Written by Art Petrosemolo
As the 2017 MLB season winds down, I stay a huge baseball fan. My dad was a lifelong New York Yankees fan (sorry Phillies friends) and so am I…. There are lots of reasons.
In WWII, my dad was a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy stationed at the submarine base in New London about 50 miles from our New Haven home. I was a baby then and know these years (1943-45) only from hearing about them as I grew up.
Anyway, my dad, a physical education instructor ran the entire physical fitness program for the sub base. You probably have seen old newsreel photos of a man on a raised platform with hundreds of soldiers or sailors out in front all doing jumping jacks with the instructor…. Well that’s what my dad did.
Several times while my dad was in New London, his name came down on a billet to ship to the South Pacific on a submarine; many of those subs never returned. My dad, for whatever reason, was removed from billets each time and finished his service in New London.
Anyway, one of the young 18-year old draftees at the sub base was a young, professional baseball player by the name of Yogi Berra from St. Louis. He and my dad established a close friendship and remained so for forty years until my dad’s passing. Remember in the second world war, many, many athletes, famous ones too, did military service and were out of their particular sport for several years including the great Red Sox legend Ted Williams.
Even while they were in the service, many of these professional players took part in games (where they were paid small sums) under assumed names in the local towns. Yogi did the same.
My dad told me he managed Yogi’s money so he wouldn’t blow it and even helped him pick out an engagement ring for his fiancée.
Yogi was eventually shipped out of New London but he and my dad stayed close during his playing and managing career with the Yankees. Yogi came to visit (with Phil Rizzuto once) on off days and my dad would go to the old Yankee Stadium as Yogi’s guest many, many times. I was fortunate to go with him several times.
I remember, in particular, a game in September 1964 just before my senior year at Springfield College. I had just returned from a summer with Crossroads Africa training Egyptian swimmers for the Pan African games. My dad was going to a game and asked me along… I was tired and said no but he talked me into it. I’m glad he did. Yogi was managing the Yankees then and Archie Moore, a Springfield grad, was playing for the team that year. We sat right next to the dugout and after the game Yogi came out and brought us into the Yankee Clubhouse. I remember meeting a dozen players and talking to Moore. It’s a memory I’ll never forget and it would not have been able to happen the following year…. Yogi was let go as Yankee manager early in the season and was estranged from the team until only shortly before he passed away a few years back.
But my path crossed with Yogi a few times over the years. When I was alumni director at the University of Massachusetts in 1972, Yogi’s young son was playing football there at the time and I would see him and talk to him at the stadium. And then in the mid-1980s, Yogi was finishing his career as a coach with the Houston Astro’s. I was with a Fortune 500 company in Philadelphia at the time and we had Phillies season tickets.
I had forgotten Yogi was with the Astro’s until I saw him on the field for batting practice before the game. I took my son too. Keith was about 12 at the time I think… I said Keith, “Look, there’s Yogi Berra,” and I got a blank “who’s Yogi Berra stare.” I said I’m going down to talk to him about your grandfather. (My father had been gone just a few years earlier.) My son didn’t come with me.
I gave my business card to a field attendant and asked him to give it to Yogi. He did and Yogi looked up at me from the pitcher’s mound and put the card in his pocket. I waited 10 minutes at least, maybe more, and hoped Yogi would stop and say hello before he went back to the Clubhouse. He did and we had a pleasant talk about my dad from someone who knew him well and in situations I only heard about. When I went back to the seat, my son said, “You really knew him!” and I wanted to wring his neck!
For the last 20 years before moving to Sycamore Springs, I lived in in Shrewsbury, NJ and worked at Fairleigh Dickinson University in NJ which has campuses in Madison and Teaneck. Yogi was retired then living in Montclair. Every year I’d say to myself, reach out to Yogi and go and visit him and I sadly never did before he passed away.
I, naturally, always will have a special place in my heart for #8, the great Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra and the New York Yankees. I have friends that call the team the “evil empire” but to me they always will be Yogi’s team and I, like my dad, am a fan for life.