Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra was the best catcher in the history of Major League Baseball. He won 10 titles, three MVP Awards, finishing no lower than fourth in that category for eight years, and in 1950, maybe his finest non-MVP year (.322, 28 homers, 124 RBI, 116 runs scored), he struck out a ridiculously low 12 times in 656 plate with an almost .400 on-base percentage. He was a magnificent defensive catcher (never made an error in 75 WS games) and game manager, calling two no-hitters (Allie Reynolds) and Don Larson’s perfect game, the only such feat in postseason (World Series) history. All the while being an iconic WS figure: Yogi is the first player to hit a pinch-hit homer, the only player to ever hit two homers in a game seven (1956), there when Jackie Robinson stole home, Bill Mazeroski’s World Series-winning home run (the most important dinger in the game’s history) sailed over his head, and Sandy Amoros’ running grab, maybe the most famous catch in WS history that helped win the Brooklyn Dodgers their only title in 1955, was off Yogi’s bat.
He was a philosopher non-parallel, his famous “Yogi-isms” are quoted more than anything uttered by any other athlete ever; and by dignitaries, presidents, movie stars, university professors, cab drivers and street vendors home and abroad. He was beloved by everyone, which is perhaps the toughest achievement of any of what is written above.
But around the Campion household, Yogi was always simply dad’s favorite player. And he is who I called the day he passed at 90.
Why was Yogi your favorite player?
It’s a funny story. I had gone to the game with my father and after the game we went outside and there was a vendor selling these big buttons with players on it and I wanted a Joe DiMaggio button. I mean, Joltin’ Joe was it then, but they were all out of Joe DiMaggio buttons. But I wanted a button! So I told my dad, “I want this one…Yogi Berra.” And from that time on I followed Yogi, from the outfield to catching, and then all of his time outside the game. I was all in. And for me it became a way to be different. I stood out because of Yogi. Everyone went on and on…”DiMaggio, DiMaggio…DiMaggio.” I didn’t go that route. Once that button was pinned on my shirt, I was all about Yogi.
How old were you?
Let’s see…I must have been eight or nine. Yogi was playing the outfield then. (Berra didn’t become a full-time catcher until 1949.) After that I would take the D train from 138th street where I lived on the Grand Concourse to the Stadium on 161st, the next stop past that was the Polo Grounds on 155th street. Two 10-minute stops, two major league ballparks. I knew the Yankees batboy and he would let us in after school. We’d walk in with him, because he’d get there by the second inning. There were other batboys, but one of them was our friend. But mostly I watched all the games on television, a little Emerson or Philco or whatever the hell it was, and kept score of every play. I didn’t have an official score card, I just made up my own.
So that was during the greatest run of any franchise, from the late ’40s into the ’50s.
Sure, I saw all those games. They were all day games then, so I’d pick them up later when I was in school. That’s where the phrase “Five O’clock Lightning” came from. The game would get into the eighth or ninth around five o’clock and the other team’s pitcher would tire or a lesser relief pitcher would come in and it would be “Katy bar the door.”
Did any of your other friends like Yogi the way you did?
Nah, only me. They all liked the stars. Everyone loved DiMaggio. And they loved the big sluggers like (Tommy) Hendrick and (Charlie) Keller. But Yogi was the most important cog. He won a lot of games for the Yankees with his defense and handling the pitchers, but also his clutch hits. He seemed to get the most important hits in big games. He was always fun to watch hit. When Yogi was coming up, you’d stop what you were doing. He was something.
Okay, so you get this big button and become a Yogi fan, but soon this guy turns into arguably the best catcher in the game, winning three MVPs and 10 titles, more than anyone other than Bill Russell in the history of American sport. I mean, you must have realized at some point you backed the right horse.
He was incredible. He was a great player. You’d don’t get in 14 World Series and win 10 of them without being great. And of course all the no-hitters he caught. He was also a character. The Yankees had a lot of them then, Phil Rizzuto was a character, Mantle and Whitey Ford. That was a time to be a Yankee fan. We won every year. Never got tired of that.
Yogi was a dangerous hitter because he was bad ball hitter, maybe the best that ever played. He could hit anything. He’d golf balls. I saw him golf a ball into the bleachers at Yankee Stadium…literally. The thing had to be two inches off home plate. I mean, you couldn’t pitch to him. You’d try to throw the ball outside, he’d hit it, up and in, he’d hit it. He swung at everything…pitches no one could get to and he’d hit them—three feet off the plate, boom! Did not matter.
Yogi played until 1965 for the Yankees. You’re nine years old when you get that button and when he retires you’d served in the Air Force, gotten married and have your first kid. Could you have felt about another player at that point what you felt for Yogi?
After Yogi…ehhh…not in the same way. When you’re a kid and you’re growing up and he’s growing in his career, I don’t know that I ever felt the same way about a ballplayer that I did for Yogi. It’s different when you’re a kid when you have a favorite player. And you have to remember, when I was a kid baseball was it. I mean, you had college football, boxing and baseball, but baseball was by far the most popular sport. Professional football had not taken off yet. We weren’t playing soccer back then. Stickball back behind the apartment complex or hardball or punchball at school. That’s what we played, some form of baseball. And baseball was on the radio all the time in the city, at the beach, in cars, in the streets. It was everywhere. Broadcasters like Mel Allen and Red Barber became as famous as the players.
How did you hear about Yogi’s passing and what were your first thoughts?
I read about it on the Internet. I get my iPad in the morning and check up on the news and I saw it. I felt sad at first, and then I thought, hell…90 years old. And what a life! He fought in World War II. D-Day. And he was always great to listen to. Yogi was quoted and everyone loved him. He was truly great. I’m glad I chose that button. You wonder at eight years old why a kid chooses someone to follow so closely and identify with. I did with Yogi that first day. Something about him. Like I said, I was all in.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey,” “Fear No Art,” “Trailing Jesus,” “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y.” His new book, “Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon” is due out this October.