This past Friday night I was given the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion, "Baseball Heroes of World War II," for the American Veteran's Center. The event was held at Nationals Park, and the panel consisted of former Philadlephia A's hurler Lou Brissie, Yankee second baseman and longtime voice of the San Diego Padres Jerry Coleman, Negro Leagues slugger John "Mule" Miles of the Chicago American Giants, and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'll point out that as a nascent baseball fan in the late 1950's, Yogi Berra was my personal favorite. I was a catcher in Little League, I had a #8 Yankee uniform in my size (it would've fit Yogi as well; at 9 I was his size already), and I also had a small plastic Yogi Berra figurine, a Hartland Stature for those collectors out there (yes, I still have it, with the mask).
I sat down with Yogi for a few minutes before the public was allowed in and talked to him about a few things that had crossed my mind. He was perhaps the greatest 'bad ball' hitter ever. A scout once reported that you couldn't pitch around him, since he could hit a wild pitch with authority. I asked him if he could teach anyone else to hit like he did. "Oooh, I don't think so. In my case, if there was someone on base and I thought I could reach the pitch I usually swung, but that's how I hit when I was a kid. Hitters today are taught to look for strikes, but a lot of 'em sure don't mind striking out." Berra's season high strikeout total was 38, so even swinging at pitches outside the zone didn't seem to hurt him.
I pointed out to him that the fans of today rarely see him hit on vintage video. They'll see him jump into Don Larsen's arms after the final out of Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series, or look up at Bill Mazeroski's home run that ended game 7 of the 1960 World Series. At that point he interrupted me and asked "Do you know why we lost that game?"
I paused for a moment, knowing he wasn't referring to the Maz walk-off homer.
"Was it Jim Coates?" I asked.
"That's exactly right," he said. "He didn't cover first in the eighth inning on that ball Clemente hit to Skowron. [Hal] Smith came up and hit a 3-run homer and we fell behind."
The Yankees came back to tie the game in the top of the 9th, but Berra's point was well made. He's not the only member of that club who pins the blame on Coates for that series being lost. Mickey Mantle did until his dying day.
Yogi Berra is a genuine American icon, and did his part in the big war as a machine gunner on a rocket launcher. He was part of D-Day, and, though you might not want to believe it, is a whole lot smarter than the image he's projected all these years. Getting to spend a couple of hours with him - and Coleman, Miles and Brissie - was a great experience, and one I'll cherish for a long time.