Sunday, January 11, 2009


This is a pretty neat idea. I’ve reviewed 150 books on, but my interest in it has waned over the last few years. I had only reviewed two in 2007, two in 2006, five in 2005 after reviewing 30 in 2004. I hadn’t reviewed in anything in 2008 when I received the November invite so I reviewed the last two books I had read. One was Buckley’s last book a memoir of Reagan and Peter Fonda’s autobiography.

Since Dad went into the hospital the week before thanksgiving I have read quite a few books and even a few long ones. Rather than be distracted as I assume I would have been, books offered me a diversion where I had almost perfect concentration. Amazon Vine offered me a chance to review the upcoming Yogi Berra biography and considering what I was going through it was almost a perfect offer.

Growing up, dad still had all of his old baseball mits, one being a catcher's glove with the name "Lawrence Peter Berra" on it. Have you ever caught with a 1950s style catcher's mit? They were nothing like today's gloves. A 1950s catcher's mit is not for catching but for padding. The ball doesn't actually stop in the glove. It hits the glove and then falls downward to the meat hand ready to make plays on runners. Playing with it convinced me that I didn't want to be a catcher. As a kid, I had no idea that gloves had gotten easier to use.

My first baseball game was in 1975 at the old Commiskey Park. My dad, his older brother and two other rare Yankee fans from Northern Indiana made the trip. I was 6 years old and don't remember the game because I didn't understand the rules. It was a year before I played my first organized baseball and I only knew how to play whiffle ball in the yard with dad pitching.

What I do remember about that trip was eating popcorn that came in a cardboard container shaped like a megaphone. It didn't make megaphone noise, but as a kid it was just as alluring. When the popcorn was finished I safely put the megaphone in the empty seat next to me, making sure that it didn't get damaged before the trip home. To my utter dismay some punk little girl and her father eventually took up seats on the other side of my megaphone and the girl had the audacity to pick it up and yell through it. Her father that bum said nothing. I wasn't happy with the outcome cursing myself for letting it out of my grasp. As the game went on she manhandled the thing and even roughed up the mouth end. Near the end of the game she had finally returned the megaphone to the seat between us. Now it was the prized item she was saving for later. When dad said that it was time to go and we had to pass that little shrew and her father I grabbed the megaphone from the seat and she looked at me and started to protest, but I was through the aisle before the adults even knew what happened.

I remember being proud that I did the bold thing but I also felt bad like maybe I did something wrong. It must be my oldest memory of ambiguous morality. I thought justice was on my side but maybe with time the object was actually her's especially since she probably thought the item discarded and adults would have seen it as trash. I never got in trouble or even talked to about it because dad was unaware of the entire drama.

I remember two other things from that trip. I got carsick so bad that Uncle Larry had to stop the car. I also remember going to a steak place I think called "Lou Diamonds" or something close to that. They served these rare filet mignons and I remember it tasted great. Dad said that I ate the whole thing. He also told me that we went to a Greek place and I ordered chicken but I hated it expecting to get Colonel Sanders.

It would be about 6 years when we went to our next Yankees-White Sox game. Yogi was a coach at the time and we saw him in arriving at the ballpark in a cab. Dad said that Yogi was the best bad ball hitter he had ever seen. Yogi could hit a pitch over head hit or at his ankles for a home run. The last game I saw at the Old Commiskey Park was with dad, mom, and brother John in April of 1985. Yogi was now the manager and Joe Cowley was pitching for the Yankees that day. Don Mattingly went 1-4 with a single. Carlton Fisk hit a big home run to left field. It was the fourth baseball game I had been to and the first homer I had ever seen. The Yankees never trailed in the game and with the bases loaded in the 9th, Cowley walked rookie Ozzie Guillen, a guy that was always loathe to take a walk, and the White Sox won 5-4. Guillen walked 12 times all season and never more than 26 times in any of his 16 seasons.

We were still in the parking lot navigating traffic when the radio was reporting that Yogi Berra was fired as Yankees manager. Billy Martin would return. Yogi wouldn't return to Yankee stadium until 1999 for Yogi Berra day.

I knew I was going to New York in 1999 and decided to make the trip revolve around the Yankees schedule. When I saw Yogi Berra Day I bought tickets immediately. The best I could do even in January was the upper deck behind home plate. I was also able to buy lower level tickets to see the Yankees play the Braves on the Thursday night. Though I didn't see him, JFK Jr. was at the Thursday game, and it was his last appearance in public. The New York Post had a picture of him at that game a few days later when his plane disappeared. But the Sunday game may have been even more unusual.

Before the game Yogi was welcomed back into the Yankee family with gifts and appearances by his old teammates. Mickey was gone. Billy was gone. Joe had passed earlier that year. But there were still a lot of players on hand. Don Larsen was there and he threw out the first pitch to Yogi and then David Cone threw the 16th perfect game in MLB history. It was the last game I saw at the old Yankee Stadium. I never felt like I needed to go back after that.

Anyway, I didn't mean to go on and on, but I better write this stuff while I am young before the memories are lost forever. Here is the Yogi book review:

It would be easy to string together a biography of Yogi based on malapropisms with an occasional World Series heroic thrown in for good measure. In fact, I think I’ve read that book. Luckily, Allen Barra’s biography of Yogi is more interested in making known Yogi as the one-of-a-kind catcher. . . and an above-average manager.

What you get with Barra’s book is a real understanding of how Yogi rose from humble origins and had to fight everyone including his own parents to play baseball professionally. Most scouts thought he looked awkward so they wouldn’t sign him. Branch Rickey offered Joe Garagiola $500 to play baseball but would only offer Yogi $250 and Yogi declined out of principle.

After signing with the Yankees he made so little money he couldn’t afford to eat playing minor league ball. No one thought he looked like a ballplayer. The author explains that during his service in World War II people thought Yogi was putting them on when he said that he played in the Yankees organization. And it wasn’t until another team offered $50,000 for Yogi’s contract that the Yankees paid attention.

One of the most important questions that the author raises in the book is why 1947-1964 isn’t considered the Yogi Berra era despite the fact that he won the MVP three times and was the only guy around for the entire period. With DiMaggio in decline in the late 1940s, Yogi so often carried the team while playing the toughest position in the game. He continued to do so as Mickey Mantle established himself in the early 1950s. In the Appendix, Barra puts together a lengthy and persuasive argument that Yogi was the greatest catcher in baseball history by making his case as a hitter and showing how his pitching staff seemed to improve when he was behind the plate.

Yogi’s life doesn’t end after he retired in the mid 1960s. The author does a thorough job of explaining Yogi’s season as Yankee manager in 1964, his stint with the Mets including managing them in the 1973 World Series, and then back to the Yankees for coaching and managing before ending his career in Houston. In doing so he also recounts Yogi’s rift with George Steinbrenner and their eventual reconciliation.

In addition to the life of Yogi, you also meet some other interesting people along the way. For instance, I have never read so much about Elston Howard and now I wish I’d known him. We read about Whitey Ford here as you’d expect, but we also get to know Allie Reynolds, the best pitcher and during the 1949-1953 era. We get to see Casey Stengel up close by one of the few players that seemed to understand him. The author does a good job of recounting Yogi’s friendship with Phil Rizzuto including their business partnership and Yogi’s persuasive case to the HOF veterans committee to induct Phil. The reader also learn why Toots Shor was such a popular saloon with ballplayers and celebrities. There is also a thorough recap of the Copacabana incident with many details I had never read.

Simply put, if you are a baseball fan interested in the life of Yogi Berra and/or this era in Yankees baseball, this book is well worth your time.

1 comment:

Dude said...

I still tell people about how you saw Cone's perfect game as if it is a shared experience. I knew that you chose that game for Yogi Berra day but I hadn't realized that you were witness to Berra's final game with the organization. That makes the story all the better. You don't have to worry about that story dying with you because upon your passing, I will assume the role of the kid with the buttery megaphone and it will be me in 1999 NYC. Only our historians will know that it couldn't have been me but what is of greater import is that it was somebody.

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