Thursday, September 24, 2015

Yogi Berra R.I.P. 9/22/2015

New York Yankee baseball legend Yogi Berra died yesterday at the age of ninety. The internet and other media are already full of accolades and memorials of the great star who despite his stats and awards always seemed to be the most humble of men. I would like to offer a few personal recollections that might not appear in the mainstream stories.

I became a devoted baseball fan in 1947 at the age of eight. Actually, I recall listening to the 1946 World Series where the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Boston Red Sox, but by next season I had become an avid listener to the radio broadcasts of the Yankee games. There were some Yankee fans in my family but I suspect the great influence was the three great Italian American stars, DiMaggio, Rizzuto, and Berra, that made up the core of the Yankee team.

It is a baseball truism that a team must be strong up the middle and the three great Italian American stars were the Yankee middle. Berra was the catcher, Rizzuto the shortstop, and DiMaggio, the center fielder. The Yankees won the World Series in 1947 but lost in 1948 to a great Cleveland Indian team that won a record 120 games. However, in 1949 the Yankees began an incredible streak of five consecutive World Series championships. By that time the great DiMaggio was at the end of his career but Berra was coming into his own. In 1951 he won the first of his three Most Valuable Player awards.

At that time the games were only beginning to be televised but since we had no TV, I listened every day on the radio after school. Most of the games were still played during the day. I have never forgotten turning on the radio one day to discover that Allie Reynolds, the hard throwing Yankee pitching ace, was one out away from pitching a no-hitter. It was especially dramatic because the Yankees were playing the Boston Red Sox and Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters of all time, was at bat.

Williams hit a high pop foul that Berra circled under for what seemed an eternity. It is a very difficult play but a catcher will rarely miss it, but Berra did to the shock of the announcer and everyone else in the Stadium. Reynolds would have to try again to get Williams out. Incredibly, Williams hit another towering pop fly behind the plate but this time Berra caught it to save the no-hitter.

More than his feats on the field, I think it was Berra's innocence and humility that endeared him to people whether they were baseball fans or not. I remember reading that after enlisting in the navy while still a teenager during World War II, he volunteered for duty on a "rocket" ship. Berra thought it was a kind of Buck Rogers futuristic vessel but it turned out to be a ship that launched rockets to soften up enemy beach defenses before a naval invasion. That is why he found himself with a front row seat at the famous D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 at the age of nineteen.

Of course, people have their favorite Berra stories, and his Berraisms have become famous. My favorite is the one about the lady he met one day on a hot spring training day in Florida. The woman complimented him on his Bermuda shorts and said, "Mr. Berra, you look very cool." He replied, "Thanks, lady, you don't look so hot yourself."

Toward the end of my own long career as a financial advisor, I finally qualified for my company's Hall of Fame. A colleague from Mississippi who was already a member sent me a letter of congratulations and included Yogi Berra's remarks on his election to baseball's famous Hall of Fame. When Berra was asked what it meant to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, he replied, "It doesn't mean much unless you're a baseball player. Then, it means a lot."

What a man!


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