YOGI PLAYED BASEBALL, TOO….

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A few words on the late, great Lawrence Peter Berra, known to one and all, except Yankee manager Casey Stengel, as casey-yogiYogi. The Old Perfessor always referred to him as “my man” or “Mr. Berra”. It was his show of respect for the team’s catcher and long-time clean-up hitter. While others might mock and deride Berra’s squat stature, homely mug and lack of verbal sophistication, wise Casey knew just how key Berra was to the success of the Yankees in those long-ago years when they seemed to win the World Series every year. From behind the plate, he guided the team’s often far from brilliant pitching staff and was always a danger at the bat. A perennial MVP candidate during the 1950’s, Berra won the award three times. Only the dubious Barry Bonds has more.

So I am a little perturbed that so much written about Yogi since he died this month has concentrated on his malapropisms and humourous observations (“You observe a lot by watching”), some of which he may actually have said. People who wouldn’t know an intentional walk from a forced march lapped it up. Inevitable, I suppose, in this day of Google, internet lists, short attention spans and the vast reach of social media, but amid all the renewed merriment, often forgotten was how great a ballplayer Yogi Berra really was.

I haven’t forgotten. From my first moment of baseball consciousness, I hated Yogi’s team, the New York Yankees. How could anyone cheer for the Yanks, especially at World Series time, when they regularly took on the Brooklyn Dodgers? The beloved Bums had not only broken baseball’s colour line with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, they played in an intimate bandbox of a stadium, festooned by signs for local haberdashers and the like. They didn’t even represent a city. Brooklyn was a borough. Admirable underdogs, all the way.

The Yankees, on the other hand, held their home games in soulless, cavernous Yankee Stadium, where no one, not even Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth managed to hit a baseball clean out of the park, they had greedy, colourless owners, and were one of the last teams in the majors to field a black player in their line-up, eight years after Robinson’s historic season. As someone once said, rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for General Motors.

They also had Yogi. There was no Yankee batter I feared more than Yogi Berra. Whenever he came up, I got nervous. Sure, Mantle might hit a homer, but he might just as easily strike out. Berra, notorious for swinging at balls so far out of the strike zone they might have been in Poughkeepsie, almost never fanned – just 414 times in 19 seasons. About once every five games. That’s insane for a power hitter. Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter ever, struck out twice as often. But of course, what frightened me more was how often Berra delivered in the clutch. Mantle and Dimaggio, notwithstanding, it was Yogi who led the Yankees in RBI’s for seven straight years. In big games, he seemed nerveless. During the Yankee’s last three World Series against the Dodgers, Berra hit .429, .417 and .369. In 1956, the only Series I really remember, he knocked in 10 runs, while socking three round-trippers, including two in the do-or-die seventh game. Ugh., Berra was not some Bob Uecker-like figure of fun. He was one of the best catchers of all time.

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As much as I couldn’t stand what he did to my favourite teams, it was pretty impossible to dislike Yogi. Grudgingly, and privately, I loved the guy. He was so ordinary, down-to-earth and un-Yankeelike. Although he may have worn the team’s high-class pinstripes,  he was more like your friendly neighbourhood plumber. You wouldn’t catch Berra out partying at New York’s notorious Copacabana Club, or entertaining “baseball Mary’s”. He was married heart and soul to Carmen, a union that lasted 65 years. And when Yogi went to war at the age of 19, he was no bystander, posing for photo-ops. He was an active naval gunner, a decorated veteran of the Allies’ D-Day invasion, and a casualty, wounded during an assault on Marseille.

As for baseball, he hit a home run in his first major league game. His career total of 358 homers is the most by anyone less than 68 inches high. He also had the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, off the ill-starred Ralph Branca in 1947. Much as it hurts, I have to acknowledge, as well, his 10 World Series rings, part of a Yankee dynasty that won those championships in a ridiculously short span of 15 years. Summed up Hall-of-Famer Mel Ott: “He seemed to be doing everything wrong, yet everything came out right. He stopped everything behind the plate and hit everything in front of it.”

1960-Yogi-in-left-270-AStill, I’m glad to recount my most cherished fBerra moment. It came in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the 1960 Series against Pittsburgh, with the score tied. When Bill Mazeroski hit his famous walk-off home run to slay the mighty Yankees, it was Berra, out in left field, who was closest to the ball sailing over the high outfield wall. I can hear the announcer now: “Berra’s going back. He’s looking up….and its gone!” Sorry, Yogi.

As for all those Yogi-isms, I’m so old I can remember when there were only a few of them, lovingly recounted in the Baseball Digest, which I bought every month at the local drugstore. The fact they were in the Digest, before non-baseball fans twigged to how funny Yogi could be and began piling on, makes me think he really did say those things. “I’d like to thank everyone for making this night necessary,” he told fans during Yogi Berra night in St. Louis. “Bill Dickey is learning me his experiences.” The great comment that no one goes to a certain restaurant anymore, because it’s always crowded? If memory serves, Baseball Digest reported that one in the 1960’s, referencing it to an Italian eatery in Minneapolis. So it must be true. “It ain’t over till it’s over” was uttered by Yogi during his time as manager of the New York Mets. And of course, he was right. The Mets came from nowhere to win their division.

But my favourite Yogi-ism referred to the lengthening shadows that would gradually creep over the field at Yankee Stadium, as the game went on. At some point, the pitcher’s mound would be in shadow, while the batter’s box was in sunlight, not an easy situation for a hitter. As Berra put it: “It gets late early out there.” Perfect.

Few players have given such pleasure to those who know baseball, and to those who don’t. Now, it really is over. Lawrence Peter Berra, RIP. And if you come to a fork in the road on the way to the great baseball diamond in the sky, take it.

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P.S. You never know when a Yogi-ism will pop out. At a jazz session I took in Saturday afternoon, keyboard cat Bob Murphy observed: “90 per cent of jazz is half improvisational.” And here is a small, perfect gem of a piece on Yogi Berra by the sweetest prince of all baseball writers, Roger Angell, still turning out gorgeous prose in his 90’s. newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/postscript-yogi-berra-1925-2015

FAREWELL, THEN, MINNIE MINOSO

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What is it about being a kid that makes you attach yourself to certain ballplayers, none of whom you’ve ever come close to seeing in a real game and only rarely on television? Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax were obvious targets for our affection, of course, although in my schoolyard it was always either Mantle or Mays, never both. Even when I was barely knee-high to a Baltimore Chop, this lifelong Yankee hater was a Mays man all the way.

harmonkillebrewBut the guy who really had the number one claim on my heart was Harmon Killebrew, a big, strong-armed power hitter from the potato state of Idaho. He was hardly Mr. Colourful. Asked once whether he had any hobbies, the devout Mormon thought for a moment. “Just washing the dishes, I guess,” the soft-spoken slugger eventually replied. So why did I latch onto Killebrew, from among all those flashier stars? Other than the fact that he was a hell of a hitter, who knows? It’s just one of those unfathomable mysteries of youth. But he remained my favourite ballplayer for 15 years, until his retirement in the mid-1970’s.

Another ballplayer I loved almost as much in those lazy, hazy carefree days of baseball was good old Minnie Minoso. He found his way into my young heart through the usual vehicle of silent box score and baseball cards, plus the entrancing rhythm of his name. I knew nothing about him, really, other than that he stole a lot of bases, played the game with enthusiasm, and, a solid clutch hitter, he knocked in a lot of runs. But most of all, as a kid, what was there not to love about someone baptized Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Minoso Armas, who gave himself the sweet tag of Minnie Minoso?

As he kept on playing, oblivious to Father Time’s order to hang up his spikes, my fondness grew. He didn’t seem to know the meaning of retirement. When his major league career was done, the ageless Minoso drifted down to the Mexican League, where he played through his 40’s. At the age of 45, he hit .359 to win the Mexican Winter League’s batting title. In his final season, by then nearly 48, he played 120 games, hit 12 home runs, knocked in 83 runs and batted.265. Three years later, Minoso was brought back to his beloved White Sox by owner Bill Veeck, the best baseball impresario in all the world. Two months short of his 51st birthday, Minoso faced major league pitching for the first time in 12 years. He went one for eight, knocking a single off a Sid Monge fastball. That made him the fourth oldest player in big league history to get a hit. The Gordie Howe of baseball. (Minoso might have been even older for these landmark moments. His birth date tended to bounce around like a Mexican jumping bean.)

Someone with a lot of time on his hands added up everyone’s major and minor league lifetime statistics, and figured out that Minoso stood second, behind only Pete Rose, on the list of most total hits in professional baseball. Ty Cobb was third.

Much later, I learned that the Cuban-born star was also a baseball pioneer, the first black from Latin America to play in the allyn2majors, suiting up with the Cleveland Indians in 1949, and the first black to play for the Chicago White Sox. That was in 1951. In his first at bat, he hit a home run, launching a lengthy tenure with the White Sox that made him one of the most popular players in team history, with his own statue at what I will still call Comiskey Park.

When Minoso passed away a few days ago, there was universal sadness at the loss of someone whose embrace of the joy of baseball was unsurpassed. I’m also sure I wasn’t the only one taken aback by his death, despite his many years on Planet Earth. Heck, if anyone could defy the odds and live forever, surely it would have been Minnie Minoso. I kind of thought he would live forever.

Here’s the NYT obit on this great man. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/sports/minnie-minoso-dies-treasured-white-sox-ballplayer.html?_r=0 Even better, if you’re obsessed, like I am, about Minnie Minoso, and have a few spare moments, this is a marvellous, definitive look at his long career, with incredible detail and photos from his days in Cuba and early years in the majors. Outstanding. http://www.cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Hero/Orestes-Minoso.pdf

Fidel Castro Sitting Next to Baseball Player Minnie Minoso

(Actually, Minoso hated Castro and left Cuba, never to return, in 1961. But late last year, after President Obama announced a landmark rapprochement with his homeland, Minoso expressed the hope that he might now go back and revisit the sugar cane fields where he laboured as a youth.)

Meanwhile, although I never saw him play, I do have one Minnie Minoso anecdote. It goes back to my time in Newmarket, Ontario, when our gang of four seemed to be the only true-blood baseball fans in town. Besides myself, there were Doug Cane, Dennis Myers and the great Paul Ingledew, who might have been a slugger in his own right, except for a bad eye.

One evening, we were playing home run derby. You got three tries an inning to hit the ball far enough for a homer. We had set up Ingledew’s bike out in the field as the home run marker. But it was too far. As dusk approached, not one of us had even come close to belting the ball over the bike for a homer. Up came Paul Ingledew for his final at bat. For who knows what reason, he suddenly announced in a loud voice: “Pinch hitter, Minnie Minoso!” Whereupon, he whacked a towering blast that soared way over his heretofore-unreachable bike for the only home run of the game. We laughed ourselves sick. Then we went home.

RIP, Minnie Minoso. And shame on all those sports writers who broke your big heart by keeping you out of the Hall of Fame. “Even if it hurts on the inside, I will always be smiling on the outside,” said Minnie, after falling short once again in 2011.

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BARACK OBAMA: JUST ANOTHER TOURIST ATTRACTION

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If you hadn’t been paying attention during those early days of Barack Obama’s extraordinary rise to the U.S. presidency, you could have been excused for thinking: this is one tough, black American, forged in the racial cauldron of Chicago. Indeed, the Windy City is where he did cut his teeth as a social organizer in low-income, black neighbourhoods and the metropolis where he established his political base. So no doubt it came as a surprise to many when they first learned that, except for a few years in Indonesia, Obama was actually born and raised in, of all places, Honolulu, as far from Chicago’s hardscrabble grit as can be imagined.

His Honolulu upbringing is a fascinating tale, well told in Obama’s own absorbing memoir, Dreams From My Father. I got a brief taste of it in February, 2008, when the Globe and Mail sent me on a quickie assignment to flesh out Obama’s “roots” in Hawaii. I didn’t get that much on such short notice, but I did talk to a few of his former classmates, stroll the lush campus of the private Punahou School that Obama attended on scholarship from Grade 5 through high school, and best of all, I exchanged a few words with his grandmother, the strait-laced Kansas native and ex-bank executive, Madelyn Dunham.

During high school, Obama lived with his white Dunham grandparents in their modest apartment not far from Punahou, while his mother went off to Indonesia. Madelyn Dunham had made it plain to reporters from the start that she would not talk about her increasingly prominent grandson. But I thought, what the heck. She was listed in the phone book (Daddy, what’s a phone book?), so I called her up. She answered right away, and explained, very politely, that she didn’t grant interviews. I said I understood. Just before hanging up, I observed: “You must be very proud of your grandson.” She replied, softly: “He’s done very well, hasn’t he?” It was a lovely moment. And I got a quote!

Later, I sought out the apartment building, a classic, mundane high-rise from the mid-60’s at 1617 S. Beretania Street, in the heart of the unadorned enclave of Makiki. I looked at the ordinary elevator and thought: “Just think, that’s the same one “Barry” Obama used every day.” (I’m nothing, if not deep…). I had a nice long chat with the building manager, who told me of reporters trying all sorts of stunts to gain access to Madelyn’s 10th floor apartment (a code or security card was necessary to get above the first floor.) One was caught shinnying up a drain pipe. Another claimed to be “a very good friend” of the family. The manager said Obama dutifully visited his grandmother every Christmas, usually bringing a Christmas tree with him. “A very nice guy. Very easy to talk to.” Sadly, Madelyn Dunham died two days before her grandson was elected president.

Back in Honolulu recently, I decided to revisit Obama’s old ‘hood. I was reminded once more how totally unremarkable it was, including the now-well known apartment building. To think a president of the United States emerged from this environment….

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A few things had changed. There was now a security fence around the front of the building, and signs reading “Private Property” and “No Trespassing”, intended, no doubt, to deter souvenir seekers and lobby “selfies”. There was also an “Apartment for Rent” notice.

I was struck, too, by the many diverse churches and other religious gathering places close by. Across the street is the massive Central Union Church. Next door sits the funky Japanese Shinshu Kyokai Buddhist Temple. Around the corner is a Korean gospel church and within a block or two are churches for the Mormons, Christian Scientists, Baptists and Episcopalians. My personal favourite is tucked away directly behind the Dunhams’ apartment building: The True Jesus Mission Church of the Latter Rain. Who knew? It’s hard not to conclude that such diversity, plus the “rainbow” ethnic mix of Honolulu, itself, must have played a part in Obama’s own tolerance and approach to life.

I then did an “Obama stroll” along the five blocks he would have walked every day to and from Punahou School. Beautiful old trees lining the street. Shriners Hospital and Maryknoll High School on the left. Rundown apartments on the right, but also the Kapiolani Medical Centre for Women and Children, where the future president was born on the day my boyhood hero Harmon Killebrew smashed a 3-run homer against the evil Yankees. I embraced history in my own way, posing briefly as a patient in the hospital’s emergency waiting room so I could use the washroom.

It was raining by the time I reached the campus of Punahou School. A scheduled ball game was on hold, and the outdoor basketball courts, much loved by the future president, were deserted. It’s a beautiful acreage, with immaculate vegetation, tall, stately trees and many nice old stone buildings. It radiates ‘privilege’. The parking lots and narrow roads were full of parents in cars, waiting to drive their kids back to their posh homes. “Barry” Obama must have been one of the few students to actually walk to school.

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Okay, I think this has gone on long enough. However, if you ever have a spare afternoon in Honolulu, I recommend poking around Makiki, particularly 1617 S. Beretania Street. Against all odds, this epitome of ordinary produced a president. It’s a funny old world.