Where I came from in St. Louis is called The Hill. It's strictly an Italian neighborhood, most people there came from the Old Country. My pop, Pietro, was one of them. He came from Malvaglio, a little town in northern Italy, around 1913. He couldn't speak much English. But he found steady work as a laborer in the brickyard, and coming from where he came from, felt lucky to have it.
The Hill was no slum. It was a respectable neighborhood. People worked hard and lived in small, brick bungalows. Those houses were handed down to family members, generation to generation, and still are. To me, the Hill will always be a special place, where family and church and sports were the important things. It's where my Pop worked hard trying to support us five kids--Tony, Mike and John, me, and my younger sister, Josie. Today, Josie still lives in the Hill, in our old house at 5447 Elizabeth Ave.
Pop was the boss. He had rules and you'd better obey them. If you were late for Mass or forgot to go to Confession on Saturday afternoon, you'd catch heck. With Pop you better live up to your word. Tell him you'll be home a certain time, you better be there. Like when the 4:30 whistle blew at the Laclede-Christy brickworks. My job was to run to the tavern to get a turret of beer for him and bring it home. If the beer wasn’t on the table waiting for him, I’d be in trouble, and I knew it.
He never liked me playing ball. Being from the Old Country, he still wasn’t used to the ways of America. He didn’t believe you could make an honest dollar chasing after balls with a stick and a glove. "Baseball? A bum's game," he’d say. He'd always get mad if I came home dirty or with torn pants.
All the kids on The Hill lived for sports. We played in the street, in the schoolyard, and in the park. We played every game there was, soccer, baseball, corkball, football, even boxing.
Of course things got a bit tough during the Depression. Money was something you had to think about a lot. It bothered Pop that my brothers were more interested in playing than working. They were all real good ballplayers, too. Tony was the oldest, everyone called him "Lefty." He was a pitcher and outfielder, the best player on The Hill, and the Cleveland Indians wanted to sign him. But Pop said "No" and no it was. So Tony went to work in Ward's bakery. Mike and John were also real good amateur players--both the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns were interested in them. But Pop would have none of it. Mike got a job in the shoe factory and John waited tables at Ruggieri's. To Pop, these were honest jobs, something to depend on.
I still remember watching my brothers play--they were gifted players. When I was about 12 or 13 they played a barnstorming black team whose catcher was Josh Gibson. Mostly, though, I loved to play and that’s all I did. Me and Joe Garagiola, my buddy from across the street, organized a sports club called the Stags. We used splintered bats and taped-up balls and we played and played.
I didn't care much for school in those days. So after the eighth grade, I quit to go to work, like my older brothers. I worked in a coal yard, on a Coca-Cola truck, and Mike helped my get a job at the Johansen shoe factory. It helped put a few dollars in the household. But I never kept a job for long--it interfered with my ballplaying. I was playing American Legion ball when I was 15, that's when I first got the nickname "Yogi." A couple of years later, my Legion manager Leo Browne arranged for me to try out with the St. Louis Cardinals. But Branch Rickey, who was running the Cardinals, wouldn't give me a $500 signing bonus he gave to Garagiola. I thought I was doomed to work in some shop or factory, like my brothers.
But after the 1942 season, Browne told John Schulte, a Yankee coach who came from St. Louis, that the Yankees could sign me for $500. Schulte was going to come to our house with a contract. I couldn't have been more excited, or more depressed since I knew Pop wouldn't go for it.
I rushed home to talk to my brothers. That night after dinner, Tony, Mike and John had a long argument with Pop. They lobbied hard for me, saying it's what I had to do, it's my life, it's my chance. They kept saying baseball was a business, people pay to see it. And look at DiMaggio, he's Italian and making good money playing baseball.
My brothers might've been better players than me. But I was the lucky one. They ganged up on Pop that night, pleading him to give me the chance they never got. They even told him they'd work extra to bring home more money to make up for me. When Pop finally said yes, my life changed forever.
When someone asks me about my role model, that's easy. It's Tony, Mike and John, my older brothers. I’ve never forgotten their sacrifices. Not only of their own dreams, but of their efforts on my behalf. They were good men, dedicated to family their whole lives. They are all gone but I remain indebted. During my playing days with the Yankees, I once told Pop if he had let my brothers play he would’ve been a millionaire. He said, "Blame your mother."
Page created on 9/17/2006 12:00:00 AM
Last edited 9/17/2006 12:00:00 AM
Copyright 2005 by The MY HERO Project
MY HERO thanks Yogi Berra for contributing this essay to My Hero: Extraordinary People on the Heroes Who Inspire Them.
Thanks to Free Press for reprint rights of the above material.
ON THE BOOKS...
About Yogi Berra
Yogi Berra is an American original, almost as renowned for his inimitable philosophy as he is for his baseball brilliance. No other sports figure has more entries in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and no other player in the history of baseball has won more championship rings. Yet what truly makes him a beloved national treasure may be his humility, kindness and genuineness.
Perhaps no more unlikely-looking athlete ever strode onto a playing field. In fact, Yogi's squat, gnome-like body inspired caricature and jokes. Yet there was nothing funny about how he rose from barefoot sandlotter to Hall of Fame heights as catcher for the New York Yankees and one of the greatest dynasties in sports history.
Lawrence Peter Berra, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in St. Louis on May 12, 1925. He got his nickname when some of his childhood buddies saw a resemblance between him and an Indian fakir they’d seen in a movie. Though he quit school at age 14 to help support his family, he had a genius for playing the game that transcended his physical configuration. His unlikely baseball odyssey was interrupted by World War II, when he served in the Navy and participated in the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
In a playing career that spanned 17 full seasons (1947-63) and the "The Golden Age of Baseball," he appeared in a record 14 World Series, 10 of which the Yankees won. Astonishingly agile defensively, he was also one of the game’s greatest clutch hitters and won the Most Valuable Player Award in the American League three times. As a manager, he won pennants in both leagues, with the Yankees in 1964 and the Mets in 1973.
Despite becoming a national celebrity, Yogi has been delightfully unchanged by it all. He's faithfully devoted to his wife of 56 years, Carmen, and the rest of his family, which include three sons and 10 grandchildren. The values reflected in his life and accomplishments--respect, tolerance, and sportsmanship--inspired the creation of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, on the campus of Montclair State University in New Jersey, in 1998.
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