Sometime in the mid-fifties, this teenage Red Sox fan asked his father why he was a Yankee fan? “Because I like good baseball,” Poppa said.
In the fifties, the Yankees were the best. The first time I saw them, Fenway Park was packed. Poppa and I had seats well up in the grandstand, deep down the right field line. In the second inning, I witnessed the utter power of a major league hitter for the first time. The chunky left handed Yankee at the plate sent a line shot right at me, rising and curving as it smashed into a fortunately empty seat two rows below me. Wow.
The hitter was Lawrence Peter Berra, known to teammates and the world as Yogi. He died the other day at 90, a sweet bear of a man who became as well known for his one liners as his line drives:
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” he said.
“How can you think and hit at the same time?”
Berra didn’t think much when he hit. He just stood up there and swung, at balls and strikes. And could he hit, at the heart of a lineup that included Mickey Mantle, Hank Bower, Joe Collins, Gene Woodling, Bobby Richardson, Phil Rizutto.
And he anchored the Yankee defense, one of the best catchers ever. He was catlike as he blocked errant pitches, handled outfield throws. And his arm was an accurate rifle. The great Yankee skipper Casey Stengel didn’t hesitate when asked to name the best athlete he ever managed. “Yogi Berra,” he said.
The fifties Yankees were so good that some believed their top farm club, Kansas City, could’ve finished second in the American League.
Suspicions abounded that the Yankees sometimes didn’t try all that hard, saving their big effort for the late innings. Their legendary radio announcer, Red Barber, asked about that, said,“Big cats prowl late.”
There was a magnificence about the so-called Bronx Bombers, that showed when they took the field. They had a swagger, a dignity, a bearing as distinctive as their pin-striped uniforms. But Berra was different. Always smiling, bouncing around the field, his love for the game could light up a ballpark. Ever willing to sign autographs, and help those in need, he devoted his retired years to charity.
“It ain’t over till its over,” he once said. Well, it’s over now for Yogi Berra, too soon even at 90.
He also said, “It gets late early out there.”