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I received a copy of the latest Yogi Berra biography as a birthday present. So many books have been written about Berra, and yet Jon Pessah’s work stands out because of its thorough, insightful look at a baseball player who was downplayed as a cartoonish character.
That is an unfair assessment, particularly for a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Berra played 19 years in the major leagues and was a three-time American League MVP (he finished second twice). He was an essential piece of the New York Yankees machine that won five consecutive World Series titles from 1949 through 1953.
A workhorse behind the plate, Berra caught no fewer than 109 games in a season from 1949 through 1957.
Berra bridged the eras between the Yankees of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, but he was a star in his own right and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.
That is what shines through in Pessah’s Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask (Little, Brown and Company; hardback; $30; 567 pages). Pessah spent 4½ years doing research and conducted more than 100 interviews.
“It felt like he was sitting on my couch the last year I was writing the book,” Pessah, who writes for The New York Times and was a founding member of ESPN the Magazine, told Newsday earlier this year.
Berra, who died in 2015 at the age of 90, was baseball’s Everyman. He did not look like a major leaguer, standing 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighing 185 pounds in his prime. His physical appearance and Italian heritage made him an easy target throughout his career.
Berra had “a round face dominated by a big nose, heavy brow, and toothy grin,” Pessah writes. Opponents — and some of his teammates and managers — bought into the image that Berra was almost Neanderthal-like. Opposing players would swing from the dugout, imitating an ape.
But Berra’s first manager counseled him to ignore the slurs, reasoning correctly that if the young player responded, the bench jockeying would only get worse.
So, while Berra let the taunts slide, he never forgets them, Pessah writes.
Berra’s reading material may have been confined to comic books, but he was a savvy businessman and a tough bargainer at contract time, Pessah writes.
Still, there was always a question about whether Berra said many of the things attributed to him.
I have a sign on the wall in my office that has phrases attributed to Berra — “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” “You can observe a lot by watching,” “It gets late early out there,” “It’s déjà vu all over again,” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
“Every time Yogi hiccupped, he was answered by gales of laughter,” Bill Veeck once wrote. “Boy, you said to yourself, nobody can hiccup as funny as that Yogi.”
That image was manufactured by the writers who followed the Yankees, who were trying to turn a quiet, almost dull personality into a savant of baseball witticisms. Pessah does a nice job of sifting fact from fiction.
Berra has all the qualities a kid could look up to — friendly, thrifty, brave, loyal, helpful and trustworthy. All those traits come through very clearly in Pessah’s narrative.
Berra was a serious, quiet man who enjoyed playing baseball. He did not have to be flamboyant or colorful, and he shunned the spotlight. Berra was, however, a solid hitter who held the career record for home runs by a catcher (now owned by Mike Piazza.). Berra was a tough out and a dangerous clutch hitter who would swing at any pitch.
In George Vecsey’s 1966 book, Baseball’s Most Valuable Players, Detroit pitcher Hal Newhouser was told not to worry — Berra was a bad-ball hitter, and he should have no problem getting the catcher out.
“Yeah,” Newhouser said. “But I defy anyone to throw him a good pitch.”
Berra was intense, too. Watch that video clip of Jackie Robinson stealing home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series. When umpire Bill Summers called Robinson safe, Berra’s furious reaction became a video highlight. Until his dying day, Berra insisted Robinson was out.
When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, New York, during the mid-1960s, Berra remained popular even though he was retired. The catcher on my Catholic school’s baseball team was naturally nicknamed “Yogi,” for example, and all of us enjoyed Yoo-hoo, a chocolate drink endorsed by Berra.
Berra was gold for advertisers, too, from Yoo-hoo to Aflac. Berra showed his business acumen by skipping a salary for representing Yoo-hoo, electing instead to be paid in company stock. It made him rich, Pessah writes.
“When Yogi bought stock, the market went up. When he sold, it went down,” Yankees pitcher-turned-author Jim Bouton wrote in 1973. “Yogi got into the bowling business (with teammate Phil Rizzuto) just before the boom and got out just before the crash.”
Pessah traces Berra’s life from the Italian neighborhood of his youth in St. Louis known as The Hill. Lorenzo Pietro Berra, known as “Lawdie” during his childhood, was obsessed with baseball. He and his boyhood friend, Joe Garagiola, were easily the best two players in the neighborhood, but it was Garagiola who got the to the majors first.
Berra, like many sons of immigrants, had to convince his father that baseball was not frivolous, and that was not an easy task. Even though his older brothers picked up the slack and brought home extra money, Pietro Berra remained unconvinced that baseball was a way to make a living.
Pessah chronicles Berra’s youth, his career in the Navy and his harrowing landing at Utah Beach at Normandy on D-Day. Later in 1944, Berra is wounded in his left hand while manning a machine gun in Marseilles, which would earn him a Purple Heart.
Compared to Berra’s military service, playing baseball was a cakewalk.
For all the teasing and indignities he suffered early in his professional baseball career, Berra remained resilient — and stuck to his guns.
When a clubhouse man for the Newark Bears hands Berra a well-worn uniform that lacked a number on the back and the city name on the front, the young catcher “wraps the uniform into a ball, strides angrily over to the clubhouse man” and tosses it at the worker.
“Hey, give me a damn new uniform,” Berra says, “I’m not trying out. I play for this club!”
Berra got the new uniform.
Berra was always a natural hitter, but “agile and unpolished” behind the plate. His throwing arm was erratic, but he was quick to pounce on bunts and cutting down lead runners. It was a matter of learning the proper technique, and Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey would prove instrumental in honing Berra’s defensive skills.
Pessah tracks Berra’s career with the Yankees, where he played in 12 World Series and won 10 titles. Berra was the glue that kept the team together. For example, in August 1951 he caught all but one game and both games in five out of six doubleheaders, Pessah writes. Five days after the birth of his son, Tim, Berra is poised to help Allie Reynolds make history when he settles under a foul pop. Reynolds is one out away from his second no-hitter that would also clinch the 1951 pennant, but Berra drops the ball.
Considering that the hitter was Ted Williams, giving the game’s best hitter a second chance seemed like an invitation to disaster. But Williams popped up again and Berra caught the ball, to his everlasting relief.
The great moments keep coming: more postseason glory, catching Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, and eventually becoming the manager of the Yankees in 1964. That one-year stint did not go well. Even though the Yankees won their 29th pennant, it was a difficult year for the rookie manager. Lacking respect from his players and support from the front officer, Berra was fired after one season.
Pessah does a good job in writing about chunks of Berra’s career, but the chapter called “A Second Chance: 1965-1972” is a curious one. Instead of recapping what took place when Berra joined the New York Mets in 1965 — including a stunning World Series win in 1969 — Pessah jumps to 1972, when manager Gil Hodges died, and Berra was named to replace him.
I’m not certain that anything of note took place in Berra’s world from 1965 to 1971 that would have added to the book, but it just seemed a bit incongruous, given that every other era of his life was covered so thoroughly.
Berra led the Mets to the World Series and took the defending champion Oakland A’s to seven games before losing. However, Berra’s fortunes would shift back to pinstripes after he was fired by the Mets and hired by the Yankees as a coach.
Berra would be named the Yankees’ manager in 1984, but when owner George Steinbrenner fired him 16 games into the 1986 season, the wounded legend boycotted his team for 13 years. Until Steinbrenner apologized — on Berra’s turf, face to face — the former star stayed away from Yankee Stadium. Interestingly, Berra and Steinbrenner became good friends after the boycott ended.
Pessah delves deep into the family relationships Berra had with his parents and siblings, his longtime love affair with his wife, Carmen, and the turbulent times caused by the drug use of his son, Dale. Through it all, Berra remained stoic and enjoyed his later years, particularly the opening of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center.
Two months after his death, Berra was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
"We know this for sure: If you can't imitate him, don't try to copy him," Obama said in a nod to one of Berra’s famous sayings.
There is no doubt that Berra lived a long, full life. Pessah presents that life in a warm narrative that will resonate with baseball fans.
The book is thick, but it is a fast read. And the best part? It ain’t over ’til it’s over.
Charlie Hustle will never stop hustling.
Pete Rose may never be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but his marketing skills place him among baseball’s elite. The all-time hits leader’s latest exposure to collectors comes through Leaf’s Charlie Hustle Baseball Edition.
A blaster box is pricey at $29.99, but that was at Target. I have seen some boxes go for as low as $24.95 online. The price is the bad news. The good news is that collectors will get the complete 10-card base set, plus an autographed card to boot.
Granted, Rose’s signature is on a sticker, but he is a diligent signer, and if you cough up enough cash, he is more than happy to sign.
Rose had a chain of restaurants in South Florida some years back. In 1998 I went with my dad to the one he had in Boynton Beach, Florida. Memorabilia all over the place, and Rose did a radio show from a soundproof booth inside the restaurant.
The food wasn’t bad, either. The cool part was that there were newspaper clippings —good and bad, because after all, even bad publicity is publicity — bats, balls, uniforms and gloves on display.
In the gift shop, if you bought an item that cost more than $20 (I am guessing on the price now, but in that range or higher), Rose would autograph it for you if he was there. Not a bad deal.
This year’s model is like a Leaf product from 2012: Pete Rose, The Living Legend.
There are 10 cards in the base set, with each card detailing Rose’s achievements at certain points during his career. The cards show Rose during every stop of his career — with the Cincinnati Reds, Montreal Expos and Philadelphia Phillies. Because Leaf does not have a license with MLB and the MLBPA, all logos are airbrushed off the photographs.
The card design is nice, with mostly action shots of Rose. A photograph is inset against a feathered background, with the name of the brand in large block letters at the bottom of the card. There is a capital “R” about the brand name, topped by a crown to signify Rose’s status as major league baseball’s career leader in hits.
The card backs utilize a horizontally cropped version of the photo on the front, with seven lines of type discussing his career.
The biographical sketches list his achievements and tend to push for Rose’s election to the Hall of Fame.
An example: “Despite allegations of gambling while a manager of the Reds, he deserves to be acknowledged for his accomplishments as a player by being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
Another example: “His work ethic once represented everything that was great about America.”
And: “There wasn’t anything Rose wouldn’t do to help his team win.”
You get the idea.
The autograph I pulled was on a sticker and penned with a red Sharpie. I get it: Rose is a Red. This shot was like base card No. 10, when Rose was with the Phillies. There are 10 different autographs in the set — one for each base card.
It’s a nice little set and keeps Rose in the spotlight. Charlie Hustle turns 80 on April 14, and he hasn’t stopped hustling yet.
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I love to blog about sports books and give my opinion. Baseball books are my favorites, but I read and review all kinds of books.