For a taste of Lenny Shecter’s no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners style, check out this excerpt from “The Flower of America” chapter of his 1969 book of essays, The Jocks.
By Leonard Shecter
There are famous Yankee players whose public images bear little relation to the kind of men they actually are—Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, to name three.
Suave, sure, husband of Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio holds a unique place in Americana. He is super-hero. Sixteen years after he completed his remarkable feat of hitting in 56 straight games he was immortalized (if a god can obtain new immortalization) by Simon and Garfunkel in “Mrs. Robinson.”
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
In fact, the nation has not turned its lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio. As Gay Talese showed in a remarkable article in Esquire in 1966, DiMaggio is a vain, lonely man, who is a tyrant to the sycophants who surround him. Wrote Talese. “His friends [know] . . . that should they inadvertently betray a confidence . . . [he] will never speak to them again.” Talese then described a scene in a restaurant called Reno’s in San Francisco which DiMaggio would often drop into.
They may wait for hours sometimes, waiting and knowing he may wish to be alone; but it does not seem to matter, they are endlessly awed by him, moved by the mystique, he is a kind of male Garbo. They know he can be warm and loyal if they are sensitive to his wishes, but they must never be late for an appointment to meet him. One man, unable to find a parking space, arrived a half-hour late once and DiMaggio didn’t talk to him again for three months. They know, too, when dining at night with DiMaggio, that he generally prefers male companions and occasionally one or two young women, but never wives; wives gossip, wives are trouble, and men wishing to remain close to DiMaggio must keep their wives at home.
His friends fawn on him, call him “Clipper” (one must wonder why a grown man would tolerate that), introduce him to mindless young women and pick up his tabs. At her death he turned a marriage to Marilyn Monroe that didn’t work (she complained that all he wanted to do was watch television) into a maudlin lost love. He held a permanent grudge against Robert Kennedy because he once spent a lot of time at a party dancing with Marilyn. This was aftertheir marriage had disintegrated.
And in the end he took a coaching job—not a managing job, a coaching job—with Charles O. Finley, the erratic owner of the Oakland Athletics. It was the act of a lonely, probably bitter man. No one had offered him a job as manager. In the fall of 1968 Joe DiMaggio was in Japan to teach the batters there how to hit. One suspects he had no more difficulty communicating with them than he did with American batters.
Yogi Berra is a particularly glowing example of an image which has outstripped the man. Of course, it is not his fault. It is not his fault that he is not a lovable gnome bubbling over withbon mots. Nor is it his fault that he is a narrow, suspicious man, jealous of the man other people supposed him to be and which he knew he was not. He was supposed to be a humorist because he said things like “Bill Dickey learned me all his experiences,” and “I want to thank you for making this award necessary.” In fact, there is severe doubt that Yogi Berra ever said anything intentionally funny in his life. The late Tom Meany used to tell this possibly apocryphal story about Berra which, at the least, illustrates the breadth of his knowledge. Berra was introduced to Ernest Hemingway at a party in a restaurant. When he returned to his table, he was asked what he thought of him. Said Berra: “He’s quite a character. What does he do?”
Well, he’s a writer.
“Yeah? What paper?”
After a while Berra and his wife, Carmen, came to believe that he was indeed something of a man of the world, raconteur, sophisticate. After all, weren’t they rich? (Berra has had enormous financial luck. He sold his interests in a bowling emporium at a great profit shortly before the bottom dropped out of the bowling business. And he took a block of stock in return for endorsing a little-known chocolate ”drink”-which means no milk and very little chocolate: the stock sky-rocketed.
There was an autobiography called Yogi. It was a typical baseball autobiography, all shiny and bright for the kiddies, naturally written by somebody else, a man who could have done better. But by the time the world was ready for a book about Berra, the Bern1s were not interested in reality. They wanted the book to be about Berra as they would have liked him to be. So it turned out to be a terrible book, cheap and phony and transparent I reviewed it that way.
It was a lovely spring day in St. Petersburg. The palm trees waved shiny green against the high blue sky. Yogi Berra saw me as soon as I arrived.
“You son of a bitch,” Berra said. “You cocksucker.”
He never said that in Yogi.
But that is not what I remember about him most. I remember most that the other ball players always complained that Yogi Berra would stand naked at the clubhouse buffet and scratch his genitals over the cold cuts.
Mickey Mantle is a quite different man. He was never shoe-horned into a role which, like Berra, he was unprepared by nature and intellect to play. Mantle was a country boy, ill-educated, frightened, convinced at an early age by a series of deaths in his family that he was doomed to live only a short life.
He was simple, naive and, at the very first, trusting. It did not take him long to misplace his trust. He soon found that he was trusting the wrong people and, when this cost him money, it made him withdrawn and sullen, as well as poor. Fortified by Yankee tradition—watch out for outsiders-Mantle was soon responding only to his teammates and the glad-handers and celebrity fuckers who flocked around him. (Mantle is almost universally liked by his teammates because he goes out of his way to be outgoing and friendly with them. He vigorously denies that he decided to behave that way after he, as a rookie, was ignored by the aloof, morose DiMaggio, but a young ball player I trust swears Mantle told him this and I have no reason to disbelieve him.) Pretty soon, as his skills blossomed, it became Mantle and his hedonistic enclave against the world.
And obviously the world didn’t count. The world was made up of crowds of sweaty, smelly little kids who demanded autographs and smeared ice cream on your new stantung suit, middle-aged slobs who accosted you in restaurants in ·mid-forkful to simper about getting an autograph for their little kiddies at home, and cloddish newspaper and magazine people who never got anything right and only wanted to hurt you anyway. When he was playing poorly or when he was especially plagued by one of his numerous injuries, Mantle would become particularly withdrawn and sulky, turn his back even on well-wishers. A great deal of this was sheer self-protection. For Mantle always doubted himself and, most of all, his knowledge of the game.
He had reason to. Mantle was never much of a student of baseball. Born with marvelous skills, he played it intuitively, never having to pay much attention to what was going on. More than once I heard him ask a teammate about a rival pitcher, “What’s he throw?” This is not an unusual question around a ball club-except if the pitcher had been in the league five years and pitched against the Yankees maybe 30 times.
It is possible that Mantle was incapable of even the minimum amount of concentration the finer points of baseball require. Certainly he refused to work on his own physical conditioning during the off-season, a refusal which, if it not actually shorten his career, obviously did nothing to prevent the pulled muscles in legs and groin which plagued him during almost every season. Year after year Mantle was told to go home and lift weights with his legs. He was begged to keep in good enough physical condition so that he would at least not disarrange a hamstring, as he did so often, in the opening days of spring training. But Mantle’s idea of keeping fit was to have an active social life and play golf out of an electric cart which was outfitted with a bar. He had fun. He also had pulled muscles.
It has become a cliche to wonder how great Mantle would have been had he been physically healthy during his career. What I wonder is how great he might have been had he even tried to keep physically healthy.
In the early years of his career Mantle was booed by the fans because he refused to live up to his promise. Later on the boos turned to cheers as he became known as a man who made a gallant effort despite enormous physical pain. I’m not sure the fans weren’t right in the first place.
Bronx Banter Book Excerpt
From Harvey Araton’s entertaining new book,”Driving Mr. Yogi” (which can be purchased at Amazon) here’s an excerpt to make you smile:
The first harbinger of spring — or spring training — at the home of Ron and Bonnie Guidry was a telephone call from Yogi Berra.
“You get the frog legs yet?” Berra would ask.
“Yog,” Ron Guidry would say, “it’s freaking January.”
Too late, Berra was already in serious countdown mode for the next Guidry frog fry extravaganza. It seemed like only yesterday that Berra had looked askance at Guidry’s beloved delicacy, like it was tofu wrapped in seaweed. It had actually been years since Mel Stottlemyre had bragged one spring training day about hunting frogs in the Northwest and cooking them himself. Guidry, with all due respect, was obliged to inform him that he hadn’t really experienced frog legs until he’d had them Cajun-style, or straight from the Guidry family cookbook.
Guidry returned to his apartment that evening, fried up a fresh batch, and the next day passed them around the coaches’ room. He offered one to Berra, who immediately made a face.
“Come on,” Guidry said. “You’ll like ’em.”
Stottlemyre, munching nearby, couldn’t disagree. But still Berra demurred.
“Yogi, I’ll tell you what, if you don’t try one, we’re not going to supper tonight,” Guidry said.
Was he serious? Probably not, but if Berra knew one thing about Guidry, it was that he was proud of his Cajun culture and cuisine.
Yogi wondered if he was in some way hurting his friend’s feelings. So he finally gave in, picked one off the plate, and gave it a nibble. Lo and behold, it was delicious. He wanted another, and as the years rolled by, he would continue to fi nd a place in his diet for something no conscientious doctor would have ordered for a man in his eighties.
Following treatment in the seventies for an arrhythmia, Berra assiduously watched what he ate. He avoided cholesterol-heavy breakfasts, pushed away most desserts with a dismissive “too fattening,” and made sure that the Progresso soup prepared for him at his museum almost daily and specifically at noon by the museum’s faithful business manager Bettylou O’Dell was low in sodium.
He had even long ago disassociated himself from the Yoo-hoo soft drink that he had made famous in the fifties and sixties (by chiming in a commercial, “Me-he for Yoo-hoo!”) because he objected to the preservatives that had changed the drink’s texture and flavor. If he relaxed his calorie counting, it was usually at dinner, especially at big family dinners, where everyone down to the youngest of the Berras was taught that the heels of the long Italian bread were reserved for Grandpa. Berra’s favorite dish was tripe — the stomach tissue of cows and a peasant staple in the old country — but he enjoyed a fairly wide range of gastronomic fare that occasionally didn’t agree with him.
For instance, he liked to munch on hot peppers right out of the jar. It was another habit that Carmen wanted him to break — except it turned out that Guidry, who used peppers to spice up his Cajun cooking, was Berra’s main supplier.
“I’d have them with me in spring training, and then when he’d go back to New Jersey, he’d tell me to send him a batch when I got back to Louisiana,” Guidry said. When Guidry would comply, he would get a call from Carmen asking that he stop sending the peppers. When he didn’t send them the next time Yogi asked, he’d get a call wanting to know where the peppers were. “Either way, I had one of them fussin’ about the damn peppers,” he said with mock resignation.
After so many years of sitting across the table from him at one Tampa establishment or another, Guidry could probably expound on Berra’s culinary preferences better than anyone but Carmen. At the very least, he could discuss them like a comedian working his monologue.
“When we go to the Rusty Pelican, that’s a seafood place and they have swordfish, which he loves, so he gets that all the time there,” Guidry said. “When we go to the Bahama Breeze, he likes the black bean soup, and with that he’ll have the seafood paella or the barbecued ribs. Four times out of five, he’ll have the seafood, but let’s say we have been to the Pelican the night before, well, that means he’s already had seafood, so he’ll get the ribs.
“Now Fleming’s is the steakhouse, so that’s what he gets there, and then at the Bonefish he has to have the sea bass. Then after he moved into the Residence Inn, he went one night to eat with Carmen at Lee Roy Selmon’s, which is right next door. So he tells me the next day, ‘Hey, it’s not bad.’ The guy recognized him, sat him at a nice table, everything was fine. OK, so now we got to go to Selmon’s, and there he gets the meatloaf. But since he’s been at the Residence Inn, where they put out a spread in the evening, he also keeps a list on the door of his refrigerator that tells him what they’ll be serving. If he likes something he’s had before, he’ll say, ‘On Tuesday, I’m going to eat in the hotel.’ ‘OK, that’s good, Yog.’ ”
No Tampa meal, however, was as anticipated and as fussed over as Guidry and Berra’s “Frog Legs Night,” which by the end of Berra’s first decade back with the Yankees had taken on the ritualistic weight of Old-Timers’ Day.
Before leaving for Tampa every spring, and after being badgered by Berra, Guidry would pack about two hundred legs into the truck, having purchased them inexpensively (about $200 for a hundred pounds) in Lafayette, where they are plentiful and sold year-round.
From the same vendor, he would buy a mixture of fl our and cornmeal seasoning in a gallon jar.
“They’re so simple to fix,” Guidry said. “You got the egg batter, the fry mix, dip ’em in the batter, throw ’em in the frying pan.” From the frying pan, the frog legs would be transferred to paper towels, to soak up some of the grease. It took about ten minutes to cook up a batch of forty legs.
Guidry would ration his supply so that it would last throughout spring training. He would prepare some for the more adventurous players looking for a break from the standard clubhouse fare. Jorge Posada was a longtime fan. CC Sabathia joined the club when he came on board in 2009. Guidry would also invite two or three buddies over on one of his first nights in town and playfully have Goose Gossage dial New Jersey to let Berra know what was on the menu that night.
“Yogi, we’re over here at Gator’s, and we’re eating all the frog legs,” Gossage would say.
That was enough to set Berra off. “There’d better be some goddamn legs left when I get down there,” he’d growl.
Excerpted from DRIVING MR. YOGI: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift. Copyright © 2012 by Harvey Araton. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
[Photo Credit: Edward Linsmier for The New York Times, Saed Hindash/N.J.com]
From George King III in the Post: Hiroki Kuroda has been given a spot in the starting rotation. C.C. Sabathia, of course, is the ace. But nothing is a lock for the rest of the fellas:
Barring an injury, Girardi is going to have put somebody in the bullpen — Hughes, who has 49 relief appearances, and Garcia are the favorites — or send a pitcher to SWB.
“I am not trying to cause a stir,’’ Girardi said. “I am making sure that when we leave spring training we are taking the five best. And to be fair, there are no guarantees.’’
Girardi recalled Don Zimmer offering advice and is reminded of it every day.
“Don’t guarantee spots in spring training,’’ Zimmer told Girardi.
IIATMS runs down their list of the top 30 Yankee prospects.
Mike Axisa looks at the Russell Martin situation over at River Ave.
Rebecca Glass writes about Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira while Steve Goldman fights off paranoid nightmare blues about the Yankees’ offense over at the Pinstriped Bible.
And over at Lo-Hud, Chad Jennings provides the notes of the day.
Via Pete Abe in the Boston Globe, Joe Girardi had some nice words for Jason Varitek who recently announced his retirement. Meanwhile, right on time, Bobby V is lobbing verbal grenades across enemy lines.
[Photo Credit: New York Times, from their amazing new tumblr site: The Lively Morgue]
Still fit for magazine covers:
No man in the history of American sports—perhaps even in the history of America—has spent a lifetime facing more expectant silences. And it is happening again. Another afternoon. Another silence. Strangers stand at a respectful distance and wait for Lawrence Peter Berra to say something funny and still wise, pithy but quirkily profound, obvious and yet strangely esoteric. A Yogi-ism.
It ain’t over till it’s over.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
You can observe a lot by watching.
In this case the strangers waiting in the silence are a mother and son. They had been touring the Yogi Berra Museum in Little Falls, N.J., in anticipation of having the boy’s bar mitzvah here. The family had decided that there is no better place for a boy to become a man than in the museum of the greatest winner in the history of baseball. And when they got word that the legend himself was present, they had to meet him, of course. They found him here, in the museum office, looking for a glass of water.
“I cannot believe it’s really you!” the woman says to Yogi Berra.
“It’s really me,” he says.
Meanwhile, here’s a video from SI:
Bronx Banter Book Excerpt
Last week, I got a copy of Neil Lanctot’s new book, “Campy,” a biography of Roy Campanella. I was duly impressed by Lanctot’s previous effort, a meticulously researched book about the Negro Leagues and so I opened his new book book with considerable anticipation. The prologue was so striking, and so fitting for this space, that I immediately contacted Simon and Schuster for an excerpt. They generously agreed, so here is the prologue to “Campy.”
Please enjoy and then go to Amazon to buy the book. Looks like a keeper.
By Neil Lanctot
FOR SOME CITIES, a World Series game is an all too rare event to be savored and debated for years afterward. But for a New Yorker in 1958, the Fall Classic was a predictable part of the October calendar, as humdrum as a Columbus Day sale at Macy’s or candy apples at a neighborhood Halloween party.
The great catcher Roy Campanella was a veteran of the October baseball wars. Between 1949 and 1956, his Brooklyn Dodgers had taken on the New York Yankees five times, coming up empty all but once. On Saturday, October 4, Campy was returning to Yankee Stadium for yet another Series game, but everything had changed since the last time he’d set foot in the House That Ruth Built. The Dodgers no longer played in their cozy ballpark in Flatbush but in a monstrosity known as the Coliseum a continent away. And Campy no longer played baseball at all because a January automobile accident had left him a quadriplegic. For the past five months, he had doggedly worked with the staff and physicians at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation on Thirty-fourth Street in Manhattan to learn how to function in a wheelchair. He had now sufficiently progressed to leave the hospital on weekends.
His doctors had encouraged him to accept Yankee co-owner Del Webb’s invitation to attend Saturday’s game at the Stadium, although Campy was initially not so sure. He had not appeared in public since his accident, nor had he sat on anything except a wheelchair. Nevertheless, he set aside any lingering anxiety to make the early-afternoon car ride to the Bronx, where box seats behind the Yankee dugout had already been set aside for Roy, his wife, two of his children, and a male attendant.
When the family station wagon arrived at Yankee Stadium, Campy could not help but think of the times he had suited up in the locker room in the past. He had never liked hitting at the Stadium, but he had enjoyed his fair share of glory there, whacking a key single in the deciding game of the Negro National League championship game as a teenager in 1939 and a more crucial double in game seven of the World Series in 1955, the year the Dodgers finally bested the Yanks. Today, he would just be another fan.
Campy soon discovered his wheelchair was too wide for the Stadium’s narrow aisles. He had no choice but to be bodily carried by his attendant, two firemen, and a policeman. “I felt like some sad freak,” he later recalled. “It was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me. I felt ashamed.”
But the fans whose glances he so desperately wanted to avoid soon began to shout out encouragement. “Hi, Slugger!” one greeted him. “Attaboy, Campy!” yelled another. “Stay in there, Campy, you got it licked.” Before long, virtually every one of the 71,566 present realized that the fellow with the neck brace and “tan Bebop cap” being carried to his seat was three-time MVP Roy Campanella. “By some sort of mental telepathy thousands in the great three-tiered horse-shoe were on their feet and when the applause moved, like wind through wheat from row to row, I doubt if there were many there who didn’t know what had happened,” wrote Bill Corum of the Journal-American. “It was a sad thing. Yet it was a great thing too, in the meaning of humanity. No word was spoke that anybody will know. Yet it had the same effect as that moment when a dying Lou Gehrig stood on this same Yankee diamond and said … ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world.'”
Down on the field, the top half of the second inning took a backseat to the heartfelt hoopla in the stands. With the count 1-1 on Milwaukee’s Frank Torre, Yankee pitcher Don Larsen stepped off the mound as the players in both dugouts craned their necks to see what was causing the commotion and then began to join in the ovation themselves. Upon spotting Campy only a few yards away, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra flipped his mask and waved, while home plate umpire Tom Gorman offered “a clenched fist in a ‘keep-fighting’ gesture.”
Campanella, who had vowed beforehand that he “wasn’t going to cry,” struggled to keep his emotions in check. He smiled back at Yogi (who “kept looking back and hardly could resist the temptation to run over and shake Campy’s hand,” said one reporter) and winked at the mob of photographers who gathered at his seat. For the rest of that warm October afternoon, he tried to focus on the game, even trying to eat a hot dog without success, but he could not stop thinking about the outpouring of love he had just experienced. “It’s hard to explain the feeling that came over me. I don’t believe any home run I ever hit was greeted by so much cheering,” Campanella said later.
It was the first time he had received such applause in a wheelchair, but it would not be the last. For the rest of his life, his presence, whether in a major league ballpark or in front of a Manhattan deli, would evoke similar responses. He was no longer just a ballplayer but a symbol of something much more.
© 2011 Neil Lanctot
Joe Torre and Don Mattingly are expected to be at Yankee Stadium tonight to honor the late George M Steinbrenner. This will be Torre’s first trip to the new Yankee Stadium. Imagine the hand he’s going to get. For once Mattingly, Reggie and Yogi will have to take a back seat, because the loudest cheers will go to Joe.
Bronx Banter Interview
Our old pal Allen Barra sat down with me recently to talk about his new book, Yogi: Eternal Yankee.
Bronx Banter: You make the argument that Yogi was a better catcher than Johnny Bench. How close was Roy Campanella to Yogi during the Fifties? Was there any catcher even close to these two at the time?
Allen Barra: In Rio Bravo, Walter Brennan asks John Wayne if Ricky Nelson is faster than Dean Martin. “I’d hate to have to live on the difference,” says Duke. The real truth is that if you take Campanella at this peak, there’s probably very little difference between Berra, Bench and Campy. The only thing I might add to that is that it’s possible that, if given the same material to work with, Johnny and Roy could have gotten as much out of as many mediocre pitchers as well as Yogi did. But Yogi did do it, and that has to give him the edge.
BB: Did Yogi really deserve the 1954 and ‘55 MVP awards? In ‘54 the Indians won and Bobby Avila had a big year, also playing a key defensive position, and Mickey Mantle had a monstrous year. And in ’55 Mantle again had another ridiculous year.
AB: That’s a tough question. I don’t know if anyone’s done a “Value over Replacement Factor” kind of analysis for those years, but it’s arguable that Yogi might have had the highest value over anyone who could have replaced him at that position. In 1954 my guess is that the difference between Mantle and Berra wasn’t that great. Avila played a key defensive position, but not more key than Yogi’s. It probably should have been Mantle in ’55, but then I think there’s an equally good case that it probably should have been Yogi in 1950 instead of Phil Rizzuto. What’s interesting is that so many people thought that it should have been Yogi those years. I think that tells us something very important about him.
BB. Was there any year that Yogi should have won an MVP when he didn’t?
AB: Well, as I just mentioned, there was 1950. And you could turn the ’54 argument on its head and ask why Al Rosen, an Indian, wins the MVP [in 1953] when Yogi’s team won the pennant. I’m not saying Rosen didn’t deserve it, I’m just saying that if Yogi had won it, nobody would have gone to the barricades to say he didn’t deserve it, and I’d argue that he was also one of the top five players in the league in 1952. It’s more difficult to figure the value of a top-flight catcher. He did so many things to hold his pitching staffs together back then, I just don’t know if you can figure his worth compared to payers at other positions.
BB: It ‘s well known that Yogi helped Elston Howard when he joined the team but did Yogi ever question or go on the record about the Yankees’ institutional racism?
AB: No, I’m not aware that anyone in that period did. For one thing, when you talked to the players of that era, they all say, “Well, every year we heard that they were brining black players up through the minor league system, and we thought each year would be the next year.” I think there’s something to that – Gil McDougald told me something to that effect. I mean, the Yankee players were ready for it. They had no objections at all to integrating the team. It was only after a few seasons of George Weiss signing a black player for the minor league system and then trading him that they began to catch on. I’d have to say, though, that while the Yankees front office was as racist in its policies as the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees themselves got good marks from Elston and Arlene Howard and Larry Doby for their overall attitudes. Both the Howards and Doby put Yogi at the top of their list of good guys. Arlene Howard told me that Yogi and Elston “hit it off right away.”
BB. I know that walk rates were up in the Fifties and comparatively Yogi didn’t walk that much. But he was contact hitter and it’s hard to point this out as a major flaw. That said, were there any noticeable holes in his game, either offensively or in the field?
AB: No, none, and it ought to be mentioned that though Yogi didn’t walk that much, his on-base average was actually six points better than Johnny Bench’s in about the same number of games, and that’s what’s important. No, Yogi had no flaws. We all know he wasn’t much of a catcher until Bill Dickey learned him all of his experience, but by 1949 he was a very good catcher, and by 1950 the Yankee staff was pretty much relying on him to call their pitches. Or rather, he knew them well enough to call their pitches for them – did I just make some kind of Yogiism? Anyway, all that crap in David Halberstam’s The Summer of ’49 about Allie [Reynolds] and Yogi not getting along is fiction. All the Yankees told me so.
Bronx Banter Book Excerpt
Everybody Loves Yogi
One of the most anticipated baseball books of the spring is Allen Barra’s biography on Yogi Berra: Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee (W.W. Norton). Yogi is perhaps the most beloved Yankee of them all but he is also one of the most underrated great players of all time. In his enthusiastic and provocative manner, Barra makes the case for the unadulterated greatness of Yogi.
Here is an exclusive excerpt.
By Allen Barra
He was the guy who made the Yankees seem almost human.
Sometime in the summer of 1941, two of the great legends of baseball narrowly missed making a connection that would have radically altered baseball. Some historians place the date in 1942, but the two men with reason to remember it best, Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola, say, and I have taken their word, it was 1941.
Lawrence Peter Berra, a then somewhat stocky, ungainly looking sixteen-year-old Italian-American kid from the “Dago Hill” area of St. Louis, had attracted the attention of the best organization in the National League for a tryout in Sportsman’s Park. Jack Maguire, a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, told his boss, general manager Branch Rickey, that Berra had a powerful left-handed swing, a great arm, and heaps of potential. Rickey wasn’t sure; he was more interested in another kid from the Hill, Joseph Henry Garagiola, a year younger than Berra. Garagiola was thought by Rickey to be faster, smoother, and more polished. Dee Walsh, another Cardinals scout, talked Rickey into signing Garagiola with a $500 bonus, but Rickey was skeptical about offering anything at all to Berra.
Rickey had been getting reports on both boys all summer, not just from his scouts but also from two of his outfielders, Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore, who occasionally showed up to give pointers at the WPA baseball school at Sherman’s Park. Rickey’s initial offer to young Berra was a contract—but no bonus. To a boy that age, a professional baseball contract, even without a bonus, was nothing to be scorned. But Lawrence, displaying the kind of stubborn integrity that would, in just a few years, stymie the most powerful organization in sports, balked. “In the first place,” he would tell sportswriter Ed Fitzgerald nearly two decades later, “I knew it was going to be tough enough to convince Mom and Pop that they ought to let me go away. But if Joey was getting $500 for it and I wasn’t getting anything, they would be sure to think it was a waste of time for me.”
Hedging, Rickey offered $250. Branch Rickey was the most influential executive in baseball—by the end of the decade, it was estimated that nearly 37 percent of all big league players had been developed in one of his farm systems—and Larry’s brash reply took him aback: “No, I want the same as Joey’s getting.”2 Rickey did not mention to Berra how much a month he would be earning under the contract, and Berra never asked. “That didn’t matter to me. I would have taken anything. All I was interested in was that if Garagiola was getting $500, I wanted $500, too.” Yogi would later take pains to emphasize that he wasn’t jealous of his pal, but he was convinced, from years of sandlot and street games, that he was as good a ballplayer as Joe. Garagiola disagreed. “Yogi wasn’t better than me,” recalls Joe. “He was much better. There were a lot of good ballplayers on the Hill at that time, and ‘Lawdy’—as his friends called him, echoing his mother, who couldn’t pronounce ‘Larry’—was the best. You know how kids choose up sides with a bat, one hand on top of the other until you reach the end of the handle? When the last hand got to the top, the first thing said was ‘We want Lawdy.’ ”