I did the impossible. I out-Yogi'd Yogi.
Yogi Berra, in addition to being a Hall-of-Fame catcher and owner of 10 World Series rings, is known for his malapropisms and his butchery of the English language. Some of those sayings may be apochrypal ("I really didn't say everything I said") and some may be fabricated ("Half the lies they tell about me aren't true"), but you get the point.
When I was a kid in the ‘60s, Little League banquets were a big deal. They were held in the fall, a few months after the season ended, and were a last chance to hang out with teammates and re-live the season. But that was secondary to the main attraction: a real live major-league player. Before players earned big salaries, many had to hold down jobs in the off-season and some made extra cash on the rubber-chicken circuit, appearing at Little League banquets, communion breakfasts and Rotary meetings. (Phil Rizzuto met his future wife, Cora, when he pinch hit for Joe DiMaggio at a communion breakfast). Usually, our guest of honor was some journeyman we had never heard of who happened to live within driving distance of the banquet.
The 1965 banquet would be bittersweet for me. It was my last year in Little League and I had a lot of trepidation about moving to the next level, where the kids were bigger, wore real metal spikes and threw the ball awfully hard.
My parents and I went the banquet hall and were engulfed by the bedlam of 100 pre-adolescent boys letting off steam. I glanced at the dais, expecting to see someone I had never heard of, and couldn't believe my eyes. There was Yogi Berra himself. While we kids were too young to have seen him in his prime, we knew all about him and his accomplishments, and some of us were still angry that the Yankees had fired him in 1964. Berra was dressed in a business suit and wore a World Series ring, the first I had ever seen. He was chatting with people, laughing and seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself. He had three sons around the same age as us hoodlums, so he seemed to be amused, not bothered, by the chaos around him.
The banquet proceeded as usual, and the chicken did taste like rubber. After dinner, Berra gave a brief talk, and I scarcely remember what he said. Next came the question-and-answer period. This was my chance to speak to Berra. I raised my hand and he called on me. If you have ever seen Ralphie's encounter with Santa Claus in "A Christmas Story," you can guess what came next. I froze and then blathered out a long-winded, incomprehensible question. As I spoke, I knew I was making little sense, and I could feel my face turning red.
When my question mercifully ended, Berra gave me a smile and said, "That sounds like something I would say," and the audience roared. I didn't care. Berra said it with a twinkle in his eye and warmth in his voice. In retrospect, I can see that it was the compassion of someone who knew what it was like to be in the position that I had put myself in. He let me up easy, and I was in heaven because I had spoken to Yogi Berra. He answered all the questions that night with honesty and graciousness. He made us kids feel 10 feet tall.
As the banquet ended, Berra went to the bar for a nightcap. Our fathers - all big Yankee fans - followed, abandoning us kids to fend for ourselves in the banquet hall. My father had worked in newspapers for years and was not unduly impressed by celebrities, yet when he came back to the hall, he was glowing (and not from anything he had consumed at the bar). The whole way home, he gushed about what a great guy Berra is and how comfortable he had made all the fathers feel. He was genuinely touched by just how down to earth Berra had been. I don't know who was more pumped up, my father or me.
Whenever I read a story about Berra, I can't help but think about that night. He's a Hall-of-Famer in my book for more reasons than batting average, home runs and World Series rings.