On September 28, 1951, I was in Yankee Stadium in New York, with my father, to watch the Yankees play a double header against the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees could clinch the pennant over the second place Cleveland Indians by winning both ends of the double header. At age 13 and a rabid Yankee fan, I could not believe I was there.
Allie Reynolds took the mound for the Yankees in Game 1 of the twin bill. Reynolds was at the top of his game that day. He had already pitched one no hitter that year and had a second no hitter going in the last of the ninth with two outs and the Yankees ahead 8-0. The only person between Reynolds and his second no hitter was the Splendid Splinter Ted Williams, the greatest hitter in baseball at that time and probably of all time.
Reynolds got Williams to hit a pop foul and Yogi Berra got under it and, unbelievably, dropped it. Reynolds went back to the mound and got Williams to hit another pop foul and Yogi caught this one, ending the no hitter and clinching a tie for the pennant for the Yankees.
Five years and ten days later, in Glidden Hall, at Nasson College, in Springvale, Maine, I watched on a black and white television as Don Larsen threw the only perfect game in World Series history against the Brooklyn Dodgers in that same Yankee Stadium. When pinch hitter Dale Mitchell was called out on strikes for the third out of the game, the catcher, that same Yogi Berra, charged the mound and leaped into Larsen’s arms and the picture of that happening is one of the most famous pictures in baseball history.
Yogi Berra passed away this past week at age 90. The two events above that I was fortunate to have witnessed were just the tip of the iceberg in the amazing career and life of Yogi Berra. Yes, he was perhaps the greatest catcher ever to play the game but he was much more than a catcher.
He was born and raised in The Hill section of St. Louis where he grew up with his friend and fellow catcher Joe Garagiola. After they tried out, Garagiola signed with the Cardinals and Yogi supposedly turned down a contract offer from them because they offered Garagiola more money than him. Yogi eventually signed with the Yankees.
After just beginning his baseball career with the Class B Norfolk Yankee farm team in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy and trained as a machine gunner on a Rocket Boat and was at Omaha Beach during the
D-Day Invasion of Normandy. He returned from the Navy in 1946 and hit .314 in 77 games with the Newark Bears before being brought up to the Yankees in September.
He played for the Yankees from 1946 until 1963. After his playing career was over, he managed the Yankees to a pennant in 1964, managed the Mets from 1972 until 1975, winning the National League pennant in 1973, and managed the Yankees again from 1984 until he was fired by George Steinbrenner after the Yankees started the 1985 season 6-10.
After leaving baseball, he opened the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University near his home in Montclair, New Jersey. The facility, which, is described in it’s literature as capturing ‘the rich history of baseball and the career of Yogi Berra is a wonderful learning experience for both adults and students alike’, serves thousands annually.
Yogi was almost as well known for his ‘Yogi-isms’ as for his feats as a baseball player. He is one of the most quoted athletes in the world. My favorite quote supposedly was uttered while he was playing in a baseball game when he was in the Navy and stationed at Groton, Connecticut. After not doing well at his first at bats in a game, swinging at bad pitches, the coach told him to think while he was up there. Yogi supposedly went up and took three strikes without swinging and when he came back to the dug out said ‘I can’t think and hit at the same time’.
Yogi, the baseball player, was signed by the Yankees in 1943. He played on 10 World Series winners from 1947 to 1962, the most of any player in history. He was named to every All Star team from 1948 until 1962 and was Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1951, 1954 and 1955.
He had his greatest year at the plate in 1950, hitting .322 with 28 homers and 124 RBI’s. 1950 was the second year of the Yankees all time record five consecutive World Series wins. He also threw out a remarkable 57.6% of the runners who attempted to steal against the Yankees that year. Even more impressive is the fact that he was behind the plate in 148 of his team’s 154 regular season games that year. He caught more games in 1954, totaling 149. For his career, he batted .285 and hit 358 home runs and drove in 1,430 runs.
He was named to the Hall of Fame in 1972. According to the web site Baseball Reference, the highest salary he earned with the Yankees was $65,000. in 1957. Somehow, I think Yogi would have played for nothing, he loved the game that much.
Yogi passed away on September 22, 2015, exactly 69 years, to the day, after he made his debut as a Yankee in 1946. In that first game of his career, which the Yankees won 4-3 over Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Phillies, Yogi batting eighth, went 2-4 with a home run, two RBI’s and a run scored.
Baseball has lost a great player, manager, ambassador and character and the world has lost a great American. Before his death, he was proposed as a candidate for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Hopefully, the movement to accomplish this will continue and he will be recognized for all that he did for baseball and America.