Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Yogi Berra - The Lucky One

If you were in the habit of calling a flipped coin the same each time, at some point in eternity the coin would fall your way 50 times in a row - or a thousand.

Take Yogi Berra.

He was Larry Berra when he was a kid on St. Louis's "Hill" until someone nicknamed him Yogi because he tended to sit on the ground with his legs crossed. He looked like he was doing yoga. He gained a first name that day that when you said it, everyone in the country knew who you were talking about.

He dropped out of school after the eighth grade, not something that normally makes things easier for a son of immigrants in a working class neighborhood. But for him it worked. He would became famous (and paid well by advertisers) for his involuntary wit. An example is a story told by Mickey Mantle in My Favorite Summer 1956 involving Billy Martin locking his keys inside a Lincoln. Martin told Berra he ddidn't know what to do. Berra responded: "You need a blacksmith."
He happened to hit left handed, always an advantage for a hitter. And he could hit. He threw right; essential for a catcher.

He tried out for the St. Louis Cardinals at age 17. The Cardinals passed on Berra and chose Joe Gariagiola, who as a baseball player turned out to be a passable broadcaster.

The Cardinals would win no pennants from 1947 to 1963 - the 17 full seasons of Berra's career. Instead the Yankees scooped Berra up and sent him to the minors before he came of draft age. Starting in 1947, Berra's first full year in the Big Leagues, the Yankees would win 15 of the next 18 American League pennants and 10 World Championships. Berra played in the first 17 pennant races. He managed the Yankees in the last one.

When Berra turned 18 in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy. When a superior asked for volunteers for an undisclosed mission, Berra raised his hand. His job turned out to be serving as a machine gunner on a 36-foot Landing Craft Vehicle that was positioned 300 yards from the beach at Normandy on D-Day. Eight ships were sunk. Over a thousand sailors died. Berra was one of the lucky ones.

When Berra got out of the Navy in 1946, he was sent to the Yankees Triple A team in Newark. But the Yankees needed a catcher. Hall of Famer Bill
Dickey was set to retire at the end of 1946. Berra was called up to the big club after only 77 games in the minors.

He was on the the Yankees' roster full time in 1947. He could hit but his defense was not at the major league level. At the end of the season in 1948, Yankees' manager Bucky Harris started playing Berra in left field - a position for a team's weaker defenders.

Berra needed one more winning coin flip. And he got it. Bucky Harris was fired after the Yankees finished third that year. Casey Stengel was hired for the 1949 season. He saw something in Berra that Harris had not. He assigned Bill Dickey to be Berra's tutor. As Berra later said, Dickey "learned" Berra everything Dickey knew about catching. Berra became the Yankees' full time catcher in 1949. That year he was picked to play in the first of 15 consecutive All Star games. The Yankees won the World Championship - the first of 5 in a row. In 1951, Berra won the first of his 3 Most Valuable Player Awards, the same number that a teammate of Berra's would win - a kid named Mantle.

In 1956, he and batterymate Don Larson would become immortal when Larson pitched a perfect game in the fifth game of the World Series against the Dodgers. Larson says he never shook Berra off during the game. The Dodgers sent Dale Mitchell to the plate with 2 out in the bottom of the ninth. Mitchell rarely struck out. He ranks as of this writing 8th all-time in fewest strikeouts per at bat. On a 1 -2 count, Mitchell took a pitch he thought was high and outside. You wonder if Berra had something to do with the home plate umpire calling Mitchell out. Strike or not, everyone remembers Berra jumping into into Larson's arms - an indelible image for anyone who follows baseball. (Click here for video footage of Larson striking out Mitchell.)

Berra's last year as the Yankees' full-time catcher was 1959. After that he played left field some and caught when Elston Howard needed a rest. He retired after the 1963 season.

He managed 2 pennant winning teams after that. The Yankees in 1964; the Mets in 1973. Both teams lost a 7 game Series.

The Yankees fired Berra as manager after only one year in 1964. The Yankees finished sixth in 1965 - the first time they had finished under .500 in 40 years. They would not be a pennant contender again for a decade.

Berra is 84 years old now. He still makes commercials in which his gift for language is featured. Who can forget: "Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore; it's too crowded."

Berra was lucky when it came to baseball cards too. He became
an every day player just as the baseball card business was rising from the ashes after the Second World War. Above left is his card from the famous 1952 Topps set. Above top right is a recently manufactured card from my collection that features him wearing a batting helmet; he looks like he may be kneeling in an on-deck circle going to school on the pitcher. Looking for a pattern, maybe; figuring out what he could expect when he came to bat. There's some nice looking flannel jersey swatches embedded in the card. One with a Yankee pinstripe.

Above center is another card from my collection commemorating Larson's perfect game. The card is "player touched" by Larson and Berra. Lower right is a Topps Finest refractor card that features another "player touched" Berra autograph. Both of the autographed cards in my collection have clear, carefully written signatures.

Bill James ranks Berra as the best catcher in Major League history. Second is Johnny Bench. Not everyone agrees. Sparky Anderson once said that he didn't want to embarrass any other catcher by comparing him to Bench. Perhaps he should compare Berra's 10 World Championship teams to Bench's 2. Or Berra's 3 MVP award with Bench's 2.

It wasn't just luck.

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