Jon Pessah is the founding editor of ESPN the Magazine, former sports editor at Newsday and the Hartford Courant, and the author of The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball's Power Brokers, which detailed Major League Baseball's labor strife in the 1990s.
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.
Jason Schott: The way Yankees history in the late 1940s/early 1950s is presented is that Joe DiMaggio handed it off to Mickey Mantle, when in reality, as you make clear, it was Berra who was the bridge of the eras led by Yankees center fielders.
Jon Pessah: Not even the bridge, he was the star between DiMaggio and Mantle, and of course, the press, the Yankees promoted Mantle as the next DiMaggio. You talk to Casey Stengel, and you look at what he did - readers now won't get what hitting cleanup for the meant in that era, but if you batted cleanup, and you batted cleanup for the New York Yankees, you were an instant Hall of Famer. Yogi was the guy who batted fourth after DiMaggio, and even in that last year that DiMaggio was around, was Yogi Berra. Berra had a great year in '56 - it was his last late, great year - but he batted behind Mantle and nobody wanted to face Yogi, especially with people on base. That certainly didn't hurt Mantle having Yogi batting behind him, and the guy never struck out.
In 1950, he hits 28 home runs, knocks in 124, bats .322 and he strikes out 12 times, which is a good week for Aaron Judge, and I love Aaron Judge, but these players nowadays strike out a lot. This guy struck out, in his 17 full seasons with the Yankees, he struck out 410 times. There used to be a poll in the Sporting News - the Sporting News was a much bigger presence than it is now, just like Sports Illustrated and Sport magazine, which was the dominant magazine, doesn't even exist anymore - they would run polls all the time, you know, who's the best outfielder, who's got the best arm, who's the fastest, most powerful, on and on and on, and they would poll pitchers for hitters and hitters for pitchers, and Yogi was always mentioned in every category, but the one category that he was mentioned all the time was the toughest out, because the pitchers said there was absolutely no way to pitch to Yogi.
If you threw the ball a foot over his head, but he thought he could hit it, he would hit it. Off the charts hand-eye coordination, and throwing the ball outside - a foot outside to get him to chase - there was no such thing as Yogi chasing; he just hit it, incredible. He averaged, from '49 to '57, '58, he averaged 141 games a year catching, out of 154 games. He played in 20 to 22 doubleheaders; he would catch back-to-back doubleheaders in August and September, I mean, how do you do that? They would ask Casey, why do you work him so much, and he said, well, when I play Mr. Berra at catcher, we win World Series, and that was true, so hard to argue with that.
JS: In addition to Casey Stengel, another Yankee manager had a big part in Yogi's success, Bucky Taylor, the manager in his rookie season who insisted on playing him right from the start.
JP: Interesting, Bucky was very popular, the boy wonder, think he started managing at 28 and won, and caught the eye of Lee MacPhail, who was running the Yankees at the time, so he comes in in '47 and he looks at the team - the team is aging at this point - and DiMaggio, you never knew when he was going to play or not with all those bone spur problems that he had, and he was also on the backside of his career, and this happy-go-lucky kid walks into camp, and it's like, he could hit everything, so as a hitter, there was no question that he was going to make it.
This one really stuck with me, and it was a writer for the New York Herald, and back then, baseball writers were royalty on the newspaper side - if you had the baseball beat, that was one of the best beats on the newspaper, and if you were covering the Yankees, you were covering the greatest team in history - and right before the end of spring training, they ask Bucky Harris, you're not really thinking about keeping Yogi, he doesn't look like a Yankee, and back then people called him Larry, it took about a year before the press started calling him Yogi, and Harris looked at him, I'm not only bringing him, I mean, this kid's gonna bat fifth behind DiMaggio, he's an incredible hitter.
The big question was what position he was going to play, and in '48, Bucky Harris said one thing that was very prophetic, and he said, you know, I know this is the team of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, but I'm telling you, this kid Yogi Berra is going to be the most beloved Yankee of all-time, and boy was he right, and how he knew that in 1948 is beyond me. He was also one of the people who would just casually sit down and talk to a writer and ask, 'you think the 8 could bat fourth? I bet the 8 could bat fourth.' At the end of '48, Yogi was a terrible catcher, couldn't frame pitches, would stab at the ball, so if you threw a strike, sometimes he would stab at the ball and pull it out of the strike zone, then the umpire would call a ball, and that really endeared him to the pitchers; had no idea how to call the game, was just terrible. In the last 50 games of '48, they put him in right field, he's surprisingly fast, which most people have no idea that Yogi Berra was fast, and he bats .322 in that stretch, and everyone, from Harris to the beat writers to the national writers like Dan Daniel, who was an institution at the Sporting News, were writing and saying that Yogi was the starting right fielder for the Yankees in 1949 and that Yogi was happy about it, and reality was Yogi was not unhappy about going to right field because the pitchers, I mean, they loved him, but they hated pitching to him.
Then, here comes Bill Dickey and he corrects all the mechanical problems that Yogi had, and they were many - didn't know how to set his feet, set up a foot-and-a-half too deep, and you wonder why nobody fixed that, taught him how to pull the ball in instead of stabbing and pulling it out, and once he fixed all those mechanical problems, the one thing that made Yogi stand out among catchers he had a near-photographic memory of everything that happened in baseball. He could literally tell you the pitch they threw Al Kaline with two outs in the seventh inning to get him out of the game on the line.
I sat with Don Larsen for a couple hours before an Old Timers' Game, and obviously, we talked about the '56 perfect game, and I said, tell me about what that was like, and he goes, 'Yogi, every one of the pitches that he called, and there were 96 in all, I just threw whatever he called, wherever he put his mitt is where I threw the ball. Yogi was in the zone, I was in the zone, and it literally came out perfectly.' He just could not give enough credit to Yogi for the perfect game, and that really stuck with me.
JS: A lot of these players had photographic memories, that they could remember a game on a Tuesday night in June as much as the World Series, but with Yogi, that seemed to be even more so.
JP: Yogi could go back a decade; he had a memory, as Carmen would say, and it extended to all sports. He just read something once and it stuck. The things that Yogi was interested in - his business dealings, baseball, and movies, not in that order - but those were the things that really interested Yogi, and the things that interested Yogi, he had a phenomenal memory and a real good instinct, like when he and Phil Rizzuto built a bowling alley. How would you like going to the bowling alley, and you're in a league, and the guys that you're bowling against are Phil Rizzuto, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Moose Skowron? They literally were a team at the bowling alley, and they also would mix it up so that, in another league, Yogi Berra played with your team, and Whitey Ford played with another team, and Phil Rizzuto played with another team, and Gil McDougald, another Jersey guy, played for another team. I mean, could you imagine walking into a bowling alley and doing that now?
Baseball players were more, you know, obviously they were stars and if you were on the Yankees, you were a big star, and if you were the best of the best, like Yogi, you were a superstar, but they still had to work after the season. That bowling alley brought him and Phil about a million bucks when they sold it, and Yogi had that innate sense, he just felt like a corporation came and offered him money, and unlike other athletes, they didn't put their name on it, they put their money into it - it was their bowling alley, and they built it right into the peak of bowling, and when they sold, about a year later the bowling boom died. Yogi just had a great sense and an instinct, especially when it came to people and sport, whether it was racquetball, another thing that was huge for awhile - there was a Yogi Berra racquetball court that they built - and the bowling alley. He also sold clothes in Newark in the early days, which is mind-goggling. You'd go in and you'd get fitted for a suit by Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto.
JS: The incredible thing is, since ballplayers didn't get paid much, his family was like, why would you go do something that pays so little?
JP: He topped out at $55,000 in 1957, and there's this great website BaseballReference.com, they have a salary converter where you plug in, you say I want to know what this guy was worth, and I looked up what Yogi's 1957 salary was worth and I'm pretty sure I'm close on this, that $55,000 translated to $472,000, which, that's a nice salary if you or I was making it, but it's not the $30 million a year that Gerrit Cole just got.
JS: That $400 thousand is basically the league minimum now.
JP: The league minimum is $600,000, and plus another $200 thousand from the union for the baseball card contract, so you figure you pick up one or two other endorsements in your rookie year, and you're at a million dollars. For his time, another thing was, I asked my brother-in-law about this, I read from the research, and I read about 30 books, looking at them on my bookshelf here, but one of the books I read was (David) Halberstam's book The Fifties, and he said that after the war, that America, before the rise of a middle class and an upper middle class, there was a very thin slice of extremely wealthy people, and a very thin slice of successful doctors and lawyers, the cream of the crop; the rest of the country was working poor and poor. I went to my mother-in-law, she's from that generation, 90 years old now, 85 when I asked her, and I said, is this accurate, was everyone just working poor? She goes, oh, absolutely, until after the war, until the GI Bill and things like that, my father was a union worker, he'd come home and my mother would have four envelopes on the table: rent, food, heat, and electricity, and that was it, so for the $28 a week her husband made as a union worker on the docks in Baltimore, she goes, that's what life was like.
Yogi is part of the very first group of people who moved from the cities to the suburbs. The fifties was when the suburbs was born, and Yogi was one of the first people in the upper-middle class because there was no middle class in the United States, so in so many ways, Yogi is like this walking piece of history because you can track, as I tried to do in the book, you can track how things changed through this guy, and the role that he played in it.
Athletes endorsing products wasn't something - they did a little of it, but Yogi ends up with the first, really, full-time agent, Frank Scott, and that story in the book about them being out at dinner, and him not having him watch, and Carmen running into another room and coming back with a box of wristwatches, and he says, where's all this come from, and she says that's what Yogi gets when he makes appearances on television shows. That ended there; after that, Milton Berle, who never paid anybody to come on his show, paid Yogi $500 to a thousand dollars, which is a lot of money back then, to say hello to Milton and wave. Not a bad way to pick up a thousand bucks.
There's so many pivotal places where Yogi was the pinnacle of change, television, advertising, you know, catchers that you didn't have to pinch-run for, you know, the biggest winner ever in baseball impacted all of sports. Bill Russell had 11 championships, Maurice "Rocket" Richard had 11 in hockey, and Yogi with 10 in baseball, don't think anybody's going to top that.
JS: The way sports is now, we'll never someone win that many titles, with the most recent dynasty, the Patriots' six Super Bowl titles in 20 years, likely never happening again. If you flip a few plays, maybe they could have had 10 championships.
JP: No, and I don't think we'll ever see someone that was on 10 championship-winning teams, in which he played - until '62, where he got a ring and was really not an essential part of the team - such a big role. Before that, he batted, I mean, when Mantle went down in '61, he was the one who batted fourth behind Roger Maris, at age 36, he's 36 that year, and he was batting fifth in that lineup, and that's one of the greatest lineups in the history of baseball.
JS: They were All-Star teams among themselves.
JP: They really were, you know, before free agency and before the draft, I mean, you could see with the money, Yogi makes $5300 when they win the World Series in '47, which is $300 more than he's paid for the entire season, so you could see why players wanted to play for the Yankees because they always were in the World Series, and that money meant a lot.
JS: I couldn't get over how they low-balled him early in his career, to the point that they built the World Series bonus into his salary, and his wife picked up on it.
JP: Right, and the Yankees said, 'don't turn this into a negative.' They were a great team, Yogi didn't do anything business-wise without talking to his wife. His wife was ahead of her time. Wives in the '50s, I don't mean to disparage people, that was the role, when you look at the role women played, there were not many job opportunities, so most women stayed home, raised the family, ran the house, big job, but were not involved in business. Carmen was involved in every business deal that Yogi made; they did everything together. She was ahead of her time, and she was also the queen of Yankees wives.
JS: Carmen also played a big part in Yogi's dealings with George Steinbrenner when he was Yankees manager.
JP: When that happened in '84, which I was now sports editor of the Hartford Courant, so I remember it really well. Claire Smith was covering the team for me, and when he was fired, which everyone but Rickey Henderson was monumentally upset about, he told the writers that they would see him because he would be coming to see his son, Dale, play baseball, and when he gets home, he tells his wife, from what I pieced together from things that her sister said, she said he would have nothing to do with Steinbrenner, but clearly influenced him, as did John McMullen, who was the one who said there was nothing more limited than being a limited partner of the Yankees under Steinbrenner. He owned two percent of the team, he's from Montclair, and they were good friends, and his wife Jacqueline was Carmen's best friend, and he offers Yogi the job of managing the Astros, and Yogi didn't want to manage, that was it, he was done, and so he asked Yogi to coach, and he was Hal Lanier's bench coach, and they end up losing in six to the Mets in the 1986 National League Championship Series. He did advice him that, after the way he treated you, he shouldn't anything for this man.
Clearly, the resentment grew year after year because when Yogi looked in the mirror, he saw pinstripes, and being a Yankee defined who he was. It was a piece of him that was just taken away. When he left baseball, when he finished coaching the Astros, Ron Guidry, who I spent a lot of time with, told me that when he left the Astros, his connection to baseball was gone. I was basically memorabilia shows and going up to Cooperstown, which became one of his favorite things in life, but having no connection to baseball, he said, he told Guidry, were some of the worst years of his life, and then The Boss decides to apologize. George is a big part of the first book I wrote (The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball's Power Brokers), so I got to know the family and got to know his story really well. His father died of Alzheimer's, and it wasn't called it back then; he died of dementia, an erosion of all of his motor skills, and George was scared to death he would end up the same way, which he did, and I think that, at that point in his life, he started thinking about making amends. Suzyn Waldman, who had a very good relationship with George, said if you want Yogi, you're going to have to apologize, and the town just built the museum to honor Yogi both as a baseball player and a person, and if you go there, and apologize, this'll be over. The guy who almost scotched the deal was Yogi. He came there, and as soon as he apologized, it was over, and they ended up becoming good friends, which is remarkable.
|Yogi Berra's monument and plaque in Monument Park. Provided by New York Yankees at time of Berra's passing in 2015.