SSTN Interviews Jon Pessah
Jon, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading The News. I have to begin with a question that might seem obvious, but I am sure there is more to it. Why Yogi? Of all the players to spend four years of your life reporting and writing about, why Yogi Berra?
First part of answer is easy: He was my father’s favorite player, and though I only saw the tail end of Yogi’s career—1960, when he was primarily a solid role player in left field—he has always been a favorite of mine. And as the years have gone by, I have seen Yogi’s accomplishments as a player overshadowed by his oversized persona, one that I knew was far more of a caricature than a in-depth portrayal of a very complicated man. So I thought there would be a large audience of readers who did not know the real story of Yogi Berra. And the more reporting I did, the more I learned, the more I discovered that if anything, I had underestimated just how much of Berra’s story was yet to be told.
For example: how he became a Yankee instead of a Cardinal, a great story told to me by Red Schoendienst. The secret mission he volunteered for in WW II—so many people, especially under the age of 50, had no idea Yogi spent 13 months in combat. How close he came to being a rightfielder instead of a Hall of Fame catcher. And so much more.
And bigger things, like how he dealt with discrimination against Italian- Americans—which was considerable in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s—and the verbal abuse about his appearance and supposed lack of intelligence.
What role did Yogi’s three older brothers play in him becoming a major league baseball player?
Yogi was never supposed to be a ball player. His father, who emigrated from Italy to America soon after the turn of the century, did not understand baseball and thought of it as a little boy’s game. All three of Yogi’s older brothers were excellent ball players, all three attracted offers from major league teams, all three were denied the opportunity by their father, Pietro Berra, who said boys plays games, men go to work. So Tony, the oldest brother who Yogi always said was the best in the family, became a baker. Mike worked in a women’s shoe factory, and John became a waiter. Remember, this was at the height of the Great Depression, and the Berras were working class poor. When Yogi insisted he wanted to play baseball, the brothers banded together, told their father they would work extra shifts to bring in money for the family, and eventually, Pietro relented. And Yogi got his chance.
A side note: when Yogi was around 8 or 9 and already a standout, he was a right-handed hitter. His brothers told him that if he wanted to be a major league player, his chances would be increased if he hit left-handed. So Yogi simply switched over and became a left-handed hitter.
How did Yogi Berra, who grew up in St. Louis a diehard Cardinals fan, wind up becoming a New York Yankee?
Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, major league teams would hold open tryouts that were advertised in the local newspapers. Red Schoendienst, the Hall of Fame infielder for the Cardinals and Pirates, told me about the one he attended in 1941 at St. Louis’ Sportsman Park run by Branch Rickey, then Cardinals GM and recognized as the greatest talent judge in the game. Red said several thousand kids came to try out, and Rickey and his scouts took two days to cut it down to eight players: Red, Yogi—then called Larry or Lawdie in the Italian neighborhood called The Hill in St. Louis—Joe Garagiola, who lived across the street from Lawdie Berra, and five players Red could not remember.
It fell to Schoendienst, who was 18—two years older than Berra—to pitch to Yogi. Red said he was a pretty fair pitcher with a live arm, but he could not get a ball past Berra, no matter how hard he threw or where the ball was thrown. He also said the sound of Berra’s bat on the ball was unlike anything he’d ever heard. When Berra was finished hitting, Schoendienst said Yogi was the best hitter he had ever seen.
But Rickey was not nearly impressed. Branch had the uncanny ability to look at a teenager and see what he would look like as a man—and a ballplayer. He saw Yogi—who looked like he was put together with spare parts: extra long, muscular arms, big shoulders, long torso and thick, stubby legs—and thought he’d never make the majors. “I’m telling this to you for your own good,” Rickey told Berra, “I don’t think you are more than a Triple A player, and we are looking for players who will go all the way.”
Rickey, the father of the farm system and the man who signed Jackie Robinson, didn’t make many mistakes. But this was a big one.
Rickey signed Schoendienst, who went to be a Hall of Fame infielder, and Garagiola, a good prospect whose career would be derailed by injuries. Yogi went to play ball for an American Legion Post the next two years, taking his team to the national finals both seasons. In one game playoff game he hit a home run to dead center field, a shot that travelled almost 500 feet. In another, he stole home—standing up. The head of the Legion program knew Yankee GM George Weiss and wrote him a telegram after Berra’s second season. “I have a kid here to does everything wrong but everything always turns out right,” Leo Browne wrote in the fall of 1942. “All it will take is a $500 dollar bonus to sign him.”
After the Yankees lost to the Cardinals in the World Series, Weiss asked a Yankee coach who lived in St. Louis to check out his friend story. When the coach reported back that Browne’s story checked out with all his sources, the Yankees gave Yogi a $500 bonus and Berra became a Yankee.
You write a lot about the discrimination and the verbal abuse Yogi endured throughout his career. Can you talk about when that started and how dealt with it?
I was surprised by the scale of the discrimination against Italians in this country. Yogi and Joe Garagiola, his lifelong friend, grew up knowing not to stray out of the non-Italian section of St. Louis for fear of getting into fights. We all now that Japanese Americans were sent to interment camps during WW II, but I did not know that several thousand Italians suffered the same fate. The FBI interview every resident of The Hill, the Little Italy of St. Louis, to check for Mussolini sympathizers.
Berra began hearing verbal abuse about his appearance in his first season in the minor leagues, where the stands are so close to the field that a player can hear everything the fans shout. Shaky Kain, Yogi’s first manager, saw how much the abuse was bothering his young catcher, who was turning beet red and slamming his bat in the bat rack. Kain’s advice was simple: “You are a very good player and you are going to get a lot of abuse—especially because you are Italian,” Kain told him. “If you show people that it bothers you, it will only get worse. Don’t let them know that it is getting to you.”
Yogi took the advice to heart, which served him well because he would receive incredible abuse from the media, opposing players, fans, even his own first manager Bucky Harris, who like Berra very much but often referred to him as “The Ape.” Opposing players called him the “Ugliest Man in Baseball” and would hang from the top of the dugout with one arm, and use to other to mimic a monkey. Some players would throw bananas towards home plate.
The media would refer to him as Quasimodo and Nature Book, which was the title of one column on Berra written by New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Arthur Daily. So many writers wrote about Yogi’s supposed lack of intelligence—a complete mischaracterization—that his wife Carmen never wanted him to manager, knowing that she and Yogi would have read about the intelligence question all over again. And that did indeed follow him throughout his career as a manager with the Yankees and Mets.
A word about Yogi’s intelligence. He had a great knack for business, like when to start a bowling alley and went to get out before the bowling boom went bust. He knew what he was worth, was one of the top three paid players in baseball for much of his career, pioneered the art of holding out, and make a lot of money doing commercials, personal appearances, and later capitalizing on the memorabilia market. Yankee players used to ask Yogi for stock tips because he was so good playing the stock market. And it takes a great deal of intelligence and people skills to handle a pitching staff—the most high-strung players on any baseball team. It was Berra who mapped out the game plan before each game with the pitchers, not manager Casey Stengel, who called Yogi his “assistant manager”—and meant it. Yogi got the best out of every Yankee pitcher, the key to eight of his 10 World Series rings.
Yogi is a Hall of Fame catcher, but there was doubt early in his career that he would ever make it as a major league catcher. Can you talk about how he almost wound up becoming an outfielder, and how he instead became one of the game’s great defensive catcher?
Yogi struggled mightily behind the plate in his first two seasons. He had trouble blocking pitches in the dirt, his strong arm was scattershot—he actually hit an umpire in the head attempting to throw out a runner at second, he could not frame a pitch, and he had no idea how to call a game. Yankee manager Bucky Harris wanted Yogi’s potent bat in the lineup, and split Berra’s playing time between catcher and outfield. The Yankees were in third place late in the 1948 season when Harris moved Berra to right field for the final 50 games. Berra hit .349 with 5 homers and 39 RBI, the Yankees went 31-19 and lost the pennant on the last day of the season. The plan was for Berra to play right field in 1949.
But Harris was fired in a dispute with GM George Weiss—the GM watched his manager to spy on his players on the road and report back, and Harris refused—Stengel was hired, and Casey had a different idea. He knew that a catcher who could hit like Yogi was pure gold—catchers of the era were light hitters who concentrated on calling the game and defense—so Casey brought in former Yankee great Bill Dickey to teach Yogi how to catch. Dickey worked two hours each day after practice during spring training. By the end of training camp, Dickey predicated Yogi would be the best catcher in the American League. He was spot on.
Berra turned into a magnificent catcher. He excelled on defense, pouncing on balls hit in front of the plate and throwing out the runners. No one ran on Yogi. And once Berra’s mechanical flaws were fixed, pitchers relied on his ability to remember every hitter’s weak points. Best example: Don Larsen told me that he threw 97 pitchers in his perfect game in the 1956 World Series and never shook off Yogi once. He said wherever Yogi put put his mitt, Larsen tried to hit it, “and we combined for a perfect game.” Not a bad recommendation.
Despite becoming a Hall of Famer, you’ve written that Yogi was underrated. Why?
Yogi was the best player on the best team in history: the 1949-53 Yankee team that won five straight World Series. Yet people think the Yankee lineage of great players went from DiMaggio to Mantle, It didn’t. It was very definitely DiMaggio to Berra to Mantle. This was the end of DiMaggio’s career: he missed half of the 1949 season, had a good 1950 season—Yogi’s was better—and DiMaggio hit but .263 with 12 home runs in his final season. Mantle arrived in 1951, and struggled with strikeouts and consistency until 1955. It was Berra who was the pillar of the 5-time champion, hitting 25-30 home runs each season, knocking in 100 runs, and batting between .280-320. In one seven season stretch, he won three MVPs, finished second twice, third once, and fourth once.
He also played the game’s most important position, and played just about every game. Berra averaged 141 games (of 1954) for eight straight seasons, always leading the league in games caught. He would catch 20-22 doubleheaders each season, including back-to-back doubleheaders in August and September. When reporters asked Stengel why he played Berra so much, especially after Elston Howard arrived in 1955, Casey had a ready reply: “When I play Mr. Berra behind the plate,” he said, “we win World Series.”
You write that Yogi was one of American’s first TV stars. Can you explain why you wrote that?
Yogi’s career tracked the rise of television in America. He was always on TV during the World Series—the Yankees were in 14 World Series in Yogi’s 17 full seasons with the team. He was a regular on the era’s popular variety shows—Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleeson, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, and more. During the 1950s and ‘60s, Berra was on the era’s leading game shows like “What’s My Line,” and soap operas like General Hospital, where he played a brain surgeon. And he was the champion of endorsements, filming commercials for Yoo-Hoo, Puss ’n Boots cat food, Camel cigarettes, Rhinegold Beer, and many more. (He remained on commercials all through his life, even upstaging the Aflac Duck.) He also did cameos in movies, have a role with Marilyn Monroe in “The Seventh Year Itch,” and with Doris Day and Cary Grant in “That Touch of a Mink.”
It seems that Yogi Berra was underrated as a manager. He brought both the Yankees and the Mets to the World Series. What can you share with us about his skills as a manager?
Yogi was a “players” manager. He thought his job was to put together the best lineup and let the players do their jobs. He was very positive in the locker room, full of encouragement for his players, especially if they have a bad day,. “No one is a .300 hitter every day,” he’s tell a player who’d struck out three times in a game. He never over-managed. Ron Guidry told me a funny story. The Yankees were in a tight game with a man on second in the late innings. Yogi was standing, arms folded across his chest, behind the bat rack when Guidry said, “Skip, don’t you think you should make a move?” Yogi looked at Guidry, then took two steps to one side. “Is this good?” He also thought the season was a marathon, not a sprint like George Steinbrenner, the last many to employ Yogi as a manager. His patience paid off: he was the first manager to take a team to the World Series in both the AL and the NL.
I hope you’ll permit me to make a suggestion for a future book you might wish to write… When writing for the Hartford Courant, you were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for your examination into racism in baseball. Have you ever considered writing a biography of the catcher that replaced Yogi, Elston Howard, the first African-American Yankee and a great player in his own right? (I would love to see a great biography of Elston Howard.)
I’d love to write a book about Elston Howard, one of my favorites. But my agent said that Elston is of regional interest. I’m not positive about that, but he’s the one who knows the market.
You have written some ground-breaking articles on the steroid problem in baseball in the 1990’s. Do players accused of using steroids like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens belong in the Hall-of-Fame?
I’m a firm believer that Bonds and Clemens are being made scapegoats and should be in the Hall of Fame. Everyone in the game, from the commissioner to the clubhouse men, knew players were doing steroids and did or said nothing. Former Mets GM Steve Phillips told me he first thought there were 3-5 players on every team using steorids. Once the scandal exploded, he adjusted his estimate to 10-15 players. Bonds and Clemens are two of the very best players of their era. How can you have a Hall of Fame without these two players and others who are being held out because of testing positive for steroids—or just being suspected of using?
One of my sources for my first book—The Game, an all-star who shall remain nameless—said anyone in MLB who told me they didn’t know who was using steroids was lying. “You could see the poison coming out of their back,” he said, referring to the acne fields on a player’s back who he was cycling on and off the juice. He said he was not a user, and I asked when he never spoke up. Three reasons, he said. “I would never rat out my teammates, and I would never rat out my sport,” he said. “And we were all making too much money.”
In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who is the best baseball player you ever saw?
Best everyday player: Barry Bonds. Great before steroids, great on steroids. Just an amazing hitter, with power and speed.
Best starting pitcher: Sandy Koufax. Just utterly dominant.
Best reliever: Mariano Rivera. Automatic, season after season, into his 40s. He threw just one pitch, everyone knew it was coming, no one could hit it. Best ever in big moments.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
Who was your favorite player?
Mickey Mantle, then Don Mattingly.
What is your most prized collectible?
Baseball autographed by Koufax and Don Drysdale.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
The Boss—Bruce Springsteen
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?