Jon Pessah is the founding editor of ESPN the Magazine, as well as managing sports sections at Newsday and the Hartford Courant, and the author of The Game, which detailed Major League Baseball's labor strife.
Now, just when we need it most, as baseball is put on hold due to the pandemic, arrives Pessah's definitive biography of beloved Yankees icon Yogi Berra, winner of 10 World Series championships and a one-name superstar, Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask (Little, Brown and Company; hardcover, 544 pages; $30).
While revered as one of America's most-cherished heroes, there also is little known about Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, who led the Yankees through their 1950s dynasty, the greatest era in the team's history.
Pessah separates fact from fiction to reintroduce us to a kid from St. Louis' The Hill who turned into a New York legend. This brilliant but misunderstood ballplayer became not only a Hall of Fame catcher, but a war hero and a cultural icon whose fame went well past the baseball diamond.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Jon Pessah recently, and here is the first part of our conversation on Yogi:
Jason Schott: Tell me how Yogi is different than your other projects.
Jon Pessah: This is my second book, so the first book (The Game: Inside The Secret World of Major League Baseball's Power Brokers) was far more of an issue-oriented book. It was about labor, and if you're a baseball fan, you know that every couple of years you didn't have baseball for a while. It was the labor wars, the war over George's (Steinbrenner) money, and steroids, in that order. Of course, the management war was always about George's money because he posed such a threat since he had more money than anybody else, and he wanted to spent it, which made him unusual, and then he didn't have Yogi.
JS: What's it been like promoting this book in a pandemic?
JP: No book tour, no interaction with people who are interested in the book, and I do miss that; that's one of my favorite parts. For two-and-a-half to three weeks, I've done radio and some Zoom all over the country, so that's been really interesting. On the other hand, the book sold out at Amazon on the first day, which, on one side, you say that's nice, but on the other side, Amazon has timeslots on their warehouse, and they have shortages in those warehouses and they have priority for essentials, so from April 15 to May 1, there were no books at Amazon. Jeff Bezos has done a brilliant job marketing his company so that when you think you want to buy something online, the first thing you do is go to Amazon. So, while it was on all of their bestseller lists for new releases, biography, history, baseball, you couldn't buy the book - you could get Kindle or the audiobook, but you couldn't buy the book, so that was pretty frustrating. It certainly appeared from the reviews and the sales figures early on that people liked the book, and I know that it ironically filled the void.
I'm a baseball fan, I've had the Yankees games on in my house from the time I was four years old, it was just part of life, and it's not there. I know baseball fans, and baseball is more religion than sport versus the other sports, in my opinion, and I think this left a void in people's lives. It's spring, you listen to baseball, and it's not there, so I think this kind of fills the void, and who doesn't like Yogi?
JS: That's very true, and you illuminate just what a person he was, even the story of how he courted his wife, Carmen, very relatable man. Even though he was this big-time baseball player, he didn't seem to have any airs about himself.
JP: He really didn't, and I think that comes from a couple of things. One, I think it came from his upbringing. He was the baby of the family; he had a younger sister, there were four boys, and a pretty good age gap. I think his oldest brother was eight years older than him, I think it went 8, 6, and 3, and while he had a younger sister, she was almost - and I talked to the family about this, and I'm talking to the family back then, Carmen's sister, Bonnie Morse, who was a tremendous help to me because, compared to my first book which started in 1990, not only was I alive, but I was covering what I was writing about; I had no idea what it was like to really be in The Depression and growing up in an Italian neighborhood, and she really filled in a lot of the blanks about Yogi in his very-early 20s and what his life was like.
Everybody was equal, and part of it was also how much verbal abuse Yogi endured for most of his life, and how much discrimination on one hand being an Italian-American in the '20s and '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s - you were heavily discriminated against. There were FBI agents searching the houses on The Hill looking for Mussolini sympathizers. Joe DiMaggio's father wasn't allowed to go to his son't restaurant because it was on Fisherman's Wharf and it was too close to a Naval base there. They actually thought about arresting him to make a statement.
On the one hand, you had the discrimination he felt as an Italian-American, you know, he's second-generation, his father came from Northern Italy when he was 22, 23, and then the other part of just enduring this constant abuse about his looks, about his speech; people didn't think he was particularly smart, and this is something that went on well into his coaching years and came back up again when he was named Manager. While that would turn some people bitter, what I think happened with Yogi was that he lived by the basic premise of "treat other people the way you want to be treated." He knew what it was like to be treated really, really poorly, and I think that just made him into an Everyman. I know talking to all these people throughout his life, from when he was a kid to the day he died (in 2015), that this is a guy who was more comfortable talking to the security guards and the clubhouse man and people like that than being a celebrity and hanging out with celebrities - that wasn't Yogi. I mean, he knew he was a celebrity; make no mistake about it, he knew what he was worth, he and Carmen made a really good business team, but there were no airs about this guy, no sense of entitlement that we're so used to now from celebrities of all walks, and certainly sports fits into that category, and he just was a very relatable guy. I think those two things - all the discrimination, all the abuse, and growing up in a place where everyone was equal on The Hill, equally working poor - made him who he was.
JS: I thought the parts on The Hill were fascinating, especially on his friendship with Joe Garagiola, who was touting Yogi up to the media while being interviewed during the 1946 World Series. He could have ended up a St. Louis Cardinal.
JP: Branch Rickey played such a central role in Yogi's life, and literally in many ways we know he changed the course of history by bringing in Jackie Robinson, which is a part of the book I had to cut. Red Schoendienst told me the story that's in the book, a terrific story, and Red was great, it was four years ago, so he was probably in his early 90s, and he still remembers the tryout that they went to and he pitched to Yogi when they cut thousands of kids down to eight, signed people that he didn't remember because they didn't make it. Joe Garagiola grew up, until Yogi died, would say, I don't know a day in my life when I didn't know Yogi Berra. Red was 18, Joe was 15, Yogi was 16, and they came to Red to pitch to Yogi, and he sat there and goes, it didn't even matter if I threw the ball in the dirt, I couldn't get the ball past this guy. He said the sound of the ball hitting the bat was unlike anything he had ever heard, and he goes, "that was just the best hitter I ever saw."
Branch Rickey, who's supposed to be the greatest talent judge in history, and one of the things that made him unique - you know how tough it is to pick baseball players, I mean, a lot of the guys that are picked in the first round never make it to the Major Leagues - and he supposedly had the ability to look at a kid in his teenage years and project what he was going to be as a mature adult and baseball player, and he took one look at Yogi, who looked like he was put together by spare parts, and said this isn't a baseball player and told him right to his face, "I think you're nothing more than a Triple-A player," and was forced by his scouts to offer him half of what he gave Joe, and Yogi knew his father was going to squash that deal, so he didn't take it, and the (St. Louis) Browns stupidly passed because, they figured, if Branch Rickey doesn't like him, then we shouldn't, either. He plays in American Legion ball, which is literally the first time that Yogi spends time outside of St. Louis, and probably very far outside of The Hill, he's playing around the country and gets to the finals two years in a row
One of his teammates, when the team went to a movie, saw a newsreel from India where the yogis were sitting, legs crossed and their arms folded across their chests, and the guy's name was Bobby Hoffman, who ends up being a utility infielder for the Giants, among other teams, but mostly for the Giants, and he goes, "that looks like Lawdie," that was what everyone called him, and he goes, "I'm gonna call you Yogi," and for whatever reason, it stuck, and it was one of the greatest gifts anyone could give someone because Yogi made a ton of money in advertising, and to have the one-name recognition. If you think Larry, nobody's gonna think Larry Barra, you know, it could have been "Larry Barra, most likely an outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals" because he was a terrible catcher until Bill Dickey straightened him out.
Cardinals were good, would probably have won a couple of championships, and Yogi clearly had Hall of Fame skills, so he would have been a Hall of Famer, but he's not Yogi, he's Larry, and he's not on TV all the time because he's not in the media capital of the world, he's not the focus of all these magazine stories because he's not in the media capital of the world, and he's not Yogi Berra. So, that one thing puts him off the Cardinals, onto the Yankees, and basically interwoven into the fabric of America.
One of the things that really fascinated me about this book - I could've written it from just this perspective - Yogi is one of the first television stars in the country. Yogi's rise to fame, '49 through the '50s, tracks the rise of television. He was on television all the time; for one thing, the World Series, which he was in for every year but three of his 17 years on the Yankees, and the World Series back then is a seven-to-10 day Super Bowl, the whole country stops, everyone's listening to the World Series, starting now watching it, and he's on there all the time, and he's the best player on that team in the '50s, and on the Game of the Week they saw him, and on Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason and Perry Como, he's on all the time. He's in cameos in movies with Marilyn Monroe, "The Seven Year Itch," and Cary Grant and Doris Day in "That Touch of Mink," they filmed it in '61, it came out in '62, I mean this guy was everywhere, and commercials, they they just fell in love with him. He was as ubiquitous of a person in America in the '50s as anyone in the country.
JS: That reminds me of a book that came out a year ago, The New York Yankees of the 1950s, by David Fischer, that said that was the perfect team for the perfect time, at that moment in the country.
JP: Timing is everything. Those teams, what really struck me about Yogi's career, you know, I was eight years old in 1960 - I know I was a Yankees fan at four because I remember doing things with my father and going to games and things like that - but really, eight years old is when everything clicked in and I just remember the ball going over the fence at Forbes Field and them losing (to the Pirates), you know, that picture of Yogi looking at the fence and seeing the ball going over. In a series in which the Yankees crushed the Pirates in every game that they won and had by far the best team, but Yogi was a role player by 1960, playing mostly outfield, still a hell of a hitter, somebody that still was dangerous, somebody that's still hitting fourth or fifth, but he didn't play everyday and he played the outfield, and my father told me that you should have seen this guy in the '50s, he was just an incredibly dynamic player. Going back and looking at the stats and then watching him in the films, the beginning of that run when they won five titles in a row, which nobody has ever done before or since, you know, it was the end of DiMaggio's career, where he was injured, and of those last three years, he had one good year, the other one he was injured, and the other, which started when he retired, he hit .263. It was the beginning of Mantle's career, when he was 19, and he struggled with strikeouts and fans booing him all the time, and he didn't really hit his stride until he won the Triple Crown in '56, so that team that won five straight, the best player without question was Yogi Berra, playing the most difficult position, handling a pitching staff, fielding tremendously, and hitting .280 to .320 with 20-plus home runs and 100-plus RBIs every year, and it's like, wow, I wish I would have gotten to see that guy.