The 18-year-old U.S. Navy enlistee, thinking it sounded less boring than the dull training he was doing in 1944, volunteered for service on what he thought an officer had called “rocket ships.” Actually, they were small, slow, vulnerable boats used as launching pads for rockets to give close-in support for troops assaulting beaches.
The service on those boats certainly was not boring. At dawn on June 6, 1944, that sailor was a few hundred yards off Omaha Beach. Lawrence Peter Berra, who died Tuesday at 90, had a knack for being where the action was.
Because he stood — when he stood; as a catcher, he spent a lot of time crouching at baseball’s most physically and mentally demanding position — 5 feet 7 inches, he confirmed the axiom that the beauty of baseball is that a player does not need to be 7 feet tall or 7 feet wide. The shortstop during Yogi’s first Yankee years was an even smaller Italian American, 150-pound Phil Rizzuto, listed at a generous 5 feet 6.
Yogi had, sportswriter Allen Barra says (in “Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee”), “the winningest career in the history of American sports.” He played on Yankee teams that went to the World Series 14 times in 17 years. He won 10 World Series rings; no other player has more than nine. He won three MVP awards; only Barry Bonds has more, with seven, but four of them probably tainted by performance-enhancing drugs. In seven consecutive seasons (1950-1956), Yogi finished in the top four in MVP voting. Only Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics (11 NBA championships, five MVP awards) and Henri Richard (11 NHL championships) have records of winning that exceed Yogi’s.
He grew up in what he and others called the Dago Hill section of St. Louis, when the Italian Americans who lived there did not take offense at the name. They had bigger problems. Allen Barra notes that an 1895 advertisement seeking labor to build a New York reservoir said whites would be paid $1.30 to $1.50 a day, “colored” workers $1.25 to $1.40 and Italians $1.15 to $1.25. The term “wop” may have begun as an acronym for “without papers,” as many Italians were when they arrived at Ellis Island.
American sports and ethnicity have been interestingly entangled. The nickname “Fighting Irish” was originally a disparagement by opponents of Notre Dame, which for many years had problems filling its football schedule because of anti-Catholic bigotry. But sports also have been solvents of a sense of apartness felt by ethnic groups.
In 1923, the Sporting News, which for many decades was described as “the Bible of baseball” (except by baseball fans, who described the Bible as “the Sporting News of religion”), called the national pastime the essence of the nation: “In a democratic, catholic, real American game like baseball, there has been no distinction raised except tacit understanding that a player of Ethiopian descent is ineligible. . . . The Mick, the Sheeny, the Wop, the Dutch and the Chink, the Cuban, the Indian, the Jap or the so-called Anglo-Saxon — his ‘nationality’ is never a matter of moment if he can pitch, hit or field.”
Ah, diversity. In 1908, the Sporting News said this about a Giants rookie, Charley “Buck” Herzog:
“The long-nosed rooters are crazy whenever young Herzog does anything noteworthy. Cries of ‘Herzog! Herzog! Goot poy, Herzog!’ go up regularly, and there would be no let-up even if a million ham sandwiches suddenly fell among these believers in percentages and bargains.”
David Maraniss, in his biography of the Pirates’ Roberto Clemente, the first Puerto Rican superstar, notes that as late as 1971, Clemente’s 17th season, one sportswriter still quoted him in phonetic English: “Eef I have my good arm thee ball gets there a leetle quicker.” In 1962, Alvin Dark, manager of the San Francisco Giants, banned the speaking of Spanish in the clubhouse. Today, with three of the most common surnames in baseball being Martinez, Rodriguez and Gonzalez, some managers speak Spanish.
Yogi’s great contemporary, Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella (another three-time MVP), was the son of an African American mother and Italian American father. Today, with two Italian Americans on the Supreme Court, it is difficult to imagine how delighted Italian Americans were with their first national celebrity — the elegant centerfielder on baseball’s most glamorous team, Joe DiMaggio, the son of a San Francisco fisherman.
DiMaggio was “Big Dago” to his teammates. Yogi was “Little Dago” and became the nation’s most beloved sports figure. As Yogi said when Catholic Dublin elected a Jewish mayor, “Only in America.”