During the days of the “Bronx Zoo” under owner George Steinbrenner III, Yogi Berra was a coach with the New York Yankees. In a clubhouse that included ex-Yankee honorary coaches such as Whitey Ford, as well as stars such as Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Sparky Lyle and perhaps Billy Martin in one of his five tours as manager, almost anything might happen. A player might arrive with bruises from a fist fight the night before, or a 300-pound friend of Thurman Munson’s might give a demonstration of how to set off firecrackers as you hold them between your teeth. So, practical jokes were held to a high standard.
Berra, who died Tuesday evening at the age of 90, was famous among his teams for (choose one): 1) his world-famous malaprops, 2) his 10 World Series championship rings as a player or 3) mooching personal products, from toothpaste to soap to razors.
Answer: No. 3. Ballplayers don’t care about your cute sayings and they already know your pedigree as a player. But don’t touch Whitey’s deodorant!
One day, the clubhouse was unusually quiet after a win, so I asked Roy White or Willie Randolph, or someone else who was at least partially sane, “What’s up? It’s like everybody’s watching and waiting for something to happen.”
Ford had finally gotten sick of Berra “borrowing” his roll-on deodorant. A 35-year friendship is one thing, but an armpit is an armpit. So Whitey had found a way to put quick-sealing glue inside his deodorant container. Berra was in the shower. Everybody waited for him to come out, preferably after applying the glue.
Berra always resembled a penguin. But that day, as he emerged, he was a penguin, his arm glued to his sides like flippers. I wish I could pretend I remember his expression. But you don’t think, “I can write this story the day this wonderful guy dies.” All I know is that I never saw so many ballplayers laugh until the tears came. And, eventually, Berra was laughing, too. And vowing revenge.
Usually, players who win three MVPs have at least a trace of vanity. Berra had none. Most players whose names are world famous are at least slightly aloof. Not Berra. Yogi had no idea who he was, yet knew himself completely.
In Berra’s last all-star season, I was just a freshman in high school. So what do I know? But I’m sure I watched almost every Senators-Yankees game that was televised in Washington in his last seven years — they met 22 times a year — plus his World Series games, which means almost every World Series game of my youth. “Everybody” (outside New York) hated the Yankees, but loved Berra. He was the pinstripe exception, the common man, who somehow joined the world’s most elite sports team, yet, for many years, was considered their on-field leader.
At 5 feet 7, 185 pounds, it is doctrine to describe him as “squat.” Maybe so. But if you were learning to play the game yourself, what you saw was “explosive.” Like Yadier Molina now, he seemed to be out of his crouch and firing to second base almost the instant the ball hit his glove. He erupted from behind the plate, those “stubby” legs firing to pounce on a bunt or dribbler. He was no smaller for his era than many catchers are now for theirs. Defensively, experts said, he was a model of proper fundamentals. Or maybe he was inventing some of them.
It’s as a hitter that he made the clearest impression. In the clutch, every fan knew your home team would rather face Mickey Mantle, who struck out 100 times a year and chased bad pitches, than Berra. Essentially, Yogi seemed un-pitchable. With his long bat, love of “bad balls” and willingness to look foolish fouling off two-strike pitches, you never knew what he’d swing at, but his hand-eye coordination was so flawless that he squared it up anyway.
From 1948 to 1957, Berra drove in 4.3 runs for every time he struck out. If that applied to Ian Desmond this season, he’d have 735 RBI. In those 10 years, Berra had more homers than strikeouts — 249 to 239. When Yogi was up with men on base, your pain would be over quickly. He was hard to walk because he couldn’t wait to hit. You were going to throw it somewhere near him, including the bill of his cap, and he was going to swat it — probably dead pull — and hard.
By the time I got to know him as a reporter, he was in his 50s, his ears and nose even more pronounced, and he did seem adorably cartoonish. I heard him in conversation countless times and I never heard him say anything remotely like a “Berra-ism.” But, when others brought it up, he went along with the shtick — gently, maybe even sheepishly — that had been good to him. When others looked for the parody of Yogi, I was doubly glad I’d actually seen him play. Mantle hit a few 500 feet, Yogi seldom more than 400. But Berra might’ve been scarier.
Others who knew him far better will testify. I saw him as a star of the black-and-white TV era who was built like anybody, but played like nobody else. Later, he was a typical savvy longtime coach who loved the details of the game, wasn’t colorful, always fit in everywhere, liked most everybody and was loved in return.
Berra often said he was one of the luckiest men who ever lived — got to be a Yankee, play in 14 World Series, be around the game he loved all his life and always stay married to the same smart lady. He even had a son, Dale, who made the big leagues.
Yet everybody around him seemed to feel lucky, too. Even when we were grinning at something he’d said, we were always — like Whitey — laughing with him, and appreciating him, much more.