Today’s exploration of old cardboard is courtesy of Akim Reinhardt, a history professor at Towson University and, incredibly enough, given that his laudable academic accomplishments strongly suggest that he is not, or not entirely, a savage illiterate, also a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees. Despite this latter component of his identity, we have been friends for many years, and recently we decided to swap blog posts. Later today, on his blog, The Public Professor, I’ll be sullying with some of my fevered half-thoughts his collection of erudite meditations on art, sports, language, community, and whatever else catches his interest (such as jumping out of airplanes). Below, the Professor tackles the enigma of Berra the Younger. (Update: my guest post on Akim’s blog is now up.)
I. The Crown Prince
When people look at a Dale Berra baseball card, any number of things might strike them. For starters, he’s the son of New York Yankees legend, American sage, and Hanna-Barbera cartoon namesake Yogi Berra. Not only is Yogi a Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest catcher to ever play the game, but he’s a cultural icon who transcended sports through decades of witticisms and Yoohoo ads. For many people then, it is only natural to gaze upon Dale Berra and think of his famous father.
Emerging from behind the colossus of Yogi to grab a spotlight of his own was understandably difficult for Dale. And when he finally did make a name for himself, it was ignominious. For some people then, this card is a reminder that Dale Berra was once a poster child for cocaine running amok in pro sports. In fact, he did so much coke that it landed him a role as star witness at the infamous 1985 drug trials that revealed the Pittsburgh Pirates organization to have been knee-deep in Disco Dust during its late-70s heyday. Because of this public disgrace, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended Berra for the entire 1986 season, while Steve Howe was barely being punished for spreading the stuff all over his body like it were baby powder. The sentence was commuted when Berra agreed to pony up some money to an anti-drug program and do a couple hundred hours of community service. But it was all PR. In 1989, Dale Berra was indicted for being part of a northern New Jersey drug ring that distributed $15,000-20,000 worth of cocaine every week.
For Yankee fans specifically, this card may stir memories of Dale’s two seasons in New York. On the field he was lackluster, but off it he was the pivot around which Berra the elder had a brutal falling out with the Bronx Bombers. In 1985, George Steinbrenner promised Yogi that if he signed on to manage the Yankees, he would have the job for the entire season regardless of how the team performed. Yogi cherished the opportunity to manage his son Dale, who was nearing the end of an undistinguished career and had been traded to New York during the off-season. So the elder Berra made the mistake of taking Steinbrenner at his word. King George fired him after only sixteen games. The insult was so grave that Yogi Berra, the most beloved of all Yankee greats, swore off the organization so long as Steinbrenner was owner, refusing to even set foot in the cathedral of the Bronx.
When I look at this card, however, I don’t think about Yogi or coke or the infamous Steinbrenner carousel of managers. What stands out to me is the autograph. It seems carefully studied. This signature is far more elegant than the illegible, hurried scribble that typically garnishes a 3.5″ x 2.5″ piece of cardboard.
I imagine Dale Berra surreptitiously practicing on a page of looseleaf paper during 7th grade science class. Even then he knew a lesson on inert gases held no sway over his fate. After all, his father had earned three MVPs, ten World Series rings, and a first-class ticket to Cooperstown. A man like that casts a shadow long enough to blot out the periodic table. No, Dale Berra was of noble lineage, and he dreamed about growing up to be a New York Yankee, just like his dad. One day, he too would sign autographs for adoring fans, so he should practice now. No mere X would mark his spot. He required a John Hancock that lived up to the family name. Let the peasants study electrons.
For a while it seemed plausible. Despite his relatively slight physique, Dale Berra was Pittsburgh’s top draft pick in 1975. He tore through the minors and was still only 20 years old when he cracked the majors and began forging an 11 year career in the bigs, nine of them with the Bucs. However, he never lived up to his fabled name or elite draft status, and mostly he rode the pines as a utility infielder. He was a regular presence in the lineup card for only three seasons, and mustered a paltry .234 lifetime average. Berra did pick up a ring of his own in 1979 on the much beloved “We Are Family” Pirates team led by Willie “Pops” Stargell. But he was denied the opportunity to shine when it mattered most. Manager Chuck Tanner kept him out of the batter’s box during the entire Series. It would be the likes of Stargell, Dave Parker, and John “The Candy Man” Candelaria whom fans mobbed for autographs.
II. The Artiste
When I was a kid, I too practiced my signature, though it wasn’t about signing for imaginary fans. I had no royal lineage to live up to. My dad was captain of his highschool football team, but he lost his chance at a college scholarship in a gambling scandal during his senior year. And six years of little league revealed my own prospects to be quite dim. Rather, I worked on my signature because I’ve always been fascinated by penmanship and fonts. It’s as close as I get to being artistic.
As I’ve previously noted elsewhere, I can’t draw a straight line without a ruler and a stiff drink. Instead of canvas or stone, my artistic expression is relegated to the pedestrian, prescribed world of letters, and so I always wanted my signature to be unique and interesting. My first big opportunity came one early Saturday morning when I was about seven and my parents had me sign my Social Security card. It was a complete disaster. My hand wasn’t fully awake and it looked pretty bad even for a seven year old. I still have that original card and keep it in a fireproof lock box, along with other documents that someone will have to comb through should I croak unexpectedly.
By late highschool, I had established an “Akim D. Reinhardt” to my liking, deciding early on that the “D.” needed to be part of it. I remember feeling certified when I affixed it to a new public library card during my junior year. That version would last until my mid-twenties, at which point I made some adjustments and came up with my current scrawl. I now emphasize the big A and R, and kind of back into the final t with an assertive vertical stroke.
III. On the Dotted Line
Despite everything I’d put into building my signature, none of it mattered in 1995 when my friends Ofer and Michelle got married in the Jewish tradition. As a member of Ofer’s party, I was responsible for appending my signature to their ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract of sorts. But really, a ketubah is much more than that. It’s also a beautiful piece of calligraphic art, produced by the hand of a professional scribe who specializes in such matters, and who decorates the broad parchment with elaborate and elegant images. Signed just prior to the wedding ceremony by the couple and their witnesses, it is destined to be framed and hang on the wall of their home for the rest of their lives, announcing the sacred and loving bonds of their marriage to all who enter. In Hebrew.
When it came time to sign Ofer and Michelle’s ketubah, I had to get a refresher crash course in writing Hebrew, which I hadn’t done since my bar-mitzvah in 1980. I told the rabbi my Hebrew name as well as my father’s Hebrew name. Kenneth Lee Reinhardt of North Carolina, he of the highschool football gambling scandal, hadn’t been born Jewish. Rather, he converted after marrying my mother, and that is when he was given his Hebrew name. Of course I had no idea what it is, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not a hundred percent that he even knows anymore. Mostly he’d converted to placate his in-laws and to raise me Jewish. I don’t think I had ever heard it uttered.
I wasn’t happy about lying, but I rationalized it. I could have easily found out ahead of time if someone had told me, but there I was, on the spot, some rabbi asking me my father’s Jewish name. So I just made something up. “Mordechai,” I said. “My father’s Jewish name is Mordechai.”
Here’s hoping Ofer and Michelle don’t read this blog.
As the clock ticked down, I grabbed a pen and practiced writing Chaim ben Mordechai, in Hebrew letters, from right to left, on a piece of scrap paper. Fifteen years worth of rust showed. I began to sweat. This one was for the ages, and it was going to look as bad as that Social Security card. I took one more practice swing and then stepped into the box.
The rabbi said it was my turn and handed me a strong pen, the kind that would make a pleasant scratching sound on high quality paper. I was focused. I was ready. I was going to overcome the obstacles, clear my mind of the guilt and the lies, and somehow, someway, find it within me to sign Ofer and Michelle’s ketubah with elan and panache.
I found the zone. I was sitting dead red. I knocked the mud out of my cleats and dug in. I was ready: first ball-fastball, goin’ deep baby. Time slowed down as I moved towards the beautiful, sacred surface, and readied to put pen to paper, the brilliant blue ink on its tip glistening brightly in the sun.
And then suddenly hands from every direction were grabbing my arm forcefully and pulling it backwards. Men were distressed and shouting. A blur of bodies grappled with me as if I were Jack Ruby in a Dallas jailhouse, the smoke still drifting upwards from the nozzle of my revolver, and the ketubah were Lee Harvey Oswald clutching his stomach and screaming about being a patsy.
I had been so focused on authoring a beautiful, backwards autograph in foreign letters that I had lost track of what I was doing. I had nearly signed where the wife’s name goes. I had been that close to marring their beautiful parchment and, at least in some people’s eyes, marrying Ofer. No one was amused.
They verbally grabbed me by the lapels, slapped me around, and pointed me in the right direction. I signed. It was ugly.
All these years later, I finally had a chance to make a amends. Not to Ofer and Michelle, mind you. Those profane, chicken scratch lies are permanently displayed on their livingroom wall. Rather, on June 25th my dear friend Brenda married a wonderful man named Sean at a Quaker meeting house in northern Maryland. It was a gorgeous setting. The rich, blue sky was laced with the songs of twittering birds, and love was in the air as they were joined in holy matrimony. My opportunity for redemption would come at the end of the ceremony, when each person was to sign the large piece of linen paper upon which their wedding vows had been ornately scribed by hand. I was ready to go.
I had spent much of the actual ceremony, which in the Quaker tradition includes plenty of silence, looking out over the quaint, old cemetery abutting the meeting house, and pondering what extra, little design elements I might use to adorn my signature, which would be permanently enshrined on this sacred testament to Brenda and Sean’s eternal love. Perhaps I’d add a small, curved tail to the A. Maybe a slight, upwards tilt to the angle of the R.
As we lined up to sign, I felt good. It was a time for starting over and getting it right. After all, this was Brenda’s second marriage. If she could put the past behind her and promise to make everything beautiful this time around, why couldn’t I? And there were other good omens as well.
The person overseeing our signing of the vows was taking this as seriously as I was. She had even placed a piece of clear plastic over the paper, holding it perfectly parallel and just beneath each line as it was to be signed. The plastic acted as a guard against stray marks from shaky old people, irascible youngens, or anyone who might’ve gotten a jump start on the booze we’d be serving at the reception shortly thereafter in a Baltimore bowling alley.
After standing in line a couple of minutes, my friend Jennifer signed and then handed me the pen. My heart stopped and my confidence immediately evaporated. It was a fine point, felt tip. Did they really still make these things? They are almost impossible to wield gracefully. They’re stiff, they’re clumsy, and if you linger too long they blot ink in dark circles that expand slowly like blood from a gunshot wound in a Cormac McCarthy novel. Trying to write with this thing on thick cardstock would be like scoring glass with a razor blade.
It were as if the scrawny, mustachioed Dale Berra had somehow cracked the lineup during the `79 Series, but stepped to the plate only to find that he had to take his cuts with Willie Stargell’s mighty club. Stargell, who during his 22 year career hit some of the longest recorded home runs in baseball history, was famous for standing in the on-deck circle and swinging an actual sledge hammer that probably weighed as much as Berra.
I stood there with that dead piece of plastic in my hand and looked at strike three.
When I was done, I briefly stared at my herky-jerky scribble of jagged crooks and misshapen bends, and contemplated the nature of eternity. Then I turned around, defeated, and handed the pen to the next person.
Dale Berra might have been a light-hitting bench-warmer who couldn’t live up to his heralded family name on the field, and even disgraced it with his coke-riddled escapades off it. But despite all of that, when the ages beckoned, he knew how to lay it down it with style and flair on the face of a Topps baseball card. Dale Berra knew how to be immortal.