By Alex Belth
Bronx Banter, May 13, 2009
Our old pal Allen Barra sat down with me recently to talk about his new book, Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee.
Alex Belth: You make the argument that Yogi was a better catcher than Johnny Bench. How close was Roy Campanella to Yogi during the ’50s? Was there any catcher even close to these two at the time?
Allen Barra: In Rio Bravo, Walter Brennan asks John Wayne if Ricky Nelson is faster than Dean Martin. “I’d hate to have to live on the difference,” says Duke. The real truth is that if you take Campanella at this peak, there’s probably very little difference between Berra, Bench, and Campy. The only thing I might add to that is that it’s possible that, if given the same material to work with, Johnny and Roy could have gotten as much out of as many mediocre pitchers as well as Yogi did. But Yogi did do it, and that has to give him the edge.
Alex: Did Yogi really deserve the 1954 and ’55 MVP awards? In ’54 the Indians won and Bobby Avila had a big year, also playing a key defensive position, and Mickey Mantle had a monstrous year. And in ’55 Mantle again had another ridiculous year.
Allen: That’s a tough question. I don’t know if anyone’s done a “Value over Replacement Factor” kind of analysis for those years, but it’s arguable that Yogi might have had the highest value over anyone who could have replaced him at that position. In 1954 my guess is that the difference between Mantle and Berra wasn’t that great. Avila played a key defensive position, but not more key than Yogi’s. It probably should have been Mantle in ’55, but then I think there’s an equally good case that it probably should have been Yogi in 1950 instead of Phil Rizzuto. What’s interesting is that so many people thought that it should have been Yogi those years. I think that tells us something very important about him.
Alex: Was there any year that Yogi should have won an MVP when he didn’t?
Allen: Well, as I just mentioned, there was 1950. And you could turn the ’54 argument on its head and ask why Al Rosen, an Indian, wins the MVP [in 1953] when Yogi’s team won the pennant. I’m not saying Rosen didn’t deserve it, I’m just saying that if Yogi had won it, nobody would have gone to the barricades to say he didn’t deserve it, and I’d argue that he was also one of the top five players in the league in 1952. It’s more difficult to figure the value of a top-flight catcher. He did so many things to hold his pitching staffs together back then. I just don’t know if you can figure his worth compared to players at other positions.
Alex: It’s well known that Yogi helped Elston Howard when he joined the team, but did Yogi ever question or go on the record about the Yankees’ institutional racism?
Allen: No, I’m not aware that anyone in that period did. For one thing, when you talked to the players of that era, they all say, “Well, every year we heard that they were bringing black players up through the minor league system, and we thought each year would be the next year.” I think there’s something to that—Gil McDougald told me something to that effect. I mean, the Yankees players were ready for it. They had no objections at all to integrating the team. It was only after a few seasons of George Weiss signing a black player for the minor league system and then trading him that they began to catch on.
I’d have to say, though, that while the Yankees front office was as racist in its policies as the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees themselves got good marks from Elston and Arlene Howard and Larry Doby for their overall attitudes. Both the Howards and Doby put Yogi at the top of their list of good guys. Arlene Howard told me that Yogi and Elston “hit it off right away.”
Alex: I know that walk rates were up in the ’50s and, comparatively, Yogi didn’t walk that much. But he was a contact hitter and it’s hard to point this out as a major flaw. That said, were there any noticeable holes in his game, either offensively or in the field?
Allen: No, none, and it ought to be mentioned that though Yogi didn’t walk that much, his on-base average was actually six points better than Johnny Bench’s in about the same number of games, and that’s what’s important. No, Yogi had no flaws. We all know he wasn’t much of a catcher until Bill Dickey learned him all of his experience, but by 1949 he was a very good catcher, and by 1950 the Yankee staff was pretty much relying on him to call their pitches. Or rather, he knew them well enough to call their pitches for them—did I just make some kind of Yogiism? Anyway, all that crap in David Halberstam’s The Summer of ’49 about Allie Reynolds and Yogi not getting along is fiction. All the Yankees told me so.
Alex: I remember the The Summer of ’49 being criticized in one of the Bill James books.
Allen: The errors and misrepresentations I found in both Halberstam’s baseball books, The Summer of ’49 and October ’64, made me call into question his entire reputation. If I had time, I’d go check out some of his other books and see if they are as sloppily written and reported. I found dozens of mistakes but, far worse, some stories that just seemed to have been invented. I’ll confine myself to just one.
Halberstam seems to have thought that Allie Reynolds was pissed off at Yogi for trying to call his pitches and threatened to cross him up and hit him in the chest with a ball. Where he got this story was not explained. Reynolds never said anything like that, and all the Yankees I talked to said it was nonsense. Phil Rizzuto was actually angry about it. “It couldn’t have happened without me knowing about it,” he said, “and I never saw or heard anything like it.” In truth, all the Yankee pitchers understood that the pitcher always calls his own pitches and the catcher is merely suggesting.
But after about a year of working with Reynolds, Ed Lopat, and Vic Raschi—and I guess you have to include the architect of the Yankees pitching staff, Jim “Milkman” Turner—Yogi had won everyone’s confidence, and they all agreed that Yogi knew their stuff well enough to call it right. They almost never shook him off. But I’m getting ahead of the question. Halberstam included several stories like the Reynolds-Berra thing and never said where he got them. I think they are nonsense and he invented them because they sounded good.
Alex: Speaking of Reynolds, tell us the story about Yogi famously dropping a pop-up in one of Allie’s 1951 no-hitters?
Allen: The story is more intriguing than I had originally heard. It’s September 28, 1951. Ted Williams—Yogi’s pal—is at the plate: one out left to go for the no-hitter and, of course, Ted Williams is the batter. Who else? That’s the way they’d do it in a movie, right? Reynolds had already pitched a no-hitter that year, so this would have given him a second no-hitter. Yogi tells Reynolds he wants a fastball up and in. Allie obliges. Williams pops it up. Reynolds immediately perceived that it was going to be a tough play: The wind was blowing the ball away from Yogi. Reynolds, who was running in from the mound, later recalled. “I hoped to make a grab for it. I was afraid I spiked Yogi on the hand when I jumped over him. Yogi dropped it.” Settling back behind the plate, Yogi called for the same pitch to Williams in the exact same spot—how much guts did that take? Williams popped it up again, Yogi battled the swirling winds again and made a snow-cone catch.
There are two other stories connected to this. Carmen Berra was in a New Jersey hospital recovering from having given birth to their son, Tim. She was listening on the radio, and when Yogi dropped the first pop-up, she screamed “Yoggeeeee!” and nurses came running down the corridor. She told them, “My husband dropped the ball!” The second story is that a year later, Yogi, the American League’s MVP, was working in men and boys’ clothing in a Newark department store to help support his family. A smart-ass kid tells him not to misjudge the sleeve length, “Like you misjudged the pop-up in that Allie Reynolds game.” Yogi politely reminded that he had held on to the second one, and Yogi said later, “He wasn’t a bad kid.”
Alex: If Yogi didn’t actually say half of the things he is quoted as having said, is he really as funny as he appears? I have read accounts that Yogi wasn’t nearly the wit that Casey was and, in fact, his persona was created largely by Joe Garagiola on the banquet circuit.
Allen: Casey was a wit. He prepared things to say to the press. Yogi was never intentionally funny. Yogiisms—the real Yogiisms—tend to fall into two categories: the malapropisms (like in 1947 at Yogi Berra Day in St Louis, when he got tongue-tied and said, “I’d like to thank everyone for making this day necessary”) and the little bits of Zen wisdom (like “When you come to the fork in the road, take it,” which is simply quick and accurate directions on how to get to his house—he lives on the top of a circle). Joe Garagiola didn’t invent Yogi, though he did broaden him a bit. Yogi invented Yogi—no one else could have.
Alex: Yogi has benefited from his public image greatly over the years, as a spokesman for Yoo-Hoo and more recently Aflac. How shrewd a businessman is he?
Allen: You just answered your own question. He was shrewd enough to exploit his own image—he couldn’t beat him, so he joined him. Something momentous in the history of commercials came about in 1960 when Yogi hooked up with advertising genius George Lois, who would later go on to fame as the creator of the MTV logo and his “In Your Face!” campaign for ESPN. Lois shrewdly perceived that Yogi’s real appeal was not as a straight pitchman, so he came up with a commercial for Puss ’n Boots that had Yogi talking to a cat. People loved it. His teammates kidded him about it, but Yogi’s response was “Did you ever get paid for talking to a cat?” By the way, the voice of the cat was Whitey Ford’s, which Yogi didn’t recognize.
Alex: Did your feelings about Yogi change dramatically during the writing of the book?
Allen: Nope, he was Yogi when I started and Yogi when I finished. But to know him more was to love him more.
Alex: What did you learn about him during your research that came as a surprise to you?
Allen: Well, I didn’t really get this until I finished the book, and I rewrote the introduction to accommodate this insight. Basically, it’s this: What did Jacques Barzun say about those who would earn the hearts and minds of Americans had better learn baseball? Well, if there is one life you would study to understand baseball, it would be Yogi Berra’s. From hitting the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history in 1947 to coaching with the Houston Astros in that great series with the Mets four decades later, Yogi Berra was involved in more great baseball moments than any player—or possibly two players—you could name. When I finally realized at the end is that Yogi’s life is a cutaway view of baseball in the 20th century.
Alex: Yogi was clearly respected by the writers. Was the same universally true amongst the players? The reason I ask is because I know he came up against some attitudes, the famous harmonica incident comes to mind, when he took over as the Yankee skipper in ’64.
Allen: Actually, I’d say it was the other way around. The players had complete respect for Yogi. I’d say it was the writers, especially the younger sportswriters who grew up with stories about what a joker and clown Yogi was and were disappointed to find out that he wasn’t very quotable.
The harmonica incident was nothing. The problem may actually have been the older players, Yogi’s former teammates—particularly Mantle. After the Yankees lost the doubleheader to Chicago, Phil Linz was noodling with a harmonica on the team bus and Yogi told him to stop. Linz didn’t hear him and asked the guys around him “What did he say?” Instead of showing a little maturity, Mantle said “He said ‘Play it louder.” If Mantle had told Linz, “He said shut the fuck up,” the whole thing wouldn’t have happened and the press would have had nothing to harp on later.
Alex: How would you evaluate Yogi as a manager?
Allen: Well, Billy Martin said Yogi was too nice a guy to be a good manager, but Yogi won two pennants—same as Billy. If he’d had Ford available after the first game in the ’64 Series, Yogi probably would have won as many World Series as Martin. I’d have to say on that evidence that Yogi was a pretty good manager.
Alex: Did you seek Yogi’s participation in this book? If not, what are the benefits of not collaborating directly with a subject?
Allen: Well, in this case the truth is the benefits were that Yogi’s memory isn’t quite what it once was, so it was much more reliable to quote from interviews given many years ago. I mean, how many times did Yogi need to be asked about his relationship with Mickey Mantle or about what happened in the Copa incident? The truth is that between materials that were made available to me, people I needed to talk to, and questions I was able to ask Yogi at Museum events, I got everything I wanted.
Alex: You don’t dig into his personal life too deeply. I know his son Dale had a lot of troubles. Why did you choose to steer clear of a thorough examination of his personal life like Richard Ben Cramer did with his DiMaggio book?
Allen: First of all, I loathed Cramer’s book. He dug into DiMaggio’s personal life to such a degree that he fantasized about Joe and Marilyn Monroe in the shower. Exactly whose fantasies were we reading about—DiMaggio’s or Cramer’s? Second, I don’t know why you think that I didn’t look into Yogi’s personal life. I would argue that I got as deep into Yogi’s life as Cramer did into Joe’s.
As for Dale’s brief drug problem, I gave the basic facts and let it go. The book is about Yogi, not Dale. I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that because someone’s life is devoid of personal scandal that he didn’t have a “personal life.” For Mickey Mantle, a personal life was his relationship with his mistresses; for Yogi, it was carrying pictures of his mother in his wallet. Everyone’s life is personal in his own way.
Alex: This is something that Jonathan Mahler mentioned in his review for the New York Times Book Review. How did you react to that piece?
Alex: I call it what it was: negative. A lot of people say, “Well, gee, you got a full page review in the New York Times.” I say, “Yeah, but it was really nasty—the only bad review the book has gotten.” It is a really weird review. In one paragraph he’d say “Barra loves Yogi too much to be objective,” and in the next paragraph, “It’s like he’s holding him at arm’s length.” My reaction was “How can I be guilty of both at the same time?” Some of his criticism was bizarre. Talking about my account of Yogi’s experience during D-Day, he wrote, “Here and elsewhere, Barra sticks to the facts, relying on other writers, in this case Cornelius Ryan, to set the scene for him. The book suffers as a result.” Say what? The book suffers by sticking to the facts? Cornelius Ryan’s account of D-Day is definitive: Why shouldn’t it be referred to? I mean, didn’t Mahler use many other writers to “set the scene” when he wrote The Bronx Is Burning? What really baffles me is that, if he had turned the page, which I guess he failed to do, he would have seen several paragraphs by Yogi, talking about D-Day and his war experiences. It’s all right there in Yogi’s voice. What is he complaining about?
Mahler says things like “Barra never gets into Yogi’s inner life.” I shook my head at that. There are perhaps 100 pages devoted to Yogi’s home life, both in St. Louis and in New Jersey, including several scenes in their home. There are perhaps 30,000 of Yogi’s words from his own books, other interviews, and interviews I’ve done with him. If that doesn’t constitute “an inner life,” I’d say Yogi must not have one. I guess Mahler wanted me to dig up more dirt on Yogi than I was able to find and was upset that I didn’t find any.
Alex: Do you know Mahler?
Allen: Not exactly. Years ago when he was working on The Bronx is Burning he sent me some emails asking for advice on some background materials, which I was happy to offer. As I recall, I think I steered him toward some stuff that was in The Village Voice. He’s sent me several emails over the years, to which I replied. In the Times review, he acted as if he had never heard of me. In the review, he praised two books and stories I had written for the New York Times more than six years ago, as if I hadn’t written anything since then—as if I haven’t been writing for the Wall Street Journal over the last six years and didn’t write a best-seller, The Last Coach, about Bear Bryant. He must have known that I had been writing for the Journal because he got my email and sent me copies of stories he had written, including one on the Steinbrenners he wrote for the New York Times last year. It was a pretty good piece, but I pointed out an error he had made on when George Steinbrenner bought the team. Maybe he was a little miffed at that? Anyway, I think he should have informed the Book Review editors that we had been in touch for several years and let them make up their own minds about that.
Alex: Is there one aspect of Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee that you would have liked to have seen discussed more in the reviews?
Allen: What I miss are the long, detailed reviews books we used to get years ago, where a critic could devote some space to talking about something he particularly liked in a book that the average reader might regard as a bit tangential.
In regard to Yogi Berra, I would have liked for someone to write about the atmosphere of certain places I described, for example, “Dago Hill”—if I may use the phrase—in St. Louis, where Yogi grew up. The descriptions of the sandlots and the games the kids played there. The scenes—and I apologize to Billy Joel for this—in Italian restaurants, where I took pains to describe the food, the smells, the feeling of being there.
In the 1940s and 1950s the Yankee stayed in the Soreno Hotel in St. Petersburg, a huge old relic of a bygone era. Or Toots Shor’s saloon in New York, which was the ultimate sports hangout in the ’50s. Also, the scenes in the Berras’ home in Montclair and the Berra-Rizzuto bowling alley in Clifton, New Jersey—things like that. I find it very irritating to hear a criticism like I offered only “a superficial portrait of Berra off the field” when I wrote thousands of words describing the world Yogi grew up and lived in in such detail. I would have liked to see someone notice a little of that.
Alex: You’ve written three biographies about iconic figures—Wyatt Earp, Bear Bryant, and now Yogi. Is there any connection between these figures or what attracted you to them?
Allen: Well, let me put it this way: I’ve always loved writing about people who everyone knows but about whom there has been no definitive biography. I like people around whom stories and legends build up, whether dark, like Earp, or light, such as Yogi. I like peeling away the layers of legends and finding not just the truth but how the legends originated and evolved.
Alex: Who, pray tell, would you like to write about next?
Allen: Next I’m probably going to do a book on three men—an Italian, Charles “Lucky” Luciano; a Jew, Meyer Lansky; and an Irishman, Owney Madden. Three men from radically different backgrounds who attainted their version of the American dream and in so doing established the modern crime syndicate.
[Featured Illustration: Summer Anne Burton]