Another icon has died: the incomparable Yogi Berra. The man personified a time when professional baseball—and professional sports in general—had both character and characters. He also transcended the game in which he played and played so well.
Yogi will always be a Met in my eyes. He managed my all-time favorite team, the 1973 New York Mets, who improbably came within a game of winning the World Series against the heavily favored Oakland A’s. Previously, they had beaten the heavily favored Cincinnati Reds—the “Big Red Machine”—in the National League playoffs. The whole spectacle was especially remarkable because the 1973 Mets were floundering pretty much all season long—beset with all kinds of injuries—and closer to the basement than the penthouse when the month of September began. In fact, The New York Post had run a mid-summer poll, which posed the question to its readership, “Who should the Mets fire for their underachieving: Manager Yogi Berra, General Manager Bob Scheffing, or Board Chairman M. Donald Grant?” Scheffing and Grant got the lion’s share of the votes—and deservedly so. Yogi was a beloved figure and wasn’t to blame. After all, he went on to win the pennant. It’s a crying shame the pompous patrician Grant wasn’t sent packing then before he single-handedly destroyed a great franchise. (We shall never forget the Grant’s Tomb years: 1977-1979.)
There was nothing quite like being a kid and a fan back then. In the real world—the adult world—there was President Nixon and Watergate and, too, Vice President Agnew resigning during the post-season excitement. But I was pushing eleven in September and October 1973 and not particularly interested in the goings-on in Washington, D.C. I didn’t care whether or not our president was crook—let's put it that way. I was more interested in watching Mets’ games on the black-and-white television in our family living room and listening to just as many on the radio—my personal radio. No, it wasn’t a transistor. It was a much bigger deal than that with a dial. The radio could be either battery operated or plugged into an electrical outlet. What more could a boy want? Actually, my godmother had gotten me the radio as a First Holy Communion gift a couple of years earlier—one of the fringe benefits of being raised a Catholic. Holy Sacraments and that very first time often came attached to presents and sometimes even monetary rewards. Anyway, the radio is what I wanted so I could listen to Mets’ games—period and end of story. I don’t remember using it for any other purpose but to tune in to the dulcet tones of word painters Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner—the Holy Trinity as far as I was concerned.
It was definitely a time worth saving a bottle. I recall Yogi’s rather humble description of managing. He said, “All you have to know is when to take your pitchers out and how to keep your players happy.” The first year of the Designated Hitter in the American League was in 1973, which more or less torpedoed the only in-game strategy Yogi believed a Major League Baseball manager needed to master. By the way, Tom Seaver completed eighteen games in 1973 (after a career high of twenty-one in 1971). There were no pitch counts and other such nonsense back then. Yogi Berra, manager; Tom Seaver, the ace of the pitching staff; and the legendary Willie Mays on the very same roster in a pennant race and then in a World Series—you gotta believe nothing even remotely resembling that will ever occur again.