MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

At home, Yogi was normal; on field, anything but

At home, Yogi was normal; on field, anything but

LITTLE FALLS, N.J. -- It was the first day of Spring Training, 1985. Yogi was beginning the second year of his second run as Yankees manager. He was armed with an exceptional roster: Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Don Baylor, Willie Randolph, Ken Griffey Sr., Ron Guidry, Phil Niekro and Dave Righetti. And, more importantly, he had a promise in his back pocket. George Steinbrenner had vowed -- publicly and to Yogi's face -- that No. 8 had all season to prove himself worthy.

The players had been called together for a lay-of-the-land discussion in the clubhouse. And, after the manager had addressed his guys and reviewed the few rules he had, a new player wanted to make certain of some Yankees protocol. So he raised his hand and spoke up: "Ah ... Skip," he said, using the generic word for a baseball manager.

Yankees
Yogi Berra dies at 90

Before the new man could form a question. Guidry interrupted. "He's your dad," he said to the new man. "He's not Skip for you. It's 'Dad.' Call him 'Dad.'"

Dale Berra, Yogi's youngest son, accepted Guidry's order and, for the rest of Yogi's time in the Yankees' dugout, he referred to his manager as "Dad." Problem was, the remainder of Yogi's second Yankees tenure didn't make it to May Day. Three years after breaking his Lemon pledge -- Bob Lemon was dismissed as Yankees manager after 14 games in 1982 -- Steinbrenner discarded Yogi after all of 16 games. Evidently, the Boss had become two games more patient in the interim.

Steinbrenner famously -- or infamously -- had his lieutenant Clyde King give Yogi the verbal pink slip that Sunday afternoon at Comiskey Park, initiating an extended estrangement that tore at the fabric of Yankees tradition. The Yankees remained in the Bronx. And, for all practical purposes, Yogi, as prominent as any figure in the club's pantheon, stayed in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife, Carmen.

Even when he ventured over the George Washington Bridge to visit Shea Stadium to watch his Astros play the Mets, his car didn't even slow down as he passed his former workplace.

The divorce lasted 14 years. And during that time, the Yankees tried to lure Yogi back. He resisted. "That was the amazing part," Dale said on Thursday morning. "Dad loved Yankee Stadium. That was his place, his baseball home. But he wasn't going back until he got an apology from George. And he didn't want an apology because he'd been fired. He accepted that. Managers get hired and fired. What [bothered] him was that George had someone else do it."

The Yankees, Dale said, occasionally tried to circumvent the old man. They inquired whether any one of the sons or Carmen would visit Yankee Stadium. Yogi told his family members they were free to attend. But "not in my name." That was a powerful restriction.

And years later, when Lindsay, the daughter of Yogi and Carmen's son Larry, was invited to accompany a girlfriend to a Yankees game, she sought Grandpa's approval. "You can go," Yogi told her. "You don't have a beef with George."

* * * *

Those anecdotes and dozens more came to light on Thursday when Lindsay, her father and her two uncles spent some 90 minutes with members of the media here at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University. The event was, in no way, a news conference; it was a celebration of the remarkable athlete and charming gentleman who had died at age 90 late Tuesday night.

Larry, the eldest son -- who most resembles Yogi in appearance, body language and voice -- said that family members had been with Yogi at the nursing home he and Carmen had moved into a few years earlier until about 5 p.m. that day. Yogi's breathing had become erratic and labored. Larry received a call at about 10, alerting him. His father had taken a turn for the worse. "I got there in time," he said. "I took his hand. He took four more breaths..."

And then the world lost one of its special citizens. As Lindsay and the boys spoke, they nearly exhausted an ample supply of adjectives -- secure, confident, generous, sincere, fair, unassuming, respectful, color-blind, pleasant, accomplished, humble, iconic, great, sensitive, nice, funny, friendly and, the word Dale used repeatedly, normal.

Lindsay said, "The scope of reach was astonishing."

"He was humble, yet confident, all at the same time," Dale said. "What you saw is what you got. He talked to everyone. That's just the way he was. He was a wonderful guy."

Each of the four acknowledged the informal get-together had been therapeutic for all. How could 90 minutes spent praising a great and beloved man be anything else? They were neither surprised nor terribly distressed two days after his passing. Lindsay had cried on Wednesday, and she cracked once as she regaled her audience. But she also found a positive. Tuesday had been Carmen's birthday. "Grandpa got there in time to celebrate with her," she said.

* * * *

Yogi's dismissal in 1985, and its immediate aftermath, made lasting impressions with Dale. Yogi's son recalled walking into the tiny office that visiting managers used in Comiskey. He had witnessed Baylor's attack on a trash can and Guidry's overturn of the table that carried the postgame meal. Players were upset not only by Steinbrenner's impulsive move, but also by the pending return of coarse Billy Martin.

Dale's intent was to commiserate with his dad. "Don't worry about me," Yogi said. "I'll be playing golf tomorrow."

The lessons Yogi inadvertently taught that afternoon continued. The team was to move on to Texas. They were to fly out of O'Hare Airport. Yogi had a flight from O'Hare to Newark. "Instead of taking a cab and going off on his own, Dad wanted to take the team bus," Dale said. "He sat in the manager's seat for the last time. The bus drove him to the terminal at the airport, and as he got off, the players all applauded. Then, he stood there on the sidewalk, holding his bag at the terminal and waved to us."

It's called grace. The image is as powerful as Yogi's lefthanded swing.

"He was such a normal, regular guy to the people he met," Dale said. "I think because he grew up with immigrant parents during the Depression, and he had to go to work when he was in eighth grade. He never went to high school. I think that made him humble."

"I think it makes him unique," Larry said. "He never wanted to make anyone upset with him. If someone wanted to take a picture with him or get an autograph, that was fine."

Tim, Yogi's middle son, who briefly played in the NFL, said, "People felt comfortable with dad, they laughed with him. Dad had a great way of relating to everyone. Sure, he was this iconic, great baseball player, but to me, he was Dad. He was a buddy of mine. I wanted to be like him, a sensitive guy with an air of confidence and friendliness."

The sons talked, Lindsay talked. And with each word, the image of Lawrence Peter Berra was enhanced. The story of Bill Mazeroski's 1960 World Series home run -- a Game 7 walkoff -- was told. The baseball sailed over the head of Yankees left fielder Yogi Berra and the wall. "Dad told me," Dale said, "he was okay with it. He'd won a lot by then. It didn't bother him that much."

Clearly, "normal" didn't fit Yogi in every instance.

Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.