I Knew Yogi Berra, Here’s What He Taught Me

I Knew Yogi Berra, Here’s What He Taught Me

For those who knew him, Yogi Berra was kind, generous, and an American hero. And yes, he really did talk that way.
Kevin Keating
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The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming memoir by Kevin Keating, who started skipping school in junior high to hang out in front of the Executive House Hotel near his father’s office in Chicago. Nearly all the out-of-town baseball teams playing in Chicago stayed at the hotel, and in the process of soliciting autographs, Keating developed lifelong friendships with a number of famous major leaguers. He is now a well-regarded collector and dealer of baseball memorabilia.

I met Yogi Berra many times in my youth, both at the hotel and at Wrigley Field, and he came to know me by name. I remember one meeting at the hotel, back in 1973, when the Mets were in town. Yogi got quite a laugh out of seeing a copy of the article Chicago Sun-Times columnist Bob Greene had done about cutting school to meet ballplayers, which almost got me expelled from the 8th grade. I had taken three copies with me that day for Jim Fregosi to sign, since the story included a photo of us together.

Yogi left for the game before Fregosi did that morning, and while we were talking out in front, I told him about the story and showed him a copy. He laughed and said he’d have gladly posed with me that day, or anytime for that matter, which I really appreciated. All I had to do was just let him know when. He especially liked the story about my vice principal, Mr. Zange, who quite likely let me off the hook because he was such a big fan of Yogi’s and couldn’t blame me for leaving school to meet him.

On another occasion, Yogi even picked me out of a crowd at Wrigley Field. It was after a game, and about 30 people were waiting to get autographs from the Mets as they left the player’s exit and walked to the team bus waiting some 40 feet away. Yogi was iconic even then. He drew the entire crowd to him like a people-magnet as soon as he walked through the exit.

What a thrill that was: to have Yogi Berra know me by name!

Seeing me in the group, he yelled out, “Hey, Kev! What have you got for me today?” Yogi quite likely thought this gesture might help him pass through the throng that encircled him as he made his way to the bus, and I certainly didn’t mind being used to help him along. And it did. The crowd opened up so we could meet, and he signed all my items as we chatted on his walk to the bus.

And what a thrill that was: to have Yogi Berra know me by name and treat me like a friend! So I was especially disappointed when the Mets hired Roy McMillan to replace him as skipper late in the 1975 season. In protest, I never returned to see the Mets again. I had nothing against Roy, but I just wasn’t interested in the Mets if Yogi wasn’t there.

Gone, but not forgotten

I didn’t see Yogi in person again until 1984.

By then I was a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and had been stationed at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington, since April of 1983. One of the officers assigned to my unit was a fellow Lieutenant named Bill Coffield. I didn’t know it then but Bill would one day be the best man at my wedding. And even though I had not known Bill for long, he was already one of my best friends and we have remained close ever since. It was May 22nd, Bill’s 25th birthday, and the Yankees were in town to play the Seattle Mariners. I knew that Bill was a native of Bronxville, New York, and a big fan of the Yankees.

It was all set. Very suddenly.

So to celebrate Bill’s birthday, I organized a group of officers from our unit, “The Devil’s Deuce” Fighting 2nd of the 2nd Infantry Battalion, to go to Seattle that night to watch the Yankees-Mariners game. It was only a short drive from Tacoma. Along with some wives and girlfriends, our group of about 40 had a great time at the game that night.

The demands of the Army kept me from pursuing autographs the way I did as a youngster, and it also prevented me from keeping up with much about MLB in general. But I did know that Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner had fired Billy Martin (for the second time!) after the 1983 season and had hired Yogi Berra to manage the team. And that’s why, Bill’s birthday celebration notwithstanding, seeing the game that night was even more special for me.

We all arrived without incident, and during the game (the Yankees lost 5-3), I found out that Bill was also a huge fan of Yogi Berra’s. Hearing this amid the great time we were having, I didn’t consider the consequences when I bragged to Bill that “When I was a kid, I used to know Yogi Berra.”

I had hardly finished the details about how I used to wait for Yogi at the hotel before and after games, and that he even knew me by name, when Bill offered me a challenge I couldn’t easily refuse.

“Wow, so you knew Yogi? That’s great! Let’s wait for him after the game and see if he remembers you… Maybe you can introduce me to him and get him to sign my Yankees cap?”

Before I could even consider how to come up with a creative excuse as to why we couldn’t do that, Bill was already spreading the word among our friends, and some senior officers too, that I had known Yogi in my high-school days and that I was going to introduce Bill to him after the game.

It was all set. Very suddenly.

It was most unlikely, probably even impossible, that he would remember me. But he did.

Much to my delight, though, nearly everybody decided to go on home rather than wait and witness my attempt at a reconnection with Yogi Berra. After all, it was late and home was about an hour’s drive away. But Bill was really psyched up about possibly meeting one of his boyhood heroes and actually getting his autograph. So only Bill, Captain Rick Friedman (his roommate), and I found our way to where the visiting team exited the stadium. We took our place amid dozens of people waiting there to meet the players en route to the team bus.

As we waited, I reminded Bill that nearly 10 years had passed since Yogi had seen me, and it was most unlikely, probably even impossible, that he would remember me.

But he did.

Yogi came out and was immediately swarmed by the small, waiting mass of fans, like bees to honey, I thought. He signed for everyone who asked, and the three of us stood patiently as he worked his way slowly through the crowd. Finally, he was down to the last few when I introduced myself.

“Yogi, you probably don’t remember me, but I knew you when I was a kid back in high school, and even before. I used to visit you every season when you were with the Mets in the 1970s and came to Chicago….” By now he had stopped signing and was looking at me, studying me as I continued.

“I used to wait for you to come out at the Executive Hotel there, and I’d also see you at Wrigley….”

He broke in and said, “Kevin, right?”

My jaw dropped. Impossible, I thought. Ten years ago! I nodded my head, slowly and in awe: “Yes, I can’t believe you remember me.” Bill and Rick couldn’t believe it, either.

“Of course,” he replied in a tone as if to say, “Why shouldn’t I remember you?”

“How have you been?” he asked. “What have you been up to since then? It’s been a while.”

Yogi Berra, American Hero

We stood and talked, and I brought him up to date with what I had done with my life since he last saw me. Yogi seemed impressed with my military background and went on to tell me how he had served in the Navy during World War II and that he was a gunner on a ship about 300 yards off of hotly contested Omaha Beach during D-Day. I was amazed at some of his background that I had never heard or read anywhere. I found out that night that Yogi Berra is far more than just an American baseball legend. He is a true American hero. In his unassuming way, Yogi told me just as a matter of fact.

“I was out there for 12 days. We went in before the Army arrived in their landing crafts, and when they did and ran into any gun opposition, we would fire rockets,” he recalled.

He went on to say that he could barely see the sky when the invasion started:

“Don’t wait so long for us to get together in another seven years!”

“There were so many planes in the area… I wasn’t scared. It looked like the Fourth of July with all the rockets going off. It really did. I was just a kid. I remember looking up at all the battleships, I knew what was going on, but I didn’t think I would get killed. And no one on our ship died. That was good.”

As a boy, I could never have imagined having such an adult conversation with Yogi. From it, I had learned things about him which he had no doubt discussed with me now as one who shared with him a common bond of serving in the military. Yogi welcomed meeting Bill, and Rick, too, and he gladly signed Bill’s cap. Then, just before he boarded the bus, he thanked us all for our military service and told me he hoped to see me again, but…

“Don’t wait so long for us to get together in another seven years!”

Sure, Yogi. “Don’t wait so long to meet in seven years”?! That’s the true Yogi Berra, extending something I value far more than his autograph: My own, personal Yogi-ism given to me to remember forever.

Yes, he really did speak that way

I have met Yogi many times since then at different intervals, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time with him at various events over the years. And my friends often ask if Yogi really does speak that way, the way that has made him famous for his use of memorable malapropisms, some of which are enigmatically profound.

He does. And here are but a few of the more famous quotes attributed to him:

  • “A home opener is always exciting whether it’s home or on the road.”
  • You give 100% in the first half of the game, and if that isn’t enough, in the second half you give what’s left.”
  • Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore; it’s too crowded.”
  • It gets late early out there.”
  • Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.”
  • You can observe a lot by watching.”
  • A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”
  • It’s déjà vu all over again.”
  • When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
  • That’s the earliest you’ve ever been late.”
  • How can you think and hit at the same time?”
  • If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them.”
  • Predictions are difficult, especially about the future.”
  • On being told by the wife of New York Mayor John V. Lindsay that he looked cool despite the heat: “You don’t look so hot either”
  • If you don’t go to their funeral, they won’t go to yours.”
  • It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

It’s little wonder that some scholars believe him to be the most widely quoted American of all time.

As Yogi himself put it, “I never said half the things I really said.”

“If I was playing by myself today, I’d be hitting my own ball!”

Yogi never planned these statements—they just emerged.

One of my favorites occurred in 1995 when I was at the Hall of Fame for induction weekend as Warren Spahn’s guest.

We were golfing in the Hall of Fame’s tournament, an annual event there. It’s played using a “scramble” or “best ball” format. On every hole, after all four members of the team has hit from the tee, they then select the best of the tee shots and all players play their second shots from that spot. The best of these second shots is selected, as they did with the first one, then all play their third shots from there, and so on until they finish the hole.

Two of Yogi’s foursome that day were outstanding golfers, Greg Spahn (Warren’s Son) and fellow Hall of Famer Steve Carlton.

By the time his team had played more than half of the course, Yogi was becoming increasingly frustrated. In spite of his best efforts, he had failed to have even one of his hits selected for play over those of his teammates. Finally at his first shot on a par 4 hole, Yogi got hold of one and sent it far and straight up the fairway. It was a good shot to be sure, and one that was very playable. But Carlton hit a screamer too, an even better shot than Yogi’s, so they chose Steve’s position and hit onto the green, which they did easily.

The team was now putting for a score of three, a birdie, and they had to decide which ball they were going to play. Now Yogi had just made his best hit of the day from the tee, but it still wasn’t used for position. So when the foursome hit the green in two, Yogi made himself clear: “Let’s play my ball.”

The balls hit by Yogi and Carlton were about the same distance from the cup, but Carlton’s had a better lie, with much less of a break to contend with between ball and cup. The decision was obvious, and they decided to putt Carlton’s ball.

That was it as far as Yogi was concerned, and he let the team know how he felt in no uncertain terms:

“All I’ve got to say to you guys is this: if I was playing by myself today, I’d be hitting my own ball!”

Even Yogi had to laugh when someone pointed out what he had just said. Incidentally, it was a good choice. They holed out for a birdie three.

“I sure hope I never see my name up there.”

I once asked Whitey Ford one day what his favorite Yogi-ism was, and Ford’s answer now seems especially poignant in light of Berra’s passing. After pausing a while, he said, “That’s really hard. There have been so many.” He went on, “But there was one recently that comes to mind. Yogi and I were standing out at the Stadium [Yankee Stadium, 2002] during Old-Timers’ Day. And they always flash on the scoreboard the names of Yankees who have died since the previous Old-Timers’ Day.

“And our pal Frankie Crosetti had his name up there—he had just died earlier that year. Yogi turns to me and says, ‘Gee, Whitey, I sure hope I never see my name up there.’”

It’s safe to say millions of Americans who were touched and inspired by Yogi — on and off the field — never hoped to see his name up there, either. Yogi Berra’s passing on September 22, 2015 at age 90 is a loss for the ages. But Yogi hadn’t been doing well since Carmen, his beloved wife of 65 years, passed last year, and to say he lived a full life is one heck of an understatement.

As for me, I remain grateful I was lucky enough to know him. Whenever I saw Yogi, I always introduced myself to him, and he was always the kind and pleasant man I met a long time ago. And I will always be amazed that he remembered me from my boyhood that one night in Seattle after all those years.

Kevin Keating lives with his wife and two sons in Alexandria, Virginia. A collector and dealer of baseball memorabilia, he owns Quality Autographs and Memorabilia.
Photo Courtesy Kevin Keating.

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