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My Dad, Yogi
A Memoir of Family and Baseball
By Dale Berra
With Mark Ribowsky
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FIRST THINGS FIRST. Why did I write this book? The short answer is that I love my dad. That may sound obvious, but it is part of a larger answer: my dad’s love for me did nothing less than save my life.
When he died in 2015 at a very well-lived ninety years of age, everyone knew Yogi Berra as an American icon, a legend of almost mythical proportions. Far fewer know me as the son who made it to the big leagues, following in his footsteps. I made it through ten years. I was on a world championship team, the ’79 “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates. I even set a record—not anything like my dad’s stockpile of them but a record nonetheless—reaching first base seven times on catcher’s interference. Hey, any way you can get on base, right? I’m sure Dad would have said just that. I once led baseball in hits by an eighth-place hitter in the lineup. I also played for my dad when he managed—for sixteen games—the ’85 Yankees, the biggest thrill of my life, making me the first son to play for his father since Earle Mack on Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1937. That’s my piece of history.
I wasn’t a great player, certainly not in the same universe as Dad. People in the stands would sometimes yell at me, “You’ll never be as good as your old man!” But I always thought, who was? And I was fine with that.
I wasn’t bad. I played third base and shortstop. Like Dad, I had a good glove. The bat? Not as much. I hit .238, had forty-nine home runs, 278 RBIs. I had more hits than any son of a Hall of Famer, 853, fifty-four more than Dick Sisler, son of George, and when I retired my dad and I had hit the most home runs by a father and son, 407 (since surpassed by the Fielders, Griffeys, and Bondses). Sure, I had only forty-nine, so that’s like Tommie Aaron being able to say he and his brother hit more home runs than any brothers in history—with Tommie hitting only 742 fewer than Hank. But, hey, don’t take that away from us.
The historians, the SABR crowd, rank me on the same level as players like Clete Boyer and Félix Mantilla. I’ll take that. The flip side is, I had a chance to be better, much better, a star. When I came to the majors, I was only twenty and the best prospect in the minors. And while I don’t make excuses for not being what I could have been, there’s no doubt that my downfall was getting involved in the drug plague within the game during the ’80s. Cocaine was the villain. It took my career away. I’m not alone. Ask Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. And Steve Howe. The Yankees, for some reason, have had a bunch of ’em.
Of course, I put more than a baseball career in jeopardy. And at the heart of this story is that it was my father and my family that turned me around. Only by hitting bottom did I learn what my dad had tried to teach me when I was a child growing up in his massive shadow. Those lessons are what I wanted to write about. I only wish I would have appreciated them when they could have saved my career.
I had a box-seat view of my father’s life and death no one outside our family did, an intensely personal view of years that were both wonderful and painful for both of us. It’s not every day that someone who’s been written about as much as my father—and he was one of the most written about athletes of all time—can be seen in a new light. But I had that light, and after a great deal of soul-searching, I wanted to share it, because it was good for my soul. They call that a catharsis.
The other works about Dad were perfectly justified. A family friend of ours who helped establish the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center wrote a couple with Dad. His famous “Yogi-isms”—those observational baubles of fractured but solid logic—alone have filled more than a few books. People still haven’t gotten their fill of him, because he was truly one of a kind as an American icon, a national treasure, and the most quoted man in the world. It’s automatic that when his name is mentioned, people will reflexively smile. And yet no book has told of the Yogi I knew, the father of three sons, grandfather of eleven, great-grandfather of one. That is the story of us, our family, and it’s one that only my brothers and I know.
In many ways, Dad and I both had to grow up and learn from each other what life really meant. I hope that when he died, he knew I loved him and had learned from him, that I carried his good name. And I hope I taught him that life has its pitfalls and we all arrive at our destination on different roads but end up on the same ground.
I don’t think of this book as another Yogi history, but rather as a letter to him from my heart. That Dad was a legend is incidental to his role as a father needing to set his son straight. I knew that reliving the details of the story would be painful. It was something like therapy revealing a very stupid span of my life that reflected badly on him and wrecked a burgeoning career. Getting my two older brothers, Larry and Tim, and my oldest daughter, Whitney, to pitch in with their observations helped a lot, because their memories filled in gaps and allowed Yogi’s boys to tell the story from all of our points of view.
I won’t say it ain’t easy being me, because I have been extremely fortunate to have grown up with the family I had and to have walked in the footsteps of my dad all the way into the big leagues. Yet I have to live with the shame and guilt of my descent. Today, three decades after I hung ’em up, I will walk through an airport or mall and someone will know me, even without the bushy, porn-movie mustache that was my signature as a player but I said goodbye to in the ’90s. Maybe it’s because, as I age, I look more like my dad. I’ve been told I look like I could still play. But my nose keeps getting bigger, my ears stick out more, and where’s my hair going? Back in ’75 when I was a nineteen-year-old wunderkind, my manager with the Pirates, Chuck Tanner, said I was “handsomer” than my father. I wish Chuck were still around, so he could say it again.
It’s flattering, but only until someone will segue from “Hey, didn’t you used to be…?” to “You had a drug problem, right?”
I can accept that. Because it’s true. I used cocaine for over a decade. Richard Pryor once said he used Peru. Well, I used it through my promising career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when I got swept up with ten other big-league players in the bust and trial of a Pittsburgh drug dealer in ’85, baseball’s second-biggest scandal since the “Black Sox” threw the 1919 World Series. You’d think that would have set me straight, but I kept using, thinking I had it all under control. Even after I retired and was arrested in a 1989 New Jersey drug investigation, I had rationalizations, telling myself I was doing cocaine the “right” way, somehow within the rules.
I couldn’t see how it had affected me and a career that went downhill. When the Pirates won it all in ’79, Chuck said that my play late in the season filling in for our injured shortstop “won the pennant for us.” Not Willie Stargell. Not Dave Parker. He also said I was half of the best shortstop–second base combination in the game, a future star. I didn’t even know that I was throwing that future away. I could never foresee that, long into the future, an online writer would say that my rookie baseball card “is a reminder that Dale Berra was once a poster child for cocaine running amok in pro sports.”
These are all facts. I can’t run away from them, because they cost me a major league career and a marriage, although I can add there was a happy ending, thanks to Dad and the tough-love support of my family. I got myself straight in time for him to be proud of me, after all. What I can’t accept is that some people will blithely assume that my dad was to blame for his son’s stupidity. He wasn’t. Full stop. The poor choices I made, the delusions I lived with, didn’t stem either consciously or subconsciously from a bad childhood or resentment about living in his shadow. Those expecting a poison-pen, “Daddy Dearest”–type memoir can close the cover right now and stop reading. The truth is, I was walking in the footsteps of a giant shadow, but never did I feel it or any pressure to excel because I had the name B-E-R-R-A stitched across my back. I was on my own to sink or swim. We both wanted that.
But hands-off doesn’t mean indifferent. He was always there for me, in his understated but unmistakably caring way. And he could only take so much of my self-destruction, not because his name was being soiled but because he hurt for me, seeing his flesh and blood ruining his life. He knew I knew better. In a way, the changing culture was to blame. Dad came from an era when players killed themselves with booze. He had watched Mickey Mantle do that in their glory days, like all the Yankees and the writers who covered them keeping it a secret from the public. But he himself never was a drunk; he knew his limits. And drugs were something he knew almost nothing about. When he managed the New York Mets in the ’70s, half his team were regular potheads and he never even knew it. What I did was far worse.
And yet, generational differences aside, we were both Berras, descendants of Italian immigrants with a ferocious competitive instinct. Was he the perfect father? Who is? While he had that big, ingratiating smile, he wasn’t an overly warm man. To us, he was strict but fair; just like the public Yogi, he didn’t say much, but you knew where he stood. He was tough but forgiving. He didn’t tell us he loved us—those words were reserved for Mom—but we felt it. He had his rules we had to decipher and apply to our lives. My brothers did that better than I did, but, as crazy as it sounds, even when I was doing drugs those rules kept me from making it worse. I only hope he knew that in his soul.
He was good to people because he didn’t have to think about being good. He just was. He was the most humble man who’s ever lived, a guy who said so much by saying so little, even if the rest of the world did a double take when he uttered a Yogi-ism. They’re so well known now that people know them by heart: “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” “You can observe a lot by watching.” “It’s déjà vu all over again.” “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.” “Never answer an anonymous letter.” Even a president repeated one of them. In 2015, Dad was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Barack Obama called him an extraordinary man, then, with a grin, “One thing we know for sure: if you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”
I certainly never could have copied him. You can’t successfully copy an original. He is not an easy man to describe; he was neither as simple nor as complicated as people would alternately define him, because he could be both, in the space of a few seconds. Under his lovable facade there were real feelings and pain. He had to bury both of his parents within two years as a still-young man, and his fifteen-year exile from the Yankees after being fired in 1986 by George Steinbrenner after only sixteen games ate him up inside with anger very much unlike him. Ending that exile not only made the whole world feel better; it made him feel better. I had a lot to do with that, and I considered it repaying what he’d done for me.
All I could do was try to see life as he did, something I’m still trying to get right. That’s why I call this a book about life; rather than being about my dad or me, it is about us, about our family, keeping the bonds between us strong, no matter what. It is a view of Yogi Berra seen only by his family, a view of a man larger than life who himself had to learn late in the game that life is not a fable after all, that there were lessons he had to learn from his son’s failings so that they could be turned into success.
That was my saving grace. He is the reason I have not touched a drop of cocaine in twenty-seven years, nor substituted booze for it. I’ve stayed clean and sober, and I have never felt better than I do right now. I lost one family through no fault of theirs, but I remarried and became the father of two more beautiful daughters. And I could share the last years of Dad’s life as the son he wanted. Rather than another well-worn, from-the-depths “drug” story, then, between these covers is a memoir of Yogi Berra from the point of view of his own flesh and blood, the son who could have been his legatee in baseball but found his real success being his legatee in life. Long after I stopped wearing a uniform, I feel B-E-R-R-A across my back and all the way to my soul. And I wear it with pride and joy.
The Redoubtable Mr. Berra
LAWRENCE PETER BERRA—“the redoubtable Mr. Berra,” as the great Red Barber used to call him during New York Yankee broadcasts back in the early ’60s, or just “Mr. Berra” as Casey Stengel did—was a product of his environment, as was I. The difference was, he transcended poverty growing up in Dago Hill in St. Louis and pushed himself to an incredible level, to where real life read like fiction, as a miniature, ethnic version of a John Wayne character. He became ingrained in the fabric of the Greatest Generation that won the Big War and refused to accept defeat. At eighteen he was in a gunboat on D-Day, dodging German machine-gun fire. Any of a thousand images of him, his cap turned backward, shin guards and chest protector caked with dirt and sweat, pancake mitt ready to swallow up a pitch or a pop fly, is a picture of courage and character.
The familiar freeze-frames of his career are unforgettable, like him leaping like an overjoyed kid into Don Larsen’s arms when the last out was made in Larsen’s perfect World Series game against the Dodgers in 1956. Or drifting back when Bill Mazeroski hit the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth in the 1960 Series. Dad always said he believed he would catch that game-winning homer. And if you look closely at the old films, the ball seemed to hang right over his head for a split second, as if he was willing it down to him. If it had dropped, nobody would have been surprised.
He had all the credentials a player could have: three-time MVP, eighteen-time All-Star, thirteen-time world champion. He was a fixture of sports’ greatest dynasty, but also a player, coach, or manager on every single pennant-winning New York baseball team from 1947 to 1981. For many, he was baseball in New York. Yet he was also a symbol of something bigger than baseball. Because of his roots and coming into prominence when there was still anti-Italian discrimination, when he was honored by friends and businessmen on Dago Hill in 1951, someone said he was “one of the three best-known Italians in the world—Columbus, Marconi, and Yogi Berra.” Not Joe DiMaggio, one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, but the squat little guy who looked like a Smurf. No one who ever saw him forgot him. Which is why, in 2017, one sports columnist asked: “How About Yogi Berra Day—Why Columbus?”
I regret to say I never saw him play in person. In fact, I never rooted for his team until it was no longer the Yankees but the crosstown Mets when he managed them in the early 1970s. But I was there for Larsen’s perfect game—in my mom’s stomach. She was eight months pregnant as she sat in the stands that day with Merlyn Mantle and Joan Ford, Whitey’s wife, watching each out, the last coming when a pinch hitter, a utility player named Dale Mitchell, was called out on a half-swing for strike three. Mom told Joan that if Mitchell made the last out, she was going to name the baby Dale. She liked the sound of it and that it could be given to a boy or a girl.
Dad, of course, went along. He was friends with everybody in baseball, but I’m sure he didn’t have any special relationship with Dale Mitchell. Still, I have a sneaking suspicion it meant something to him, because of how his mind worked. He might have wanted to make the moment live through his son. At least that’s my theory; Dad would never have thought too deeply about it. He just did things and they usually worked out fine. As that name has for me.
During his Hall of Fame career, he wasn’t Yogi to me. That was more like a public thing, a brand name, one perfect for him. He’d worn it since he was a kid, meaning that even back then he was a wise man, not a wise guy. Even Mom called him Yogi, but to his sons he was Dad, the guy who came home after Sunday home games and sat at the head of the table, tearing into the veal parmigiana. He always had to sit at the head of the table and have both ends of the Italian bread. No one could touch a heel of that bread but Dad.
There was no ESPN back then, no MLB Network, no internet to endlessly watch highlights on. Baseball—all sports, really—lived through box scores and game stories in the newspapers. I was too young to read them. I was watching cartoons—one of them being Yogi Bear, who also played in a big park, Jellystone. I had no idea that Yogi was named after Dad, though the producers, Hanna-Barbera, who created so many cartoons in TV’s early days, ludicrously said it was just a coincidence. Dad even sued them for defamation. It wasn’t that he couldn’t take a joke, but when someone uses your name for a cartoon character and doesn’t even ask for permission, much less pay you a dime, you don’t accept that. Dad may have looked funny, but he was nobody’s fool, on or off the diamond. But Dad didn’t object because he was owed money; it was because he was owed respect.
He did eventually drop the suit, because technically his name was Larry, not Yogi, so it complicated an open-and-shut case. He just shrugged and let it go, like all the other jokes about him, and took it as flattery, although he never knew why he wasn’t being paid for it. The joke never died, even when he did. When the AP wire service first reported on his death, it wrote: “New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Bear has died. He was 90.” In truth, Yogi Bear lives on, sort of like Dad, in suspended animation.
He did more TV appearances than most players. The only times that kids saw the faces of their favorite ballplayers was on the Game of the Week or local telecasts, or the old Home Run Derby TV show. Dad never made it onto that show, not being a big home run hitter. That was for the matinee-idol long-ball guys, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Killebrew. But Madison Avenue loved Dad during the first decade of the new invention called television. A team that won like clockwork, with about as much flair and exertion, whose big star was a blond god with a Li’l Abner physique and the too-good-to-be-true name Mickey Mantle, had seemed exempt from the truism of Yankee haters that “rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel.” As Mickey once said, “He was the guy who made the Yankees seem almost human.”
That must have been why I saw flickering images of him on our TV, in commercials, smoking a cigarette, selling a car, whatever else someone would pay him a few bucks to say he used. I can all too clearly remember the commercials he did for Yoo-Hoo—the chocolate drink’s sales skyrocketing when it became synonymous with Yogi—with the punchline “It’s Me-He for Yoo-Hoo!” (Another Yogi-ism happened when he was asked if Yoo-Hoo was hyphenated; he replied, “It ain’t even carbonated.”) He also did a cameo on the Phil Silvers Show, with Mickey, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, and Gil McDougald. They played themselves posing as Southern squires, helping Sergeant Bilko convince a phenom pitcher who was a Southern boy, played by Dick Van Dyke, to sign with the Yankees. The highlight was Dad, wearing a cutaway morning coat, stealing the scene by saying in his best Bronx drawl, “Arrivederci, y’all!”
Another appearance was in 1964 when he was the mystery guest on What’s My Line?, signing in to thunderous applause, his championship pinkie ring glistening, and then squeaking a high-pitched “yes” or “no” to the panel’s questions—the voice he often used to disguise himself when he picked up the telephone, in case it was someone he didn’t want to talk to. They got who he was very quickly, the actress Arlene Francis asking, “Are you the Yankee doodle dandy, Yogi Berra?” Mom even got to come out and take a bow. The funniest moment was when one of the panelists asked, “Do you work for a non-profit-making organization?” That broke him up but good. Almost as funny was when another asked, “What if you woke up tomorrow morning and found out you were the manager of the Mets?” His answer, “Well, I don’t know yet.” Maybe he knew something.
Those Yankee stars were celebrities—the very first mystery guest on What’s My Line? was Scooter Rizzuto. A Yankee sighting was a big deal. Mom and Dad were sitting in the first row when Marciano knocked out Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium in September 1950. Joe fell through the ropes and almost landed into Dad’s lap. And sitting right behind them was Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein and was great friends with them. Movie stars would be thrilled seeing them. The big in-spot for stars of all kinds was Toots Shor’s Restaurant on Broadway. You’d look around the dining room and see Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra mingling with Joe DiMaggio. Dad liked it because Toots always protected you from the other patrons. That’s why he went there, not to be seen but to be with people he admired and because Mom liked to mingle more than he did. Before the night was over, the movie stars would be at their table, schmoozing.
Joe D loved Dad during the brief time their careers intersected—back in those pre–politically correct times, the Yankees dubbed them “Big Dago and Little Dago.” Joe always had an entourage, the first athlete to have one. He got picked up at airports and train terminals, never rode the team bus, always had people waiting for him, never stayed at the team hotel but in luxury in people’s homes. That was class. The players never saw him outside the park. And if you were a Berra or Rizzuto and he said, “Come out to dinner with me,” you had to go, and you had to be dressed properly. You couldn’t say no. One time, he invited Mom and Dad out to meet Marilyn Monroe and go to dinner. Joe was very guarded, and he would never introduce anyone to Marilyn. He kept her almost like a prisoner. But he thought enough of Mom and Dad to have them meet her. Dad said he could think of only one thing to say when he met her—marone.
There was also the time Frank was playing at a club in town, and my brother Larry, who’s a huge fan, wanted to go see him. The show was sold out, so Dad said, “I’ll call Frank.” Just like that. He never said he knew him, but he could just reach into his little black book and ring him up. That’s what being a Yankee, and being Yogi Berra, meant.
My first decade of life coincided with the last hurrah of the Yankee dynasty, which began after Dad came up in 1947 and they won five straight American League pennants from 1949 to 1953, four more from ’55 to ’58, then another five from ’60 to ’64, the last of them when Dad was their manager. I watched the later World Series on the tube and was beginning to know him as more than just Dad, although he never once acted like a star or boasted about himself. Baseball was his job. His life was as a husband and father.
When he began taking me out to Yankee Stadium, as early as the late ’50s when I was still a toddler, I was more taken with the pageantry of it, the brilliant green and brown field, how the baby blue seats rose forever into the blue sky, above the unforgettable picket fence–like frieze facade lining the roof of the enormous upper deck. There was even a photo in the Daily News after the last game of the ’59 season of Dad in the locker room carrying two duffel bags, with, as the caption read, “Little Dale Berra, 2, help[ing] his famous dad, Yogi, carry a bat from Yankee Stadium.” Carry? That bat looked so big on my shoulder, it seemed to be carrying me. (I was also blond then. That didn’t last long.)
I got attention for being the little tyke Yogi would sometimes hold in his massive arms. I also remember that Mickey would squirt me with the hose from the whirlpool. I’d walk past him, and he’d let me have it. He’d get Dad, too, all the time. He’d whisper to me, “Kid, watch your dad. I put some Ben-Gay in his hat. His head’s gonna start itching in a second.” And sure enough, Dad would start furiously scratching his noggin. I admit, it was pretty funny. I didn’t tell Dad, but he knew, and he didn’t mind being the butt of Mickey’s jokes because it kept those guys loose. Also, Mickey could crush an anvil in his hands.
There were times when his Yankee buddies would come to our house across the George Washington Bridge in Montclair, New Jersey. Everyone loved him and Mom; it was a real extended family, unlike the individualistic vibe of team sports today. Dad and Mickey would sit in the den drinking vodka and bullshitting. Away from the sportswriters, he was loud and unrestrained with his teammates, not with Yogi-isms but jokes and stories that had Mickey on the floor. Believe me, he could talk all day if he wanted. With his sons, though, he wasn’t there to entertain or unwind; he was there to raise us right.
When Mickey would bring his two sons, Mickey Jr. and Dave, with him, Larry, Timmy, and I would take them into the backyard to play wiffleball, and we would kick their asses every game. We had Dad’s ferocious competitive streak. We had to win. Dad taught me that, but he never really taught me the game or how to play it. “That’s what your brothers are for,” he’d say. It wasn’t that he was ignoring me. It was just that there was a chain of command among his boys.
When Larry was born in 1949, I think Dad may have been more hands-on about showing him how to play, but when Tim, who came along in 1951, and I arrived, Dad had nothing to do with it. I really learned all I had to on my own. All three of us were lucky enough to have his genes, the ones that blessed us with athletic talent and coordination. But that was all Dad handed down. Everything else, we had to find out by ourselves, or get from Mom.
- "Dale, who had a 10-year MLB stint, reports on his father from a singularly intimate perspective....Dale Berra's memoir both illuminates baseball history and adds to Yogi's life story."—The Washington Post
- "Dale Berra's My Dad, Yogi lets us in on things we may not have known. But this endearing book also confirms what we always knew: Yogi Berra, the Hall of Famer, the American treasure, was a genuinely wonderful human being."—Bob Costas
- "Baseball is a game that fathers teach their sons how to play. Life lessons are a lot tougher, for that's where they have to both learn from each other. Dale Berra's honest, humorous, and touching story is an intimate look at a relationship that was at times difficult, complicated, and tense, but true to who Yogi Berra was...always loving."—Billy Crystal
- "My Dad, Yogi is a beautifully depicted love story between Father and Son. Dale shares funny and unique reflections of what it was like growing up in the shadow of one of the most recognizable and beloved public figures of all time. I had such great respect for Yogi as a New York Yankee. I had tremendous adoration for Yogi as a Man. Dale captures the essence of both in this book."—Joe Torre
- "Dale Berra hits it out of the park with his memoir...The youngest son has an important tale to tell of how his love of family helped him triumph, and that is a grand slam."—The New Jersey Star-Ledger
- "Touching on everything from Yogi's career and personal life to his relationship with Dale, My Dad, Yogi gives an intimate look at the life of an American icon."—AskMen.com, Best Books for Father's Day
- "A short, winsome memoir and biography of a winning American icon."—Library Journal
- "Candid...a loving reflection on his famous father's achievements as baseball legend and family man."—New Jersey Monthly
- On Sale
- May 7, 2019
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Hachette Books