While the end of the World Series ended the 2014 baseball season, regional fans have someone and someplace to fall back on for a quick fix.
That someone is the guy who when asked for the time, answered with, “You mean now?”
Think about that for a moment and the transcendent Zen-like wisdom of such a response will form one on your lips and say the name, “Yogi.”
Yogi Berra, the Hall-of-Fame catcher and manager for the New York Yankees and, briefly, the New York Mets, has made his name off the field with his famous malapropisms. There is a bookshelf full of his sayings, which do to homespun wit what funhouse mirrors will do to one’s personal image.
But rather than keep him hidden, Yogi and his wisdom, along with memorabilia from his playing days and signposts from the glory days of Yankee supremacy in October baseball, are on display at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on Yogi Berra Drive on the Montclair State University campus in Little Falls, New Jersey.
As Yogi might have put it in one of his more famous “yogi-isms,” you can get there from here, and as shrines to baseball go, it is well worth the trip.
If you want to immerse yourself in Yogi-ness and everything that has to do with the Yankees in their heyday, this is the place for you. Baseball fans who aren’t ardent Yankee fans will enjoy it, too. For example, the museum has a theater with stadium seating and along one wall hangs the actual 1951 American League pennant that the Yankees received before going on to defeat the Giants in the World Series, four games to two. It was also the season that saw the first of Yogi’s three Most Valuable Player awards. He also caught two no-hitters that season.
Director David Kaplan says the museum was created in 1998, when Montclair State built a new home for its own team and named it Yogi Berra Stadium. Kaplan started his involvement as a volunteer.
“The former president of Montclair State looked to put a baseball stadium there,” Kaplan says. “Then people thought, ‘Why not build a gallery or museum there since the field was named for him?’”
Berra was humbled when approached with the concept, Kaplan says, moved to make a comment that is a near-Yogi-ism: “Usually when you get one of these things you’re dead.”
The museum looks beyond Yogi’s excellence as a ballplayer and the place he holds somewhere between America’s heart and funny bone.
“We really put more of a focus on character and values, some of the traits he’s always shown: humility, respect,” Kaplan says. “We try to make it reflective of Yogi’s personality, that people can walk away and feel good about what they see. We think he’s a great inspiration for anybody, the idea that you can be anything you want.”
Berra’s life certainly reflects that. He rose from a modest Italian immigrant upbringing in St. Louis — where his father was a bricklayer — and become a great professional ballplayer, one of the best World Series performers all-time.
Yogi Berra is part of New Jersey’s own chapter in the history of baseball. The first organized game is said to have been played on June 19, 1846, at Elysian Field in Hoboken. At a site that once accommodated 20,000 baseball fans, and where Maxwell House later vacuum-sealed coffee for multitudes, there remains a small park and a marker somewhere between the old first and second bases. Other cities like Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth went on to host talented teams, and Trenton was home to the great Willie Mays, when he played in the Giants farm system before getting called up to the majors in the early 1950s.
The Yogi Berra Museum is housed in a modern building full of well-designed exhibits and memorabilia. The museum is a comfortable, quiet place well-suited for contemplating the great game and Berra’s accomplishments in it.
The current exhibition honors Lou Gehrig, the great Yankee first baseman. July 4 was the 75th anniversary of the emotional speech Gehrig gave at Yankee Stadium in 1939 when he was forced to retire because of the illness that would take his life at age 37 and which is known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Yogi Berra is not only about his amusing sayings. Berra had a great career. A perennial All-Star, he was elected in 1972 to baseball’s Hall of Fame, and he was one of the best World Series hitters ever. He played on 14 pennant-winning teams and 10 World Series winners — both more than any other player. He is No. 1 in World Series games played with 75, 10 ahead of Mickey Mantle. A video shown at the Yogi Museum has the late Yankee announcer Mel Allen congratulating Berra on playing more World Series games than anyone else. The response was classic Yogi: “That’s a lot of games.”
Yogi is No. 1, also, in at-bats with 259, also ahead of the Mick. He scored 41 runs in all those games, one behind Mantle, and nine ahead of Derek Jeter.
He is No. 1 in World Series hits with 71 all time; No. 1 in singles (49); tied for first in doubles (10); third in home runs (12) behind Mantle and Babe Ruth, and second in runs batted in (39), one behind Mantle. So say what you will about Yogi Berra, that he was a bit goofy and perhaps not the most splendid physical specimen ever to take the field. In the big games when the red light was on, he was as clutch as they came. As the author James Thurber titled one of his short stories, a line that the late Yankees manager Casey Stengel repeated often: you could look it up.
Berra is also part of one of baseball’s iconic photographs, where he is shown leaping into the arms of Yankee pitcher Don Larsen after Larsen’s perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. Berra’s game jersey and his bronzed catcher’s mitt are included in an exhibit at the museum, along with a program from the game and a ticket stub.
Go back a little farther and we find that Yogi had an auspicious debut when he arrived for his first game with the Yankees on September 22, 1946. On the Yankees roster that day were Joe DiMaggio, one of baseball’s true immortals; shortstop and future Yankee announcer Phil Rizzuto; long-time first baseman Tommy Henrich; and Bobby Brown, the light-hitting third-baseman who would go on to become a Dallas-Fort Worth cardiologist and from 1984 to 1994 was president of baseball’s American League.
Yogi’s route to the major leagues had been an unconventional one. He played in sandlots and for American Legion teams in his native St. Louis, where he grow up in the Italian section, known as “The Hill.” Like so many ballplayers of that time, Yogi’s career took a detour overseas for wartime service. Rather than interrupting his playing days, like wars did for Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio and many others, as World War II commenced, he went into the Navy at age 18 and continued playing baseball at a submarine base. On June 6, 1944, he was aboard a landing craft as a gunner’s mate to ferry soldiers onto the beaches during the invasion of Normandy.
Yogi Berra returned from his service ready to embark on greatness.
V-E Day, May 8, 1945, was little more than a year before he took a pitch in his first game at Yankee Stadium. In that game, Yogi hit a two-run home run in the fourth inning off the Philadelphia A’s Jesse Flores. The New York Times’ story in the next day’s paper referred to “Larry Berra,” since Yogi’s real name is Lawrence Peter Berra. It took awhile for Larry Berra’s “Yogi” persona to catch up with him. The nickname goes back to his days in legion ball when his teammates made sport of his serene countenance as he sat cross-legged on the sidelines waiting for his turn at bat.
He was the Yankees starting catcher until 1960, when Elston Howard joined the team and Yogi moved to the outfield. Yogi moved to Montclair after marrying his wife, Carmen, in 1949. They were married for 65 years, until her death in 2014. Kaplan says Carmen Berra “fell in love” with Montclair, and that’s where the Berras settled in the late 1950s. Yogi still lives there.
“He used to come in every other day, now not so much” says Kaplan, 56, acknowledging that Yogi is nearly 90.
The Berras had two sons, Dale, who played shortstop for the Pirates, Yankees and Astros from 1977 to 1987, and Tim, who played special teams and was a wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts in 1974. Both sons now run LTD Enterprises, the Montclair firm that oversees use of Yogi Berra’s likeness in the public media, such as the Aflac commercial in which his way with words while seated in a barber shop manage to drive the mascot duck to distraction.
There are 11 Berra grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Most still live in the Montclair area, including Lindsay Berra, a sports journalist with MLB.com. She is also on the museum board.
The museum contains the kinds of exhibits a visitor would expect in a modern, professionally executed attraction. The displays seem larger than life at times, to catch the eye and to get across the message that Yogi Berra’s life was out of the ordinary. There is at least one thoroughly whimsical object, a fiberglass cow created for the West Orange Cow Parade in 2000 and later donated to the museum. The cow was called “Moogi Berra.” It bears the signatures of players from the 2000 Yankees team and old-timers including Whitey Ford and Phil Rizzuto.
There is some serious bling, too, particularly a framed display of the many commemorative rings Yogi earned for playing on all the pennant-winning and championship teams over the years, and for each of the 14 All-Star teams to which he was named.
Some of that glitz recently put the museum in the news. Thieves broke into the building on October 9 and took two of Berra’s American League MVP plaques and 10 of his World Series Rings.
On October 27 Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, along with the management of the Yankees and the Mets, stepped up to the plate to replace the memorabilia with exact replicas along with several new items to insure “that the museum will be an even better place for fans to visit to honor Yogi’s legacy.”
“He’s had an amazing life,” Kaplan says. And it ain’t over.
Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, Montclair State University Little Falls Campus, 8 Yogi Berra Drive, Little Falls. Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. $4 to $6. 973-655-2378 or yogiberramuseum.org.