Thursday, September 24, 2015

Larger Than the Average Life

Always go to other people's funerals, 
Otherwise they won't come to yours.
- Yogi Berra 

On Tuesday night, the 69th anniversary of his Major League debut, in which he hit the first of his 358 home runs and drove in the first two runs of a Hall of Fame career that would see him amass 1,430 RBI, and on Summer's final full day, Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra died.  He was ninety.  

If one was to measure Yogi Berra's life simply by his achievements between the white lines of a baseball diamond, it would be viewed as a life that was nothing short of remarkable.  He played eighteen seasons with the New York Yankees, during which the Yankees played in the World Series fourteen times.  The Yankees won ten of the fourteen World Series in which he played.

For those of you reading this who are younger than forty-five or so, you need to understand that Berra played in an era in which neither Divisions nor Wild Cards existed.  There were two leagues:  American and National and upon the regular season's completion the winner of the American played the winner of the National in the World Series.  All of Berra's "post-season" statistics therefore are World Series statistics.  He played in seventy-five World Series games, in which he amassed seventy-one hits, including ten doubles and a dozen home runs.  He drove in thirty-nine runs while batting .275.   

In his eighteen seasons in pinstripes, he was an American League All-Star fifteen times, and he was the American League MVP three times, including winning the award back-to-back in 1954 and 1955.  He was the runner-up for the award on two other occasions.  When his playing career ended, he managed the Yankees for one season - in 1964.  The Bombers won the American League and lost the World Series in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals, which prompted Ralph Houk to fire Berra and to replace him with Cardinals' manager Johnny Keane.  Again, for those of you reading this who are under the age of forty-five or so, ask a Yankees fan who is older than that particular demographic to describe the particular brand of hell that followed upon Keane's hiring.  

Yogi migrated across town to the new team - the Mets - who were still hapless in the mid-1960's.  He ended up as their first base coach, under former Brooklyn Dodger great Gil Hodges, and when the Amazing Mets drubbed the Orioles in the 1969 Series to capture their first title, Yogi had his eleventh World Series ring.  He came up one win short of adding a twelfth when his 1973 Mets team (he became the manager when Hodges died suddenly in 1972) lost the Series to the Oakland Athletics. 

Yogi Berra was a Hall-of-Fame baseball player.  Yet, he was so much more.  He served his country with honor in World War II.  He joined the United States Navy and was part of the Normandy invasion on D-Day - providing suppression fire from his boat for the soldiers attempting to take the beaches from their German defenders.  He was shot and wounded two months later, during Operation Dragoon, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart.  He and his life's great love, Carmen, whom he met in 1947, were married in 1949 and remained together, as a single, indivisible unit, until her death in 2014.  Yogi is survived by his three sons and enough grandchildren to fill out a lineup card. 

Sixty years ago, he provided us with one of the all-time great, on-field tantrums.  In the eighth inning of Game One of the 1955 World Series (Mom's all-time favorite World Series, by the way), with the Dodgers down 6-4, Jackie Robinson stole home.  To say that Yogi disagreed with the umpire's call is to do a grave injustice to the word "disagreed".  Several years ago, Yogi gave President Obama a signed copy of the photograph of the play at the plate, on which he wrote, "Dear Mr. President:  He Was Out!  Yogi Berra".  

Jackie Robinson's steal of Home Plate
Game One - 1955 World Series 

Towards the tail end of what was an otherwise forgettable 2014 season for the Yankees (Yes, I am aware that 2014 was the "Derek Jeter Farewell Tour" but I am talking about their play on the field), we had the good fortune (courtesy of the Siller Foundation) to be at the Stadium for Joe Torre Day.  Too weak to walk onto the field, Yogi was driven around in a golf cart.  When the Yankees put his image up on the video screen in center field, the crowd erupted in applause.  We were sitting upstairs that afternoon, too high up to capture anything other than an image of "Yogi as Ant-Man".  So, instead of taking a photo of Yogi, I took a photo of the image of Yogi as it appeared on the screen. 

Yogi Berra - Joe Torre Day 
Yankee Stadium - August 2014

While I would have preferred to have been close enough to have captured a close-up of the man himself, upon further reflection this picture aptly captured him for who he was:  A man small in stature but larger than life

Rest in Peace, Yogi.  And remember, when you reach the fork in the road on your way to the Pearly Gates, take it. Irrespective of the path you choose to take, your room is reserved and paid for at your destination.  Carmen is waiting for you.  You best be getting home... if an old catcher would head in any other direction.    


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