More Exemplary Testimony About Yogi Berra the Catholic

Thank you to Brother John Marie Vianney, M.I.C.M., Tert., a baseball enthusiast to be sure, for these tidbits and clippings about the recently deceased great Yankee catcher. These were the days when athletes did not have big egos and had thick skin. Baseball was just a game. Players did not take themselves so seriously as tender souls do today.

Yogi and Pope John  XXIII

Reporter: “I understand you had an audience with the Pope.”

Yogi: “No, but I saw him.”

Reporter: “Did you get to talk to him?”

Yogi: “I sure did. We had a nice little chat.”

Reporter: “What did he say?”

Yogi: “You know, he must read the papers a lot, because he said, ‘Hello, Yogi.'”

Reporter: “And what did you say?”

Yogi: “I said, ‘Hello, Pope.'”
On Yogi’s 90th Birthday:
Stump Merrill – Coached for Yogi in 1985

I first got to really know Yogi during the strike in 1981 when he came down to Nashville where I was managing. The Boss had sent all the coaches with the Yankees down to the minor leagues to look at our prospects during the strike. Yogi asked me, “What do you want me to do here?” I said, “Why don’t you just hit grounders to my first baseman, No. 23 over there.” By the end of his time with us, he says to me: “That Mattingly kid. He’s pretty good.” Four years later, Yogi was now the manager and he asked me to be one of his coaches. He was my link to the major leagues and I am forever grateful to him. Every Sunday, he made me go to Mass with him. I remember telling him: “I’m not a Catholic, what do I do here?” He said: “Don’t worry. Just do what I do.” It was easy because he couldn’t kneel either because his knees were as bad as mine!”

A very special happy birthday, Lawrence, from someone you really took care of, my wife, Winny and I, wish you many, many more!

“Berra’s parents originally nicknamed him “Lawdie”, because his mother had trouble pronouncing “Lawrence” or “Larry.” Across the street lived Joe Garagiola, another future major league catcher who actually played in his first World Series, at age 20 for the 1946 World Series champion Cardinals, one year ahead of Berra’s first World Series championship with the Yankees. Both had attended South Side Catholic although Berra quit school after the eighth grade.

FROM a NY Post article, The American Story of Yogi Berra by George F. Will

He grew up in what he and others called the Dago Hill section of St. Louis, when the Italian-Americans who lived there did not take offense at the name.

They had bigger problems. Allen Barra notes that an 1895 advertisement seeking labor to build a New York reservoir said whites would be paid $1.30 to $1.50 a day, “colored” workers $1.25 to $1.40, and Italians $1.15 to $1.25. The term “wop” may have begun as an acronym for “without papers,” as many Italians were when they arrived at Ellis Island.

American sports and ethnicity have been interestingly entangled. The nickname “Fighting Irish” was originally a disparagement by opponents of Notre Dame, which for many years had problems filling its schedule because of anti-Catholic bigotry. But sports also have been solvents of a sense of apartness felt by ethnic groups.

In 1923, the Sporting News, called the national pastime the essence of the nation:

“In a democratic, catholic, real American game like baseball, there has been no distinction raised except tacit understanding that a player of Ethiopian descent is ineligible. . . The Mick, the Sheeny, the Wop, the Dutch and the Chink, the Cuban, the Indian, the Jap or the so-called Anglo-Saxon — his ‘nationality’ is never a matter of moment if he can pitch, hit or field.”

Ah, diversity. In 1908, the Sporting News said this about a Giants rookie, Charley “Buck” Herzog: “The long-nosed rooters are crazy whenever young Herzog does anything noteworthy. Cries of ‘Herzog! Herzog! Goot poy, Herzog!’ go up regularly, and there would be no let-up even if a million ham sandwiches suddenly fell among these believers in percentages and bargains.”

David Maraniss, in his biography of the Pirates’ Roberto Clemente, the first Puerto Rican superstar, notes that as late as 1971, Clemente’s 17th season, one sportswriter still quoted him in phonetic English: “Eef I have my good arm thee ball gets there a leetle quicker.”
In 1962, Alvin Dark, manager of the San Francisco Giants, banned the speaking of Spanish in the clubhouse. Today, with three of the most common surnames in baseball being Martinez, Rodriguez and Gonzalez, some managers speak Spanish.
Yogi’s great contemporary, Dodgers’ catcher Roy Campanella (another three-time MVP), was the son of an African-American mother and Italian-American father. Today, with two Italian-Americans on the Supreme Court, it’s difficult to imagine how delighted Italian-Americans were with their first national celebrity — the elegant center fielder on baseball’s most glamorous team, Joe DiMaggio, the son of a San Francisco fisherman.

DiMaggio was “Big Dago” to his teammates. Yogi was “Little Dago” and became the nation’s most beloved sports figure. As Yogi said when Catholic Dublin elected a Jewish mayor, “Only in America.”

It’s a sad coincidence that Berra would die just days before the New York arrival of Pope Francis. Berra was himself a lifelong practicing Catholic, who used to cajole others to join him for Sunday Mass. His wife Carmen, whom he married in 1949, wasn’t religious before she met him, but she became a Catholic “because it seemed to me that a religion that had such a grip on Yogi must be a good one.” Berra once wrote, “I’ve always been a devout Catholic…I’ve always believed in brotherhood, redemption, and forgiveness.”

Berra, who quit school in the eighth grade, has a tendency toward malapropism and fracturing the English language in highly provocative, interestingways. Simultaneously, denying and confirming his reputation, Berra once stated, “I really didn’t say everything I said. ”Berra was born in the Italian neighborhood of St.Louis called “The Hill” to Italian immigrants. He grew up on Elizabeth Avenue, across the street from friend Joe Garagiola. That block was also once home to the late baseball broadcaster Jack Buck. It was later renamed “Hall of Fame Place.” Berra and Garagiola both attended South Side Catholic, now called St. Mary’s High School. Berra has a star on the Walk of Fame located in University City, MO, a suburb of St. Louis.

[Yogi] received a Purple Heart and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Berra and his wife were also an active parishioners at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church on Fullerton Avenue.

Pope Francis’s visit to the White House, on his first full day on American soil, came on the day Yogi Berra died.  As Yogi once said: “That’s too coincidental to be a coincidence.”

Because, as Yogi also said, “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”

Now Yogi, the baseball sage, master of head-scratching wisdoms, who grew up Catholic in St. Louis and attended Mass all his life, gets to test another of his Yogisms: “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.”

In 1959, Yogi, then 34, took $1,000 worth of baseball equipment to Rome to promote baseball there. As Carlo DeVito recounted in “Yogi: The Life & Times of An American Original,” Berra came back with these observations: “In Italy they go to sleep between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., so that baseball games that begin at 2 p.m. don’t have much of a draw.”

Yogi had other observations, including soccer’s dominance in Italy, that led him to conclude that baseball would have a hard time catching on in his ancestral homeland. He was right, of course.

As Yogi once said, “You can learn a lot just by observing.”