“It ain’t over, till its over”
— Yogi Berra
Yogi Berra was an important Met. He played for them, he coached them and he managed them. Maybe he didn’t win a World Championship as their manager and maybe the team almost ran itself with the collection of veterans and starting pitching it had in the early seventies. But still….he was the manager and he was, after all, Yogi.
In 1965, Berra signed a contact to be a player-coach with the Mets. There is a story that Berra, at age 39, caught the team’s other player-coach, Warren Spahn. This isn’t true. Although Berra started two of his four games at catcher for the Mets and although Berra did appear in the same game with Spahn on May 5th, he only pinch hit. In the eighth inning of that game, as a pinch hitter for Chris Cannizzaro, Berra grounded out to first base. Jesse Gonder then caught the ninth inning. Berra still managed to get in a legendary quote about the possibility of catching Spahn…he said that he didn’t think they would be the oldest battery ever, but that they would certainly be the ugliest. After only four games and nine plate appearances, Berra hung up his cleats.
Berra remained with the organization after he retired and he was the only coach Gil Hodges retained when he became manager in 1968. In 1969, he coached first base for the World Champion Mets. Of that team, Yogi said, they were the “overwhelming underdogs”.
In 1972, Yogi kept us going after the heart-breaking loss of Hodges. He took the managerial reigns before the start of the season. The Mets introduced him at the same conference where they announced that they had acquired Rusty Staub from the Montreal Expos in exchange for Ken Singleton, Mike Jorgensen, and Tim Foli. The Mets also added Willie Mays and Jon Matlack to their roster that year.
In 1973, the team staged a late-season comeback and beat the Cincinnati Reds to make it to the World Series again. Its been said that if Tom Seaver was held back for a possible game seven that year, the Mets might have won. The story goes, however, that Seaver convinced management that he should start game six with the Mets holding a 3-2 game advantage. If Berra had resisted, held back Seaver, and started George Stone in the sixth game, then we might have beat the Oakland A’s that year. That didn’t happen though and the Mets dropped games six and seven.
In July of 1975, the team endured a well-publicized drama which played out between the ball club and their long-time left fielder, Cleon Jones. As the relationship between player and the organization slowly unraveled, Berra remained in the middle, as field manager. A refusal by Jones to take the field after a pinch-hitting role eventually escalated into his suspension and release. Two weeks after Jones was released, the team fired Yogi Berra. Roy McMillan took over as manager the next day. At the time, Chairman M. Donald Grant said that the decision to fire Berra had been “hanging over their heads for some time”. A story surfaced that Tom Seaver had privately met with Grant and said that Berra “commanded no respect from the players”. Years later, Jerry Koosman said that “Yogi ran a looser ship. He wasn’t as strict as Gil….There was always a little stretching of the rules here and there when you run too loose a ship, and it kind of gets away from you.” Jon Matlack said that “Yogi was easy to play for. He was hard to understand when he came to the mound but he was easy to play for…I think Yogi was Yogi.” Bob Apodaca said that, “he was a players’ manager. Very relaxed. Very few rules. Just be on time, play your butts off and be prepared….If you couldn’t play for him, you couldn’t play for anybody.”
Berra didn’t leave baseball after he left the Mets. In fact, he was in the Houston dugout for Game Six of the Mets’ exhilarating victory against the Astros in 1986. Eventually, he also mended his relationship with his original organization, the New York Yankees. In September of 2008, Yogi came back for the last game ever played at Shea Stadium. He and Gary Carter stood there together. Both wearing the same famed number “8″. Carter’s arm around him. Certainly, he spent 18 years playing for the Yankees but you know what, he was a New York Met too.
Happy belated birthday, Yogi from all of us Mets fans. Many of your milestones are ours as well.