Yogi Berra died the other day (age 90).
Should I assume most people know who he is? Probably not. You’d have to have been a baseball fan and be at least fifty or so.
Yogi Berra was a real New York City character (I don’t like to use the word icon) and a truly great ballplayer (a catcher) for the Yankees during one of their long championship stretches—The Forties through The Sixties. He also coached and managed the Mets and the Yankees later in his career.
This was a time when, for most of the boys in my neighborhood, baseball players were everything noble and manly—the men we all admired and secretly wished to be. Sure, there were girls who were fans of various teams (See Doris Kearns Goodwin’s great memoir: Wait Till Next Year) but mostly it was a boy thing.
Did we know about the sordid business side of things—the greed and collusion and maltreatment of players by team owners, or about drugs (not steroids but still…) or any cheating that went on? No—we just idolized these players pure and simple.
In some parts of the country—in fact, in other parts of the city and Long Island—it was also basketball or hockey or football, but where I lived it was predominantly baseball (though we all played basketball in the neighborhood schoolyards and some indoor courts in our schools). Some of us played on little league teams—the ones whose fathers had the time and the inclination to get involved. Otherwise we played on the local ball fields in the public parks. We tossed the ball back and forth endlessly—sometimes throwing and catching till it got too dark to see; the feel of the ball in our hand, the release of the ball and sound and feel of the ball hitting our mitts connecting to us through a kind of tactile fantasy to our favorite stars.
We collected, traded and flipped baseball cards with laser-like concentration and total devotion. For those of us who had TVs (and by the mid-Fifties that was just about every family) we watched the games on weekends. And when there was enough money, we got to go to an actual game, which was the biggest thrill of all.
Baseball. It was a way, even when there was no other kind of real communication going on (which wasn’t unusual in the Forties and Fifties), that fathers and sons could connect. And it was the main thing the boys in neighborhood (till girls entered the picture) always had in common. Baseball was far more than a game—it was a language, a culture, an atmosphere that we all breathed in common.
And, of course, it still is. Though now there are too many whirling graphics, talking heads, meaningless statistics, brain-numbing video displays and obscenely large contracts.
But that’s another story. I’ll probably talk more about this whole subject (and about the special connection my grandfather Louis had with the Yanks) on my Turning Point radio show this coming Monday on PRN.FM.
But for now—from my generation of baseball fans—good-bye to you, Yogi. You were somebody we could always count on.