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Yogi Got and Gave Plenty of Respect

For the most part, the exquisite portrayal of Jackie Robinson’s pioneering first major league season in the movie “42” captured the moral tone of the late 1940s. The racial intolerance and viciousness shown toward baseball’s barrier-breaking hero were real. 

Not so real was Robinson’s Hollywood-sized reaction to his late-season home run against one of his nemeses, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller (who was actually lefty, not righty as portrayed).

In the film, Jackie just stands and stares at the disappearing baseball in self-admiration before beginning a slow trot around the bases. Clearly he’s pleased with himself. Clearly he showed up the pitcher. And clearly it’s a historical inaccuracy. Such behavior may be baseball’s norm today, but it wasn’t in those days. No way.

“Nobody did that stuff,” said Yogi Berra, who broke in with the New York Yankees the same year (1947) as Robinson did with the Brooklyn Dodgers. “You just respected the game, nobody did any of that showboat stuff.”

Following service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Yogi Berra played minor league ball with the Newark Bears before joining the New York Yankees. Berra, who learned the art of catching from Bill Dickey, went on to become a three-time American League MVP and is considered one of the greatest catchers of all time.

Well, times have changed. Now there are 24-hour “SportsCenter” highlights. Free agency has made it a whole new ballgame in terms of loyalty and salary. Some stars don’t run hard every play, some don’t sign autographs, some will forever be linked to PEDs. “The best thing about baseball today,” someone recently said, “is its yesterdays.” 

Not to sound like another old grump wistful for those “when it was a game” days, but there was indeed an unwritten code of honor in postwar America baseball. Players felt incredibly lucky to be major leaguers in the 1940s and ’50s. They were underpaid, even underappreciated, but they were hard-nosed and fundamentally sound. They played the game right. That meant hustling on every play, being unselfish team players, and respecting the opponent.

When Yogi and Jackie broke in, the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns were the only major league teams west of the Mississippi River. New York City was the hub of the baseball universe, with three franchises only a subway ride apart. When the Yankees and Dodgers regularly faced each other in the World Series, the only hostilities were among families with divided loyalties. The players? Fiercely competitive, humble and professional.

Even the Giants-Dodgers rivalry, the mother of all heated sports rivalries, produced a lasting friendship between two of its most famous protagonists, Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson. And the Dodgers-Yankees rivalry, despite all that was at stake, revealed all the positive aspects of athletics. 

“We barnstormed [in the off-season] and went to Japan together. We were friends,” recalled Berra, who was close to a number of Dodgers, including his catching counterpart, Roy Campanella. “We wanted to beat them bad, but we got along real good.”

It wasn’t uncommon for members of the losing World Series team to enter the victorious clubhouse and graciously congratulate the winners. In 1955, when Brooklyn finally beat the Yankees for its first and only Series championship, Yogi embraced Game 7 winning pitcher Johnny Podres and walked over to Robinson and said with a big smile, “What’s new, Jack?”

The next year, after Yogi belted two home runs in Game 7 to help the Yankees win the championship, Jackie found Yogi in Ebbets Field’s visitors’ clubhouse and shook his hand in front of several newsmen. He told them that Yogi was one of the best clutch performers he’d ever played against.

That was the last time Robinson wore a major league uniform, a fitting coda and show of mutual respect between two of the game’s greatest competitors. Only a year earlier, in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series, the two legends were involved in one of the most iconic moments in baseball history: Robinson stealing home with Berra raging in disagreement with umpire Bill Summers’ call.

In the 8th inning of the 1955 World Series opener, Jackie Robinson stole home and was ruled ”safe” by umpire Bill Summers. Yogi insisted that he made the tag and explained the play to Jackie a few days later.

To this day, the mere mention of Robinson’s name will elicit three words from Yogi. “He was out,” he’ll invariably say with his trademark grin. When Robinson died in 1972 and Berra was asked to characterize him as an opponent, he replied, “He was a hard out.”

Seemingly forever, sports figures are heroes for young people, their indiscretions and abuses notwithstanding. Kids are impressionable, and it’s not uncommon for 9- and 10-year-olds to mimic pro athletes’ look-at-me gesticulations.

It’s a reality not lost on Yogi and his eponymous nonprofit Museum & Learning Center, founded in 1998 on the campus of Montclair (NJ) State University, which conducts year-round character education programs. It also hosts leadership workshops for high school captains, and sportsmanship seminars for elementary school students. 

The values of respect and humility, which Yogi has always embodied, are the foundation for all the museum’s programs, which include summer baseball and softball camps for under-served kids.  

Recently, the Museum instituted a Best Teammate Award for regional New Jersey high school athletes, in part inspired by Yogi’s famous teammate and friend, Mickey Mantle. Despite his prodigious accomplishments, Mantle wanted to be remembered as a consummate teammate – indeed, his plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park is titled “A Great Teammate.”

This 1956 photos shows Yogi with his good friend and teammate Mickey Mantle as well as Cleveland's Vic Wertz.  

Grounded in Yogi’s remarkable journey from barefoot sandlotter to Hall of Famer, the museum is testament to the belief that youngsters can grow up to be anything they want if they dare to dream and work as hard as possible to make it happen.

Throughout his 88 years, Yogi has trusted his instincts – and his mentors, such as Bill Dickey, the legendary catcher who came out of retirement to “learn me all his experience,” as Yogi famously said. From Dickey, a teammate of Babe Ruth and also Lou Gehrig’s closest friend on those 1930s Yankees teams, Yogi learned more than the fine art of catching. He learned the importance of paying it forward, of loyalty, of carrying on the Yankees tradition.  

His influence on contemporary baseball is also evident.  The Greatest Living Yankee is enormously appreciated for his mentorship of current Dodgers manager Don Mattingly (who wears Yogi’s No. 8 as a tribute); likely future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, whom Yogi helped as a young Astros prospect in the late 1980s; and former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, whom Yogi tutored during his spring training stints as a team adviser.

His message to them and to the kids who participate in museum programs has always been  the same: Have fun, respect others, play the game right.

The Number 8 was retired by the Yankees, in honor of both Yogi Berra and his predecessor Bill Dickey, in 1972 — the same year Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

 

Dave Kaplan is Director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center.

 

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