Yogi Berra took a trip to Rome in the early 1960s. As a devout Catholic and daily communicant who never missed the weekly Sunday Mass held just outside the Yankee clubhouse, Yogi was thrilled to receive an invitation to tour the Vatican, which included an audience with Pope John XXIII. When the time came to meet the Holy Father, an aide introduced Yogi as “Lawrence Berra, American baseball player.” Yogi stuck out his hand and innocently exclaimed “Hiya, Pope!” Everyone gasped. The Pontiff grinned and embraced Yogi, whose charm put everyone, from world leaders to the common man, at ease.
The tributes that came in from every corner of the world when the news of his death at age 90 was announced on Wednesday is proof positive of just how beloved Yogi was.
I feel blessed to have been able to call him my friend.
When I was 13 years old, shortly after the accident that took my sight, Phil Rizzuto introduced me to Yogi, his best friend. The meeting took place at Yankee Stadium. Five years earlier, I’d seen my first major league game there. Yogi was in his second year as catcher, and I clearly remember his crisp white uniform crouched down behind the plate, with his number 8 obscured by the leather straps that held his chest protector on. That’s what a Yankee looked like to me, still is. I was thrilled to finally meet him.
Our friendship grew from there. Most of the time I spent bonding with Yogi wasn’t at the ballpark, however. It was at the bowling alley on Route 3 in Clifton that he and Phil ran together in the 1950s. With my parent’s permission, Scooter would pick me up at home in Jersey City and take me to the Rizzuto-Berra lanes to bowl a few games while hanging out with the two of them and many of their legendary Yankee team mates. I spent hours listening to their stories and soaking up first-hand baseball history. Yogi, who never addressed me as Ed, always affectionately calling me “kid”, spent extra time giving me encouragement and telling me that blindness should not be an excuse to stop pursuing my dreams. I’d like to say that I had the exclusive “in” with Yogi, but he treated each and every guest at his facility like that. Everyone was family to him.
That we were in the presence of a superstar didn’t matter. Yogi never acted the part. He was a humble man with a servant’s soul. He never let anyone make too much of a fuss over him, always showering praise on others and encouraging them. You were the VIP to Yogi.
It was in Clifton that I also got to know Yogi’s wife, Carmen. She and Cora Rizzuto spent lots of time at the lanes, often bringing their children. I was lucky enough to witness what true love, faith, and equal partnership can bring to a marriage, and how it contributed to the way they treated others. Between the Berra and Rizzuto families, I couldn’t have asked for better role models on how to live life charitably and productively.
Mr. Berra and I joked around with each other quite a bit through the years. He had a sharp sense of humor and never minded poking fun at himself. I also relied on him as my go to source for Yankee insider information. Yogi seemed to know everyone and everything about the team. One of my favorite moments with him was in 2009, when the new Yankee Stadium first opened. I was standing with him in the clubhouse and asked him what he thought of the new digs. As blunt as ever, Yogi shot back “I’m not a fan of this one. It’s too big, you need a GPS to get around in here. It looks like a spaceship! In my day, I could lean over and talk to Mickey or Whitey if I wanted to. In here, I’d need to send them a telegram!” He eventually warmed up to the place, but I appreciated his candor.
Yogi’s relationship with Phil Rizzuto never waned. When Scooter approached me about organizing charity events to help out disabled kids in Hudson County in the 1990s, Yogi came right on board. While Phil and Cora’s names were on the marquee, Mr. and Mrs. Berra were at their side at every event, greeting fans and thanking them for supporting such a worthy cause. The Berras never asked for any fanfare or publicity.
In 2007, Scooter was admitted to Kessler Rehab for what were to be his final months. Yogi quietly came to visit his old pal every day, playing cards with him or swapping stories, just to keep his spirits up. I happened to be visiting Phil on Yogi’s birthday with my wife, Allison. While we were there, Scooter came up with an idea. He surreptitiously got a baseball and had everyone at the rehab center sign it with birthday wishes for Yogi, thanking him for being such a great guy. When he was given the baseball autographed to him, instead of the other way around as he was accustomed to, Yogi was uncharacteristically speechless. The rest of us were too busy wiping away tears from witnessing this tender moment between two friends to the very end.
The last time that I saw Mr. Berra was just a few months ago, in the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. He was in a wheelchair and spoke in a softer voice than normal, but was otherwise the same old exuberant Yogi. As he was about to leave, I walked over to tell him that I’d see him around. He grabbed my hand, motioned for me to lean in, and quietly whispered in my ear, “Goodbye kid, thanks for everything.”
I can imagine the scene in Heaven on Wednesday as Yogi approached the Pearly Gates, happy to be reunited with his beloved Carmen, his parents, his old friends Scooter, Mickey, and all of the others. He probably shouted out “Hiya, God!” on his way in. Even the Almighty would smile at that, while saying “Well done, my good and faithful servant. I am pleased.”
Goodbye, Yogi. Thanks for everything.