In his passing, Yogi Berra grows even more in stature.
The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports
When I rang Yogi Berra's doorbell in New Jersey the morning after George Steinbrenner fired him as New York Yankees manager sixteen games into the 1985 season—the single most distasteful act that the Donald Trump of baseball owners ever inflicted on his team—I wasn't just a writer looking for a story. I was a fan looking for a way to let Yogi, or his wife, or his kid, or his dog, know that, on behalf of all of us who'd grown up pinstriped, we felt as if Steinbrenner had committed a capital-punishment felony. That, to the long-memoried faithful, the carpetbagging shipbuilder might as well have held up a Yankee jersey in a ceremony on the mound and hacked out the "NY" with a dull knife.
I hadn't really expected anything to come of my cold-call visit to the suburbs, but Carmen Berra, Yogi's wife, answered the door, and politely listened as I stumbled through my pitch: I worked for the Miami Herald, in their New York bureau, but had grown up in New York and done a lot of time in the old Yankee Stadium upper deck when average attendance was 11,000 and Joe Pepitone was our only hope, and on this day I felt really badly for her husband and for her and did she want to talk about it?
She did. She welcomed me into her living room, made coffee, and then talked, passionately, at length, about how hurt Yogi had been at the firing, and how he'd felt betrayed ("A bad start will not affect Yogi's status," Steinbrenner had said in February). She talked about how angry she was. About how un-Yankee-ish a thing it was to do. But also about how the Berras would easily get on with their lives, and not let one man get in the way of their happiness (they'd ultimately be married 66 years, until her death last year).
When I turned in my story, my editor asked if any other writers had been at the house. I said no, and when he wondered why not, I said something about how none of them had been a little kid who watched Yogi hit a home run on TV to left-center field, beneath the words Buy DiNoto's Bread painted in yellow atop a field of red, white, and green on the back of a yellow-brick apartment building on Gerard Avenue, just south of the 4 train platform beyond the bleachers.
The bakery sign disappeared in the late 80s, one of the last reminders of a different time. Now Yogi has also vanished, but only physically. The Yogi whose quiet, self-effacing grace forever rendered all the chaos around him moot will remain with us, a totem of Yankeedom for as long as there are pinstripes. The relentless, tacky machinations of the family in charge—the Roman Empire re-Stadium, the bottomless checkbook—will never compare to the Yogi-ethos of the team: baseball for baseball's sake, no more, no less. In his passing, Yogi grows even more in stature. Some things change, but others do not.
Berra's feats as a player—three times an American League MVP in the 1950s!—have been largely forgotten, but only because after he played, at least for New Yorkers, his diminutive self grew larger and larger than life, a beacon amid the eternal midnight of Billy Martin's multiple tenures. Also lost to history has been Berra's unquantifiable contribution to the Yankees' championship teams as a stand-in for the common man amid a crowd of heroic-slash-tragic figures, from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Roger Maris—an odd little workaday guy with an odd gait, odd ears, and a smile that was never, ever forced for the cameras. When Berra was hawking Yoo-Hoo, he looked as if he really drank the stuff.
After his 19-year playing career came to an end, Berra went on to manage the Yankees (to a World Series) and the Mets (to a World Series), yet he never vibed Importance. The dude just liked life, and it was obvious that what you saw, whether it was as a player or a manager, was the real guy, which, traditionally, wasn't a vibe you usually got from guys in pinstripes. Even his reputation as a master of malapropisms, which spawned books and television appearances—"When you come to a fork in the road, take it"—was clearly a side-goof. He enjoyed it, we enjoyed it, but it was a guest appearance in a show not of his own making.
No, this man had a deceptive gravitas, and in the Bronx, when he came back to manage in 1984, that selfless sensibility was sorely needed. By then, Steinbrenner had already sullied the brand in too many ways for too many years, from the ugly habit of signing men who'd beaten him in seasons before (Tiant, Gullett, Tommy John) to the unholy allegiance with the toxic Martin ("Ear-less Man Cut Up in Alley Behind Topless Bar"), to his slurring of his own players (Dave Winfield: "Mr. May").
Which is why, when Berra returned to the dugout in 1984, we were fools to think that a measure of sanity had been restored. The Yankees went 87-75, good for third place. The next April, after three straight losses in Chicago, Berra was gone. The team was 6-10. Did Berra bitch? Nope. He didn't have to. The sadistic senselessness of the bloodletting spoke volumes. With his departure, in a way, Yogi, as an ambassador for what's good about the game, had arrived.
It took Steinbrenner 14 years to apologize and get Yogi back into the fold, with a Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium on July 18, 1999. If there's one ultimate piece of evidence in the Yogi Berra file, one seemingly mystical moment that speaks to the cosmic meaning of a delightfully non-cosmic man, it's the extraordinary events of that day.
While George unsurprisingly made the proceedings all about himself—"DiMaggio told me I had to get him back"—Yogi was just Yogi: entering the stadium sitting up in a vintage T-Bird convertible, wearing a coat and tie and grinning the gap-toothed grin, then throwing a ceremonial first pitch (in coat and tie) to Don Larsen, whose perfect game he'd caught in the 1958 Series.
Berra then watched the Yankee starter that day, David Cone, throw a perfect game.
Every so often, the wheels align in surprising fashion. That on that day, they aligned to celebrate the eternal bond between Yogi, the Yankees, the fans, and DiNoto's Bakery? Well, it seemed like a very cool thing. An affirmation, really, as unlikely as Carmen Berra inviting me in for coffee: that one man, by intentionally living his life as humbly as possible, can emerge the most meaningful hero of all.