The latest biography of Yogi Berra, “Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask,” could be titled “Beyond the Witty Quips and Rings.”
Author Jon Pessah discloses many obstacles the entertaining New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher overcame from his childhood in “The Hill” neighborhood of St. Louis to skeptical perceptions about his talent to eventually settling a rift with owner George Steinbrenner.
Berra’s popularity – highlighted by his 15 All-Star selections (1948-1962), three American League MVP awards, 10 World Series rings and long list of Berra-isms – is matched by his ability to parlay his popularity into several lucrative endorsements.
That started with Berra’s generosity. He gave one of his watches to former Yankees traveling secretary Frank Scott, who noticed Berra wasn’t being compensated in cash for promotional appearances and took over his endorsements.
Suddenly, Berra was getting paid for speaking engagements, appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “General Hospital,” and earning a 15-year contract with Yoo-hoo chocolate drink – a product he loved chugging as a player – and even an endorsement with Puss’n Boots cat food.
But the climb to stardom and financial success was steep. Pessah details Berra’s upbringing in which the catcher’s love for baseball tried to mask his academic struggles and bucked the wishes of his father, a clay factory worker who emigrated from Italy in 1908 at 22.
Berra, referred to as “Lawdie” as a youth (his mother had difficulty pronouncing his first name, Lawrence), had to prove to local scouts that he was at least as good as Joe Garagiola, who signed a $500 bonus with the Cardinals while insisting his childhood friend was the better catcher.
Despite the support of a local scout, Berra couldn’t convince Branch Rickey, best known for signing Jackie Robinson, that he’s worth more than $250.
Even a home visit from a priest, the Rev. Charles Koester, reinforces the view of Berra’s parents that he might not be good enough to pursue a baseball career at 16.
“What you’re doing is beyond all reason,” Koester is quoted as telling Berra in front of his parents. “No wonder your good father and mother are afraid you’re going to turn into a bad boy.”
After losing jobs as a shipping clerk, at a coal yard and on a soft drink truck, Berra finally gets a break as a oil and gas dealer adds him to his American Legion team.
Berra prospers, and so does the Legion team that advances to the national semifinals. The oil dealer’s connections with Yankees general manager George Weiss help Berra earn a signing bonus of $500 and $90 a month.
Throughout the early part of the book, Pessah weaves incidents of the racism and heckling that Berra endured for his Italian-American heritage and his stout frame.
One of the more interesting tidbits is that Berra’s nickname came from American Legion teammate Bobby Hofman. Hofman, who went on to play with the New York Giants, and his teammates watched a movie in which yogis from India crossed their arms and legs in the same manner Berra prior to each at-bat.
Berra, however, still needed to convince many in the Yankees organization, including a clubhouse attendant who thought he was trying to become a coworker and several executives who doubted Berra had the throwing accuracy or body to develop into an everyday major-league catcher.
But between the decline of Joe DiMaggio and the ascent of Mickey Mantle, Pessah carefully illustrates Berra’s growing presence as a player and personality.
Berra’s tolerance for jokes made him a hit with reporters.
“I’ve never seen anyone who hits with their face,” Berra said to the delight of beat writers who are asked by manager Bucky Harris to stop making fun of Berra’s looks.
Despite the allure of the big city, Berra maintained his St. Louis roots, which allowed him to meet his future wife at a banquet and marry her in 1948.
Pessah’s deeply sourced 507-page book illustrates how a self-made athlete can succeed on and off the field without riding the coattails of more talented and more publicized teammates.