem necessary to take a vote.