Telling tales about him is the most effective and efficient way to do what Yogi always did best -- make folks smile.
So, of course, I accepted the invitation, as Phil and Klap had. The three of us and former Yankees, Rangers, Mariners and Brewers pitcher Paul Mirabella, a New Jersey native and resident, passed around a microphone for a while, sharing anecdotes, perspective and our own cackles. And the folks who had gathered in the grandstand room at the museum did their part. They laughed, smiled, chuckled, smirked and generally enjoyed the hell out of another day of celebration.
Truth be told, one older woman, Mary Ann De Aquino from nearby Roseland, N.J., sobbed. Tears of joy, the joy routinely prompted by yarns about Yogi. She's primarily a Willie Mays devotee, her daughter, Trish Perrotta, said. But on this Sunday, 12 days after the death of baseball's greatest grandfather, everyone reveled in No. 8.
The Q&A was part of the memorial salute to Yogi at the museum on Sunday afternoon. Folks, mostly middle-aged -- though a dozen who were bona fide graybeards attended -- came together to celebrate baseball and the man whose name appeared near the entrance. "Casey at the Bat" was recited. An a capella group, Passing Notes, from the high school attended by the three Berra boys, performed nicely. (I wanted to tell them Yogi once confused a capella with Acapulco. He wasn't the first to make that mistake). Former Jet Bruce Harper was there, and a few older gentlemen provided brief, impromptu tours of the place, pointing out poignant pictures and regaling their small audiences with other yarns of Yogi.
In the latter moments of the Q&A, a young girl asked a terrific question, "If Yogi Berra were here today, what would you say to him?"
The mike was in my hand at that moment. My response was: "Thank you."
The man certainly deserved my gratitude. It was Yogi and Mickey and Whitey and Ellie and Casey -- Mickey more than the others -- who had filled my childhood with wonder and who, unwittingly had shaped my adult life and my career. If Yogi hadn't hit one off Harry Byrd on May 20, 1955, in my first game at the old Yankee Stadium, maybe I wouldn't have caught the baseball bug. If Whitey hadn't been blond, I probably wouldn't have tried to throw left-handed. And if Mickey hadn't been ... well, if Mickey hadn't been Mickey, then there wouldn't have been the seven dailies -- all second-hand acquisitions -- that my father brought home six nights a week, and I might have ignored baseball as a pre-teen and not ventured into the business that has afforded me seats at thousands of baseball games and one with Phil, Klap and Paul.
So, thanks, Yogi. And thanks, too, for your tolerance. Some of the questions I asked in '72, months after your took Gil Hodges' place in the Mets' dugout and weeks into my first steady baseball gig, probably weren't as on-point as they could have been. And, yes, I did snicker when you said to Joe Valerio of the New York Post, "Joe, you tell the stupidest questions." And I did laugh out loud when Valerio's retort was, "Yeah, Yogi, and you ask the stupidest answers."
I don't recall being involved in so harsh an exchange with Yogi because I always held him in the highest regard and recognized his knowledge of the game exceeded mine by a lightyear or two. He, Mick, Whitey and Ellie all served as Yankees coaches in my time. I always extended them the benefit of the doubt for the same reason. Otherwise, they'd be grilling us.
It seemed right, at the time, to defer. They weren't playing anymore. Only Yogi managed during my years in the press box. It still seems right. I found out quickly and uncomfortably in 1970 that the ability to recite Mickey's Triple Crown stats didn't mean I knew the game. They answered my questions. And I always marveled at the insights they provided when the damn microphones weren't making them self-conscious.
* * * *
My "thank you" response was quite appropriate, I thought, because Yogi, as much as anyone in uniform, made my job pleasant. I covered him when he managed the Mets and later when he managed the Yankees. It was a joy, and it would have been had I been raised in Kansas City and not the Bronx. Unlike some of his managing contemporaries, he trusted folks from the outset. Getting to know him required less than a homestand.
His comments sometimes made the job fun. But so did the words of Danny Ozark, Earl Weaver and Sparky Anderson.
The first Yogi-ism experience I recall was in June 1975. Yogi's Mets had been shut out in three straight games. Understand that when players speak of batting practice, they refer to it as "hitting." If a player was unaware of the time scheduled for BP, he would say, "What time do we hit?"
On this night, reporters gathered in Yogi's office at Shea Stadium after the third shutout and before he entered. As he walked toward his desk, he let us know he had called off batting practice for the following day. But he said it this way: "'We ain't gonna hit tomorrow."
We knew what he meant, but one of us said, "Tell us something we don't know." He smiled.
* * * *
The anecdotes that Yogi's boys (Larry, Tim and Dale) and his grandchildren (Lindsay and Larry) shared on Sunday at the museum were terrific. They provided more insight into the man. And we're still sculpting our images of Mr. Berra.
I particularly enjoyed the one about the banana. (Seems that someone in the Berra household had eaten a banana that Yogi had thought was designated as his. From that point on, some pieces of fruit came to carry Yogi's treasured autograph).
Now, reporters do not -- nor should they -- ask players for autographs. But I have Yogi's, from a time when he was catching for the Yankees and I was rooting for them. Alas, it appears on pages of lined loose-leaf paper. Asking that he sign a banana never occurred to me. So my Yogi autograph lacks distinction. It has only sentimental value. And that is quite enough.