One fine day last autumn Yogi Berra, the affluent Yankee, had a relatively free stretch to enjoy himself. That is, there was no bottling convention to attend on behalf of the Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink company (in which he has a considerable investment), no business to transact with Mr. George Weiss, no television or banquet appearances, no household chores of any particular urgency, and he and Phil Rizzuto, his old friend and guide, had been able to make their two visits (one to a hospital and the other to an orphanage) quite early in the morning. A little before noon, Berra returned to his hillside home on the wooded outskirts of Tenafly, N.J. and, finding it bare of Mrs. Berra (who was out shopping) and the two oldest of his three sons (who were at school), he played for a few minutes with Dale (his youngest), who is 2 years old, helped the maid to locate the old baseball-type golf cap he was looking for and headed for the White Beeches golf course in Haworth. Yogi drives a gray Pontiac with the license plate YB 8, eight being the number on his Yankee uniform. Unlike most Americans, for whom lack of sufficient recognition is a besetting problem, Berra's problem is to avoid too much recognition, and the identifying license plate is one of the few luxuries in the other direction that he allows himself.
White Beeches is a relaxed and friendly club, just right for a budding squire who has his feet firmly on the ground. After his round—an 86 which was better than the figures indicated, since a strong November wind was out—Yogi sat around for about an hour in the grill with his foursome. One of them, a skiing buff, wanted to know if Yogi would be interested in going up to Tremblant with him on his next trip there. Before Yogi had time to reply, a third party piped up, "Casey would love that, huh? The news you were trying out the ski slopes." Berra, who makes it a point to avoid discussing Yankee business and personalities whenever possible, let that serve as his answer. The conversation shortly after this got around to the colossal amount of time wives and children spend on the telephone nowadays. One member of the group, a soldier of progress who spoke with a tone of endorsement, informed the others that you could now get a special phone installed for the teenagers in your family who wanted to talk with their teen-age friends.
"Your boys will be needing one soon," he suggested to Berra.
"Well, they won't be getting one," Yogi said. "I want to do all I can for my kids," he added softly, "but, golly, that isn't one of them."
Yogi had dinner at home with his wife Carmen and their two oldest, Larry, who is 9, and Timmy, 7, and then was off for Clifton, another New Jersey town about 20 miles away, in which the Berra-Rizzuto Alleys, a gleaming 40-lane emporium, are located. The alleys were officially opened last spring, but each time Yogi enters the building he feels the same intense glow of pride he did on opening night. This particular evening he was set to bowl for the team representing the Glendale Display and Advertising Co., and in his office changed into his bowling shoes and the green-and-black Glendale bowling shirt. He bowls for that team on Wednesdays, and on Mondays for a team of Yankees whose star is Bill Skowron (who has about a 160 average) and whose roster includes Phil Rizzuto, Elston Howard, Johnny Kucks, Ralph Houk and Gil McDougald. Since he had about 20 minutes in hand before the evening match was scheduled to begin, Berra moseyed down to the Dugout Restaurant for a cup of coffee and then made a quick tour of the rest of the premises. In the Stadium Lounge, where the bar is built in the shape of Yankee Stadium, he chatted about business with his brother Johnny, who is in charge there, and cast an approving eye at the large blowup photograph of the d�colett� songstress who was to appear there that weekend. As he returned to the promenade behind the alleys, a middle-aged man, attired in the purple-and-white bowling shirt of a local bank, came up to him and told him how wonderful the alleys looked. "The whole place," he said, "is so spotless you would think you fellows opened it yesterday." Berra lights up like a child at certain compliments, and did so then. "You know who works for the company that polishes our alleys, Tommy?" he said with exuberance. " McDougald, Gil." This was the first of a slue of chats, long and short, in which Yogi was enmeshed the rest of the evening. A very homey atmosphere obtains at the alleys. Berra seemed to know everyone who approached him, most of them by name, and each of the patrons wanted to know how business was and seemed personally pleased at Yogi's report that things were going pretty good and Phil now thought the main problem was getting enough business during the daylight hours. At 9 o'clock the match between Seabert's Delicatessen and Glendale Display got under way. Yogi had a very good evening for him, rolling an even 200 on his first string, his high for the year, and finishing with a respectable three-string total of 504.
Just before he entered the office to change out of his bowling togs, a superbouncy woman of vaguely 30 who appeared to know Yogi well—and everyone else at the alleys for that matter—handed Yogi a small package tied in a bright ribbon. "It's a gift from me to you," she instructed him. "You should make sure you open it in private." He did, so to speak, in the office, where Freddy Rizzuto, Phil's brother who is the alleys' assistant manager, was on duty. The contents turned out to be a carton of the cigarettes Yogi endorses and a selection of six comic books. Mixed emotions, including one that indicated they'll-do-it-everytime, came over Yogi's face. "Well, Freddy," he said at length in an administrative tone, "I can always give the books to my kids."
Yogi left for home shortly after 11. In the main lobby there is a large glass case in which four magnificent American League MVP plaques, the one which Rizzuto won and the three Yogi won, are on display. Yogi slowed down his stride and looked at the case for just a moment. Then he half-walked and half-trotted out into the night.
It is pleasant to contemplate the good fortune which has come the way of Lawrence Peter Berra. If it is coming to any athlete, he has it coming to him. Aside from being a person of unusual decency and natural charm, he has, from a fairly inauspicious beginning in the big leagues, achieved over the last dozen years a place among the memorable players in the long history of the game—one of that extremely small number of players who have performed in the years following World War II who is a certainty to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Over and above this, Berra is a personality of such original force and magnetism that sometimes it has even obliterated his real stature as a player. He is, as Joe Trimble has called him, the Kid Ring Lardner Missed, and possibly more—the last of the glorious line of baseball's great characters.
In this age where ballplayers have kept growing taller and more statuesque until the breed is now in appearance a combination of the stroke on the college crew and the juvenile lead in summer stock, Berra adheres to the classic blocky dimensions of the oldtime catcher. He stands 5 feet 8 and weighs about 192 and looks even chunkier (especially in a baseball uniform) than these figures would augur, for he has the broad and wide-set shoulders of a much taller man, a barrel chest and enormous arms. Unlike most men of similar musculature, Berra is very lithe, very loose—in fact, there is such friskiness in his movements (except when he is catching the second game of a double-header) that, as he approaches 34, he still conjures up the picture of a beknickered boy of 13 or 14. Berra's build is quite deceptive in other ways, or at least it has led a number of observers into glib deductions that are strikingly wayward. For example, nearly everyone decided years ago that a man with his nonmissile dimensions would ipso facto have to be a slow runner. Only in recent years has it been generally appreciated that Yogi has always been extremely fast, one of the Yankees' best base runners, in fact. Even stranger is that ivied slice of myopia which depicts Berra as all awkwardness at bat, sort of a slightly more skillful Pat Seerey who busts the ball out of the park by sheer brute strength. This is simply not correct. While there is assuredly little esthetic splendor about the way Yogi bunches himself at the plate, he handles the bat beautifully, with a delicacy and finesse which few place hitters approach and which is rarer still, of course, for a power hitter. He has magnificent timing, releasing his wrist action at the last split second. This explains why when Berra is hitting, he can hit anybody or anything, including more bad balls than anyone since Joe Medwick. In the 1955 World Series—not the 1956 Series in which he hit three home runs and batted in 10 runs, but the 1955 Series in which he made 10 hits and batted .417—Yogi put on one of the finest demonstrations of straightaway hitting in modern times, meeting the ball right between the seams again and again and lining it like a shot over the infield, very much in the fashion of Paul Waner and Nap Lajoie. "There's no one more natural or more graceful than Yogi when he's watching the pitch and taking his cut," Phil Rizzuto said not long ago. "He's all rhythm up there, like Ted Williams."
Williams and Berra are alike in one other respect: they are talkative men. Splendidly endowed as Williams is in this department, he is simply not in Berra's class. In truth, no player in the annals of baseball has been, and those who potentially might have challenged his preeminence made the mistake of playing the wrong position. Stationed behind the plate, Berra has a steady flow of new faces to ask how things are going, and during lulls between batters there is always the umpire. Early this year Casey Stengel, a fairly articulate man himself, had a few words to say about Berra's verbosity. Asked if he considered Berra to be the best late-inning hitter in the game, a claim many have made for him, Casey replied that he didn't know about that. "I'd have to look into it," he said. "He could be the best late-inning hitter in baseball because he's got to hit sometime during a game, and he is a very bad early-inning hitter. Sometimes Mr. Berra allows himself to go careless. He forgets to start the game with the first inning. He's out there behind the plate saying hello to everybody in sight. Oh, Mr. Berra is a very sociable fellow. He acts like home plate is his room."