I interviewed Yogi Berra in 2004 when I was working on my book The 50 Greatest Yankees Games. I might still have the cassette tapes of the interviews I did for the book somewhere but I’m honestly not sure. Of the players I interviewed for that book, several have passed on: Tommy Byrne, Tom Tresh, Ryne Duren, and now Yogi.
Most of the interviews I did were during spring training, and at the time Yogi was working as a spring training instructor for the Yankees. In 2004, at age 79, Yogi was still hitting fungoes for fielding practice on a daily basis. His memory of the great games in his career was extremely sharp–possibly because he’d told the stories of them so many times–and so our interview almost took place in a sort of shorthand, where he knew exactly what I was talking about and I knew what he was talking about.
I know, that’s not what I was told to expect: knowing what Yogi was talking about. But when it came to baseball, trust me, Yogi knew what he was talking about.
My favorite moment is when he tells me he was an awful catcher at the start of his career. See if you can figure out which great games in Yankees history we’re discussing in this transcript:
CT: So what did you think of Babe Pinelli’s called third strike?
Yogi Berra: That was a perfect pitch. It was the outside corner. And I was happy!
CT: My book starts in 1904 which is a little before your time.
Yogi: Yeah, I’d say so. Way before.
CT: You come into the picture in 1947 and hit your first World Series home run.
Yogi Berra: My first pinch hit home run, too!
CT: I was going to write about that, but Bill Bevens almost pitching a no-hitter in that World Series kind of beats it.
Yogi Berra: (pained) Oh, there were two outs.
CT: Was he known for being a kind of wild pitcher?
Yogi Berra: Not too wild. That day he was a little wild. Talk about going to the last inning like that… what did he walk that day, eight or nine? And then they got the one hit and we lost.
CT: It seems like they really couldn’t hit him at all up to that point.
Yogi Berra: And it was Cookie, a pinch hit.
CT: Did you think that those two runs that you got were going to be enough?
Yogi Berra: With the way he was throwing, yeah. And then they put someone in to pinch hit, and someone in to pinch run, who was that, and he stole second. I had a chance to throw him out, and if I had done that, it would have been all over.
CT: Do you think you really had a chance at him?
Yogi Berra: Not really. The first two years I was an awful catcher. Bill Dickey’s the one who really taught me.
CT: So was Bevens more wild than usual that day, or was he his usual self?
Yogi Berra: Oh he walked some guys usually but not THAT many like he did then. But you couldn’t take him out because he was pitching a no-hitter.
CT: Speaking of which. Obviously I have to put something in here about both of Allie Reynolds’ no-hitters.
Yogi Berra: Oh yeah. Those were great. And you know we cinched the pennant that day in the second game.
CT: I know. So tell me about Allie Reynolds.
Yogi Berra: Oh boy, he was a good pitcher. We had some good pitchers then. He was good, too. He didn’t pitch a perfect game. He could be a little wild too, at times, but he had good stuff that day. Remember when Ted Williams popped that ball up and I missed it? I called for the same pitch the same place and he popped it the same way. We were very fortunate.
CT: Was that what you hoped would happen?
Yogi Berra: I hoped so!
CT: Do you think you ever would have lived it down if he got a hit there?
Yogi Berra: I think I would. Because I was happy we cinched the pennant that day. He [Allie] probably would have kicked the hell out of me, though.
CT: In that first one, it was a 1-0 game.
Yogi Berra: Cleveland, wasn’t it?
CT: Yep. What was it like facing Bob Feller? He only gave up 4 hits the whole game.
Yogi Berra: All right. Feller wasn’t a bad pitcher either. They had a good pitching staff too in those days.
CT: Do you think Feller felt a little snakebit, pitching a four-hitter and losing?
Yogi Berra: Oh I’ve seen that. When Larsen pitched the no hitter, Maglie pitched a four hitter. In ’56.
CT: Tell me about Don Larsen?
Yogi Berra: He had good control that day, very good. Anything I put down, he got over. That was the best control he ever had. Never walked anybody–who knows if that’s ever going to happen again? [In the World Series] There might be a no-hitter, but I don’t know about a perfect game.
CT: Do you think Larsen was prepared for that World Series?
Yogi Berra: I don’t know. He got the hell beat out of him the first time up.
CT: I guess he got it out of the way.
Yogi Berra: That’s right. But he had good control. He was only behind on one hitter, that was Pee Wee Reese in the first inning. 3-2. He never got to 3-2 again. He was always ahead. That’s something the pitchers need to do here. Get ahead.
CT: How about in the ’52 World Series, in game seven, that’s the game where Billy Martin caught that foul pop…
Yogi Berra: He got that foul ball off of Robinson, wasn’t it? That was a case of a right-hander facing a left-hander so they brought in Reynolds to pitch against Robinson. I think Joe Collins lost it in the sun, because it should have been his ball. But Billy had to come all the way across there to get it.
CT: What kind of a player was Billy Martin?
Yogi Berra: He would beat you. He’d try to beat you any way he could. A good ball player, he liked to win. He didn’t like to lose. Just like as a manager he didn’t like to lose.
CT: Of the four pitchers that day, Lopat, Reynolds, and Raschi all pitched.
Yogi Berra: It was the last game. That wasn’t that unusual for Reynolds though. You know he had 49 saves in his career, too. He would come in whenever we needed lefthanded relief.
CT: What was it like to catch Eddie Lopat?
Yogi Berra: Lopat was easy. He had good control. He threw that screwball.
CT: Who was hard to catch?
Yogi Berra: Tommy Byrne. At the beginning. Then he got control. He was a tough man. He had good stuff, but he just didn’t know where he was going. We thought he’d never get there because of his control, but he came a long way. Ryne Duren came a long way, too. And we had Arroyo, he had a good screwball. We had a lot of pretty good relievers. We had Pete Mickelson one year, Hal Reniff, Bob Grim.
CT: Do you think people don’t throw the screwball anymore because it is too tough on the elbow?
Yogi Berra: They kind of did away with that thing. Now you see them throw that split, we called it a forkball and they call it a splitfinger.
CT: Tommy Byrne pitched a pretty good game but got beat in 1955. Againt Podres. How would you compare them as pitchers?
Yogi Berra: Podres threw a little bit harder. He had a good change and a good curveball. Tommy that day was pretty good too. Tommy had learned to throw a slider and he did a good job.
One last thing: Yogi was hard to catch for an interview because he spent most of his time when he wasn’t busy on the field itself with coaching duties in the coaches’ locker room, where the media were not allowed to go.
At then-Legends Field (now Steinbrenner Field), there are four areas off of the inner hallway to the dugout: the main clubhouse, the manager’s office, Lou Cucuzza the clubhouse attendant’s office, and the coaches’ room. The media were allowed in Joe’s office and the main clubhouse, but not the coaches’ room or the clubhouse attendant’s office… except, as far as I can tell, this once. Yogi had sat down on an upturned ball bucket a few feet inside the door of Cucuzza’s office. I’d been trying to interview him just about every day for almost two weeks. I was standing in the doorway of Joe Torre’s office waiting for Torre at that point, actually, when Yogi gestured to me as if saying “come here.”
I tiptoed to the edge of the door where the invisible “media shall not pass” line was. Yogi gestured again. I knelt down at his feet since otherwise I would have loomed over him, and I started the tape recorder. When we were done with the interview, Yogi retreated into the coaches’ room and Lou Cucuzza gave me a look.
“Did he call you in here?” Lou asked.
“Yeah,” I said, shrugging and hoping Lou wasn’t about to get my media pass revoked.
Lou just shrugged, too. “Eh. When Yogi calls,” he said. “You go. Now get out of here, okay?”
Thanks, Yogi, for making the time for me. You’ll be sorely missed.
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