A Note From Mark – The Day We Met An American Legend

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There were about 20 of us seated in the Grandstand Theater in the museum. We were on one of Sports Leisure’s popular Baseball Road Trips several years ago. This one had a theme. We were following the life of Yankee legend Yogi Berra. Our itinerary had included a visit to (old) Yankee Stadium, where Yogi was immortalized in Monument Park with other Yankee greats. We had stopped in St. Louis, Yogi’s hometown, and toured the neighborhood where he grew up with his great niece as our guide. She regaled us with stories of Yogi and we marveled at how two legendary baseball figures like Yogi and his friend Joe Garagiola could have grown up on the same street. Now we were in New Jersey, at Montclair State University, home of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center. We’d been listening to Dale Berra talk of his own major league baseball career and the career of his father, Yogi. After about 15 minutes of story-telling, Dale paused and said, “Before you folks leave, I have a piece of memorabilia I’d like to show you,” and he opened a small door and disappeared behind it, leaving it slightly ajar.

We looked at each other in anticipation. What could it be? A World Series ring? Maybe the Yankees had loaned a World Series trophy to the museum? Would we get to touch a piece of history? Well, yes on the history thing, as you’ll soon see. And yes, I think you could call what was shown to us a “trophy”. We waited for what seemed like hours but in reality was only a minute or so. The door swung open, and a small, slightly hunched over figure appeared. We collectively sucked in our breath. It was Yogi himself.

image1Yogi Berra (center) at his museum in Montclair, surrounded by his Sports Leisure fan club.

Seems that word had gotten to him that a group of people were out on a trip, tracing some of the stops Yogi’s journey in life had taken him. So he decided he’d like to come down and meet us. When Yogi walked in, our collective jaw dropped. We were like kids in a candy store, staring at him without speaking or moving a muscle.

After about 15 seconds, Yogi spoke up. “You can come on down here, he said.” We still sat transfixed. My legs were like rubber, I couldn’t get them to work. After a second encouragement to join him, we made our way down the steps. Yogi shook everyone’s hand, asked us about our trip and wondered aloud why someone like him would be that interesting. One of the first things I noticed was the gnarled shape of his hands and fingers. Foul tips and pitches in the dirt for decades had broken and bent his fingers so that they sort of curled together. Catcher’s hands I think they are called. Hazard of the trade.

We tried to ask Yogi questions, but admittedly, we were star-stuck. For the next 10 minutes or so, I didn’t know whether to cry, smile or wet myself. Friends later asked if I’d gotten his autograph. I hadn’t. Signatures on a piece of paper have never held any intrigue for me. Just standing there, in the presence of a man who was not only one of the best baseball players to ever put on a uniform, but was indeed a great man, was an honor you could feel, in a humble sort of way that spoke of the man himself. In just those few minutes you could sense that Yogi was a kind and gentle man, a man of great integrity.

(His integrity was such that in the 1980’s when George Steinbrenner fired Yogi after only a few weeks of managing the Yankees, he vowed never to return to Yankee Stadium again, and boycotted the field until Steinbrenner publicly apologized over a decade later.)

Born to Italian parents and growing up in a rough and tumble neighborhood known as “The Hill” in St. Louis, Lawrence Peter Berra served his country in WWII and was a machine-gunner on the USS Bayfield during the Normandy invasion. He played the game with a passion few have ever reached. He was the heart and soul of the Yankees.

Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe Dimaggio, Lou Gehrig; the Yankees have had their share of legends, of Hall of Famers. Superstars. Certainly Yogi fit into every one of those categories. Some of his World Series records will never be broken for the simple reason with 30 teams now it isn’t likely anyone will ever play in as many World Series games as Yogi did.

Ironicly, it was his malaprops, his creative use of the English language, which made him memorable. By now, you’ve heard many of them repeated often in the days since Yogi’s passing. They make us laugh. Now some will make us reflect on the man who said them.

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

“I take a two hour nap everyday between one and four.”

Of a St. Louis restaurant, he said, “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” On attendance at Yankee games, he commented, “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?”

He once spoke of purchasing three of his favorite cardigan sweaters in different colors, “navy blue, navy green and navy brown.”

My personal favorite, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

And on and on. Some of Yogi’s “sayings” will live on forever. He once stated, “I really didn’t say everything I said.” Except those around him verified he did. Often.

Bobby Hofman, a childhood friend who eventually played shortstop for the New York Giants and worked for the Yankees, hung the nickname Yogi on him after noting Berra’s resemblance to a Hindu holy man the two had seen in a movie. In his early years with the Yankees, he was mostly known as “Larry.”

Now Yogi has passed and we have lost something special, a true piece of Americana. Yogi wasn’t just a baseball player, he was one of us. His entertaining way of saying things made us laugh, made us think, made us human. Yogi cut through the airs of fame and fortune and talked to us on a level we could all appreciate and understand. We didn’t laugh at Yogi as much as we laughed with him. He was the guy you wished you could have a cold one with.

He passed peacefully on the 69th anniversary of his Major League debut, at the age of 90. No American sports figure other than perhaps the likes of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and the previously mentioned Babe were more recognized by the American public than Yogi. At this writing, funeral arrangements were still pending. Where you would hold it, I don’t know. Other than Yankee Stadium itself, what venue could possibly hold all of the people who would probably like to say goodbye to a man they never met?

Owning a tour company has allowed me to go a lot of places, see a lot of things, meet many wonderful people. But I sincerely doubt anything will ever top the day a diminutive man appeared from behind the door of a make-believe baseball stadium. As one of his friends, the late Wes Westrum, also a master of malapropos said, “When they made him, they threw away the molding.” Amen. Not likely will there ever be another Yogi.

And that, is just one man’s opinion.