I was at the Doctor’s office for a scheduled appointment. The young lady taking my vital signs glanced over, saw Yogi’s photo and name on the cover of this book and said” “Oh, Yogi Berra! From back when baseball players spoke English!” That honest statement grabbed my attention on a number of levels. Let’s look at the book.
It’s titled “Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee”, by Allen Barra. It was published in 2009 and features Yankee pin stripes on the cover.
Yogi’s parents are from Malvaglio, Italy – so far North they were “practically Germans” as his Yogi’s wife, Carmen, told the author. It’s amazing to me that I never connected Yogi Berra with being Italian before. I guess “Yogi” doesn’t sound like any Italian name I ever heard.
Speaking of Italian, I learned from this book that Harry Caray was a second generation Italian-American himself. I did not know that, and my dad was shocked that I wasn’t aware of that fact.
And Dodger’s catcher Roy Campanella, who had to wait until 1948 to get past the major league’s color barrier because his mother was African – American, was himself 3rd generation Sicilian -American on his father’s side.
So Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925 in “the Hill” (aka “Dago Hill”) section of St. Louis, Missouri, to Pietro and Paulina Berra. My dad, “The World’s Greatest Living Cubs Fan”, visited his cousins in St. Louis and stayed on “the Hill” back in the ‘30s (1934 or 1935). He doesn’t remember what street Joe and Rosie lived on, but it was near Grand Avenue.
Larry and his friends went to the movies and saw a travelogue featuring an Indian fakir, or “yogi”. One of the friends thought Larry looked like the yoga expert, or “yogi”, and the nickname was born.
Back in 1949, Yogi explained wearing protective gloves during workouts: “The only reason I need these gloves is ‘cause of my hands.”
In the introduction we learn that Yogi probably never said of a particular restaurant, “It’s so crowded nobody goes there any more.”
Speaking of finances Yogi opined: “I never got too hooked on cigarettes, ‘cause I couldn’t afford them. Maybe starvation kept me from getting cancer.”
Yogi served in the US Navy and was an “expendable as hell” rocket man during the D-Day Normandy invasion, serving on the smallest craft in the biggest invasion in world history. Yogi later said “I couldn’t see all the bloodshed that they showed in the movie ‘Private Ryan’, but I did see a lot of guys drown.”
In August, 1944, he participated in the Allied invasion of southern France (at Marseilles) and earned a Purple Heart. He later said: “It was a wacky war. A half hour after we were getting shot at by the Germans, the French were welcoming us.”
Speaking of the Navy, future Hall of Famer Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto gave up three of the best years of his career to the U.S. Navy.
Leo Durocher saw Berra play and said, “He can hit what he can reach. But big league curve balls will kill him.” That was considered the ultimate insult for a young player; he can’t hit a curve ball. Yogi developed a reputation for hitting “bad” pitches, but he explained: “If I can hit it, it’s a good pitch.” Richie Ashburn recalls that “the scouts told us Yogi would swing at anything – but they never told us he might hit anything.”
Yogi had phenomenal hand-eye coordination and never struck out more than 38 times in a season. In 1950 Yogi batted 597 times and struck out just 12 times.
Once, when Yogi and the Yankees played the Browns in St. Louis, “Larry ; playing right field, was hitless in four at-bats. ‘But Mom made ravioli for me after the game anyway’.”
The author describes Casey Stengel as “the perfect manager for Yogi Berra, and together the two men would, beginning with their first season in 1949, make baseball history.”
The author states, about the art of platooning: “invented by the Boston Braves’ George Stalling before World War I and refined by John McGraw, in 1949 Casey Stengel was ready to perfect it.”
Stengel alternated right and left-handed hitting position players which angered some of his veterans “because the manager didn’t play them regular”. There was a cure for such anger: “They just had to realize that the best way to show the manager up is by working hard and keeping in shape, so you can play well when you get the chance.”
Casey already understood a principle that many managers would not clearly comprehend until Earl Weaver began to articulate it in the 1970s. Namely, if you got better than average hitting from the men playing the key defensive positions – catcher, shortstop, second base – then you likely had a jump on the opposition.
“In the second game of a double header against the hapless Browns at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis…Yogi sent two blasts not merely over the right field [wall] but over the pavilion roof. ‘Mom’s lasagna tasted better than ever that night’…”
**To be continued**