Archive for the ‘Dale Berra’ Category

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Dale Berra

January 18, 2018

Dale Berra

The Indo-European root of the word euphoria seems as if it could also be the root of the word Berra. It’s bher. According to my American Heritage Dictionary, it means “to carry; also to bear children.” On October 8, 1956, the player shown here was being carried within Carmen Berra, who was attending a baseball game. The conclusion of this game offered up the template for baseball’s most resonant entry into the language of euphoria. The game was one of those rare instances in which the win itself is so staggering that it doesn’t seem to count until men are leaping on one another.

I’ve watched the end of this game and its aftermath several times. The pitcher, Don Larsen, perhaps still in the state of deep trance that allowed him to suddenly upend a relatively nondescript career with stunning brilliance, with perfection, shows little reaction at the moment of victory. After the final out, he takes two steps toward his dugout and then, as if sensing and wanting to avoid the maelstrom swelling up around him, begins to break into a slow loping jog.

Fortunately, Larsen’s catcher is up to the unique demands of the moment. After bouncing out of his crouch, he quickly motions with both hands, like a conductor or a choreographer, as if he’s trying to direct Larsen to follow the miraculous illogic of the moment and start floating. As he continues bounding toward Larsen he senses that his pitcher will not be capable of the unprecedented manner of rejoicing required, so he’s the one who leaves the earth.

We do this sometimes. We don’t stay up forever. We fly into one another arms.

We are carried.

***

No son can ever be free of the ghost of his father. Consider this 1980 card featuring a confident, handsome young man ready to take on life on his own terms. The back of his card lists a number 1 draft pick distinction alongside some promising minor league stats, but these intimations of future glory are crowded out by a large, artless cartoon sporting the obvious information connecting the young man to his father, who in addition to catching the only perfect game in World Series history and then creating with his leap into Don Larsen’s arms the template for baseball euphoria was also the winningest, most beloved player in major league history.

Dale Berra was himself a World Champion at the time this card came out, the recipient of a full share in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1979 World Series prize money despite being a September call-up who arrived to the team too late to be eligible for postseason play. In fact he was barred from even sitting on the Pirates bench in the playoffs. In the remaining seasons of his decent but unspectacular 11-year career, he wouldn’t get anywhere near a title again. Like the rest of us, he’d never get the chance to catch the final out of a season and leap into a pile of roaring euphoria.

***

My six-year-old and I sit side by side sometimes and yell and laugh and curse and bring one another back to life. We hold devices in our hands that allow us to control the movements of two cartoonish avatars of presumably Italian descent with mustaches not altogether dissimilar to the one worn by the young man shown here.

“Pop me out of a bubble!” my son squeals. And I jump up and free him and together we go on. But really it’s much more often that he’s freeing me. He has a knack for staying alive. I die easy, again and again, and because he’s alive I get to go on.

I thought about the two of us sitting side by side and playing and laughing tonight as I was sifting through the online traces of Dale Berra. Right up at the top of the Google pile for Dale Berra is an ad he’s in for Atari back in the mid-1980s, just when that kind of virtual living and dying was starting to take hold in the world. In the ad Dale Berra’s electronic altar ego, a hungry circle, is ceased by a ghost.

***

Dale Berra’s father was, among other things, a mediocre major league manager, at least by the measure of his lifetime record, in which his failures slightly outnumbered his wins. His final major league win as a manager brought his lifetime record to 292 wins and 293 losses. He went on to lose three more games before, as often happened with people in his position, i.e., the manager of the New York Yankees, he was abruptly fired. That final managerial success by Dale Berra’s father was surely heightened by the contributions of Dale Berra himself, who that year had become only the second player in major league history, after Connie Mack’s son, to play for his father in a major league game. Dale went 2 for 4 at bat and started a key double play in the field.

That was in 1985. Later that season another lasting association would get attached to Dale Berra’s name when he admitted to cocaine usage while he’d been a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. From then on, schmucks such as me with blogs and Twitter feeds and all the other ways in which to disseminate our shallow associations would think Dale Berra? 1. Yogi’s son. 2. Cocaine.

He tried it first as a very young man at a New Year’s Eve party to kick off 1979, a year that would crest with his team at the very top of the world. He liked the feeling. Who wouldn’t?

“It made me feel euphoric,” he explained.

***

My father was a brilliant student and scholar. I heard this from the friends he made in the 1950s and 1960s.

“We were all in awe of him,” his friend Marty said.

He had grown up very poor during the depression. His family had to suffer when his own father was unable to find work. The lack of work itself seemed to eat most deeply at my grandfather, who eventually took his own life, leaving my father without a father before he’d reached his teenage years. Who can say what burdens this puts on a person? All I know is that there were a couple of times along the way when my father came to a fork in the road, and down one road was a life of scholarship and financial uncertainty, and down the other road was a steady job. I believe the last of these forks came with the arrival of my older brother. My father had been in graduate school at NYU, but he stopped short of earning his masters, instead focusing on working full-time to support his new family.

Many years later, after he retired from a long and useful career as a sociological researcher for various state and city agencies, he used his NYU alumni status to get a card that allowed him entry to the NYU library on the south side of Washington Square Park. The card included a certain number of guest passes.

One day we went to the library together. I was gathering information for a young adult biography I was writing about Confucius. My father was researching whatever he was interested in, probably something having to do with Marxism or World Systems Theory. We sat at a table by a window several stories above Washington Square Park, both of us with tall stacks of books beside us, both of us silent, both of us reading. We were up above the trees, side by side, trying to understand, trying to know. We were both very much alive, and as long as I’m able to carry the memory we always will be.

***

The person I’m most drawn toward in the clip of the final pitch and ensuing celebration of Don Larsen’s perfect game is not Larsen or Dale Berra’s father but a figure who disappears almost as soon as the clip starts. It’s the pinch-hitter, who stands there for a moment in disbelief as the pitch is called a strike. It’s a somewhat famously blown call, but it was decided in that instant and forever after that we won’t really care so much about that. But the pinch-hitter does. He looks befuddled. The moment is famous for perfection, for joy, but life is not defined by those things. Life is for us most often what it is for the man at the plate whose name, according to an interview with Dale Berra by the baseball historian Bob Hurte, would be seized on by Yogi Berra’s wife, Carmen Berra, at that moment as just right for the child she was carrying.

Dale Mitchell checks his swing and, knowing the truth of the pitch he’s just let go by, turns toward the authority behind him, the ump, as if to appeal to him, but it’s too late. It’s just the same as if there’s no one there at all to look to, to beseech, to implore. And then this Dale is gone from the clip, leaving behind for the player on the card at the top of this page his name, to be joined with the other much more famous name from that moment, a preposterous combination, as if to be human is to be suspended in a thin bubble in midair somewhere between euphoria and knowing.

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Dale Berra (guest author: the Public Professor)

July 12, 2011

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.

IV. Eternity
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.