I walked into the locker room, right behind Yogi Berra. The young catcher putting on his shin guards, looked up to see what all the fuss was about. His mouth dropped open. Yogi extended his hand.
“Hey kid, how ya doing?”
“F-F-Fine,” the incredulous 19-year old catcher for the Utica Blue Sox said, shaking Yogi’s hand.
“Wanna few tips, before you take the field?” Yogi asked the kid.
“Sure,” the minor-league ballplayer said, still unable to believe his eyes.
Yogi sat down next to the kid on the thin wooden bench in the New York Penn League locker room of the Utica Blue Sox. He picked up the kids catcher’s mitt, talked about handling the glove, about positioning his body behind home plate, and staying loose throughout the game. It was the most animated and talkative Yogi was all day.
We were together since lunch time: Yogi, me and his slick public relations handler. We traveled to Utica, New York, representing the Mickey Mantle Foundation for Organ Donation and were slated to throw out the first ball at the Utica Blue Sox home game that evening, on a night dedicated to Organ Donation awareness. Mantle died the year before from Kidney failure, and his family established the Foundation in his memory, to educate the public about the dire shortage of organs available for transplantation in this country. I got involved as a VP from Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, a public academic medical center with one of the biggest organ donation programs in the country serving a community of mostly African and Caribbean-Americans. Within weeks of Mantle’s death in 1995, I contacted the Foundation and invited them to get involved in Brooklyn, where, among Blacks, the organ shortage was even more severe, thanks to cultural and religious fears.
The original purpose for Yogi’s trip to Utica was not so altruistic. He was offered $15,000 to come and sign baseball paraphernalia at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, NY, a half-hour drive west from Utica. The Mantle family asked Yogi to do the Blue Sox event that night since he would be in the area. When he agreed, the Foundation asked me to join him.
I met Yogi and his handler at the Turning Point Resort’s restaurant for a private lunch, with representatives of the Casino and the Blue Sox. Usually, I can “carry on a conversation with a door,” my wife is fond of saying, but all Yogi was interested in doing was eating the plate of pasta placed in front of him. A life-long Yankee fan, I tried talking about Yogi’s playing days with Mickey Mantle. Yogi offered little beyond grunts of “Yep,” or “Nope,” between bites of food. I looked at him and saw my old Uncle Mike Bavoso, stocky, balding, hair growing out of his ears, gobbling down his pasta “while it was still steaming hot.”
I asked him how he felt when the Pirates’ Bill Mazerowski hit the game-winning home run over the left field fence in the 7th game of the 1960 World Series, and he stood watching it go out, playing left field for the Yankees. To me, as an 11-year old Yankee fanatic, it was a heartbreaking, life-searing moment, leaving me in tears as I watched on our black & white TV in my family’s living room in North Babylon, NY.
“That was it,” Yogi said, ripping a piece of bread and soaking up the remaining tomato sauce in his bowl. That was all he said.
At the Casino, Yogi sat for hours signing photos, baseballs, bats, anything fans brought him to sign. In the days before cellphones and selfies, anyone wanting a photo WITH Yogi had to pay extra. His handler was very strict on this point. Yogi, just grinned and went with the flow.
We were driven in a stretch limo over to Donovan Stadium at Murname Field in Utica to be there ahead of the Blue Sox ballgame, meet the players and go through our intros. On the way to the ballpark, I sat across from Yogi and tried once more to make small talk.
“Tell me about the play when Jackie Robinson stole home in the ’55 Series, Yogi,” I asked.
“He was out,” Yogi said. And with that, the small-talk game was over.
Hanging out with Yogi for a full-day, watching his warmth with a young, minor-league catcher, standing on the pitcher’s mound with Yogi Berra at a ballpark in Utica when he threw out the first-ball was all very cool. But years of yammering for Yogi, and yearning to meet the Great # 8, disappeared as quickly as the plate of pasta Yogi polished off for lunch.