Thoughts & Views: Yogi caught on with a lot of us fans

Say what you want about the disproportionate advantage held by the millionaire owners of the Bronx Bombers of the late 40s and early ‘50s but you must admit that the players they got were deities worshipped by their loyal fans.

And while a few of them – like Lefty Gomez and Mickey Mantle – were especially gifted with features that made them stand out like the statues of Greek and Roman warriors, Lawrence Peter Berra could not be counted among those models of masculine perfection.

But Yogi, who died last Tuesday, Sept. 22, at 90, had other welcome attributes – like catching and hitting – for which he has secured a place in Baseball’s Pantheon – the Hall of Fame.

As a kid growing up in the ‘50s, I appreciated Yogi, along with the rest of his teammates, as representing something special of that era.

Listening to radio broadcasts of Yankee games with announcers Red Barber and Mel Allen – both, ironically, from the Deep South – Red from Mississippi and Mel from Alabama — I well remember rejoicing after hearing Mel’s exuberant “Ballantine Blast” and “White Owl Whopper” calls for Yankee home runs while Red was a bit more laconic, given to arcane expressions like, “can of corn,” “rhubarb” and Oh, Doctor!” (Like Satchel Paige before him, Yogi was to develop a few of his own linguistic marvels.)

Both Mel and Red ended up being unceremoniously dumped by different Yankee managements, despite their revered status on the airwaves. It’s a scenario that Yogi himself – despite his elevated status – was later to endure.

A three-time MVP and 18- time All Star who handled 148 chances without an error between 1957 and 1959 and who – at age 37 – caught all 22 innings in a seven-hour game against Detroit in June 1962, stood up for himself – not just in the batter’s box – but to make a point of pride in his worth as an individual.

In 1985, with fewer than 20 games played in the young season and the team stumbling, then-owner George Steinbrenner sent Clyde King, one of his minions, to the clubhouse to inform Yogi that he was being replaced as the Yankees’ manager.

That cowardly gesture – delivered at a time when Yogi’s son Dale was being given a shot at making the team – resulted in Yogi boycotting Yankee Stadium for the next 14 years, only returning as the Yankees’ guest for an Old Timers’ game after Steinbrenner delivered a semi-apology.

But the fans did not desert No. 8 and they cheered him even as he piloted the Mets to the National League pennant in 1973. Yogi made lots of friends as a longtime resident of Montclair and for several years, he and former teammate Phil (“Holy cow!”) Rizzuto owned a bowling alley in Clifton.

Lifelong Yankees fan Nutley Mayor Alphonse Petracco called Yogi “a gentleman and true class act.” And Nutley Commissioner Dr. Joseph Scarpelli remembered Yogi coming out to watch Dale play against Nutley in high school baseball games. “Dale would put shots over the fence,” Scarpelli recalled.

Yogi graciously took the time to oblige kids’ requests for autographs, the mayor said. And Scarpelli remembered Yogi happily honoring his request to sign a ball for a fundraiser.

In 2003, veteran actor Ben Gazzara – who spent many an afternoon in the bleachers watching DiMaggio and company and who saw Yogi leap into Don Larsen’s arms after the pitcher tossed the only World Series no-hitter against Brooklyn in ’56 – performed Tom Lysaght’s one-man show “Nobody Don’t Like Yogi” at New York’s Lamb’s Theater.

The actor and author had a chance to talk with Yogi before the run began and Gazzara was impressed. In an interview with the AP, he said he found that Yogi “… was the genuine article. So kind, so gentle, so unassuming. That’s all for real. Now whether he said all the things they say he said … but he said some of them, and that’s enough.”

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