'I GOT A TOUCH LIKE A BLACKSMITH'

Yogi Berra, the switch-hitting golfer, was speaking of his putting in Pinehurst last week. But that defect should not handicap him at all as new manager of the Yankees
November 11, 1963

They sat in a circle on the lawn of the old and comfortably elegant Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst, N.C., 12 business and professional men on their annual golfing holiday. All were members of the White Beeches Golf and Country Club of Haworth, N.J. They were pleasantly dog-tired after 18 holes on one of the five courses that fan out from the clubhouse of the Pinehurst Country Club. All had slept fitfully on the rocky train ride from New York the night before, although one of their number, Dr. Edward N. Bookrajian of Tenafly, N.J., had prescribed sleeping pills all around.

They were silent, drinking in the beauty of the starlit night and the soft breeze that now and again sent a leaf fluttering down from the aged trees. It was one of those moments that is savored best when a man is weary from a day well spent.

There was a celebrity in the group, but he was not being treated as a celebrity here. Perhaps that was why his homely handsome face was creased by a faint smile of contentment. For here, on the lawn in Pinehurst, he was with friends and neighbors and golfing pals. He was Larry, one of the gang, and only incidentally Yogi Berra, the new manager of the New York Yankees.

He needed this respite, this company. That is not to say that he had not taken pleasure and pride in the way things had gone a few days before when he faced the largest press conference in Yankee history. He had been frankly apprehensive about this occasion, but once he had mounted the podium (he stood on a box to clear the cluster of microphones) he had responded good-naturedly to the cries or the cameramen, fielding the questions of the reporters with poise and grace and enough uncalculated Berraisms to brighten the uniformly enthusiastic press notices that followed. Takeaway Harvard, and President Kennedy himself could not have done much better. Moreover, like the President, Yogi made repeated use of a press conference word that he obviously intends to favor on such occasions. President Kennedy's word, as the whole country knows, is "judgment." Yogi's new word is "actually," a stylish preface to almost any reply—a word, in fact, that would take a man the length and breadth of England without the necessity of uttering so much as another syllable. "Actually," said Yogi at his first press conference, "it wasn't much of a cut." He was referring to his salary, which, it is reliably reported, will be $35,000 next season, a $10,000 drop from his 1963 salary as player-coach and $20,000 less than the top figure he received at the peak of his playing career.

Yogi broke the silence of the circle on the lawn.

"Eight years," he said. "Eight years I've been coming down here. This place gets better all the time. And my golf gets worse."

"Larry," said John Mahmarian of Oradell, N.J., a six-handicap golfer (Berra's handicap is 13), "you're not getting the distance on your drives that you used to get. You used to hit a very long ball."

Yogi nodded. "I'm not getting the distance."

"You know what you're doing? You're turning your head on your backswing. You're swinging that club like it was a baseball bat."

"I'm hooking and I'm slicing," said Yogi. "I'm in the woods all the time. I'm liable to get bit by a snake."

"You're looking up on your iron shots. You're looking up even before you hit the ball."

Yogi scowled and smacked the arm of his chair. "I got to stop looking up. I just got to do that. Why can't I remember?"

"And you were pretty heavy-handed on the greens, Larry."

"I know, I know," said Yogi. "Putting, I got a touch like a blacksmith." (Yogi is a rarity in golf: a switch-hitter. He swings right-handed with his woods and irons, putts left-handed.)

Francis D. Murphy, a New York attorney who lives in Fort Lee, N.J., suddenly jumped to his feet. "Objection!" he cried. "Let the boy up. Naturally he was off his game today. He was tired. He's been through a lot." He tapped his head. "He's got a lot on his mind."

The group fell silent again. Somebody yawned, and there were yawns all around. But the group seemed reluctant to call it a day and head for the suite, which included six connecting double bedrooms and a spacious sitting room. For the first time the subject of Yogi's new job as manager of the Yankees came up.

"Who are your coaches going to be, Larry?"

Yogi shook his head. "I don't know. Actually, I don't know. If I knew, I'd tell you fellows."

"Well, now, Larry," said another voice from the darkness, "do they pick your coaches for you? Houk, will he tell you who your coaches are?"

"I pick the coaches," said Yogi, raising his voice ever so slightly. "If I couldn't pick my coaches, I wouldn't take the job."

"Larry, wasn't it kind of lousy of them to promote you to manager and then cut your salary?"

"That doesn't bother me," said Yogi. "Actually, I'm a rookie all over again. I got to find out if I'm a manager. And like I said in New York, if I find out I can't manage, I'll quit."

"Does that mean you have to win the pennant again—to prove to yourself you can manage?"

"No. I could prove I can manage and still not win the pennant. But I think we will win the pennant. And if we do and if I'm satisfied with me, I can talk money and maybe a two-year contract. One year was all I wanted to start."

"There were stories in the papers that you got the job because they wanted to humanize the Yanks. A lot of people don't like the Yanks. They say they're too cold-blooded. They say they're putting you in there to help the gate because you got a big following and you get a lot of publicity for the club and a lot of laughs from the sports-writers. They say the Mets and Stengel have got them scared. They say with the new stadium, the Mets could outdraw you next year."

"Well," said Yogi, "if I help the gate, that's fine with me."

"But, Larry, reading between the lines, the idea was that you were going to be a kind of straw boss, with Houk really running the club."

"If that was true," said Yogi, "I'd quit right now. But it's not. I knew I was being considered for the job since spring training. I had a lot of long talks with Ralph. He showed me a lot about managing. Then, when I got the job, he said. 'You're the boss. It's your club, win or lose. If you ever want to talk anything over, fine. If you never come around, fine.' That's the way it is. That's the way it's going to be. I mean as far as running the ball club on the field is concerned. Actually, we'll talk over players we might want to bring up, like that. I'll be talking to Ralph when I get back. We got some great prospects on the farm clubs. We figure to take 17 pitchers to spring training."

"Larry, the news that you were the manager of the Yankees must have been a big sensation back in your old neighborhood in St. Louis."

"I heard," said Yogi, "that they had drinks on the house at Ruggeri's, where I was headwaiter once, and at Charley's place and at Fassi's. They're going to get up a big delegation to go to Kansas City for our first series there. People said it was the biggest thing—outside Joe Garagiola making it big in radio and television—that has happened on the Hill since they put in the pension plan at the brickyard where my pop worked."

Yogi smiled. "I heard the old folks on the Hill were saying, 'Il figlio di Pietro è il padrone.' That means, 'Pete's boy is the boss.' Pete was my father's name. He was against me and my brothers, Tony, Mike and John, playing ball. But Mom was on my side, and when the Yanks offered to sign me for a $500 bonus she talked Pop into letting me go. He didn't want to. He said I should get a regular job and bring home a paycheck every Saturday night. But Mom talked him into letting me sign. The Yanks sent me to Norfolk. That was real rough. I got $45 every two weeks. I couldn't get by on it. I had to write to Mom for money. She'd send it without telling Pop. Finally, when I made it pretty good with the Yanks, my brothers went to Pop and said, 'You see, Pop? Laudy' (they called me Laudy at home) 'made it big. Now if you had let us play ball too, you'd be rolling in money, you'd be a millionaire.' You know what Pop said? Pop said, 'What are you talking to me for? I was for it all the time. Go to your mother, she was the one who wouldn't listen to me!' "

It got a good laugh. Yogi stood up and stretched. "I'm going to pick up the papers and go upstairs. I got to make a long distance call."

"Where to?" asked Ed Dawe.

"California," said Yogi, strolling a way.

"California," mused Ed Dawe of Montclair, N.J. "Now, who is he calling in California?"

"I'll bet it's Crosetti," said Sandy Cerami, an automobile dealer from Ridgewood. Crosetti lives in California. "Larry's probably going to ask Frank to stay on as coach."

They drifted off to bed, singly and in pairs, but some of them—Eddie Marck of Dumont, Bob Dinkins of Woodcliff Lake, John Massari of Middletown, Stanley Aragona of Tenafly, John Ravaschio of Oradell, and Mickey Cullere of Dumont—took a final turn around the grounds.

Next day they were like new men. Bright-eyed and rested, Yogi Berra was at the 8 o'clock Mass at Sacred Heart Church. The service was brief as services usually are at resorts and, instead of a sermon, the pastor limited himself to an announcement that two collections would be taken up to help along the campaign for a new roof.

Yogi was better at golf that afternoon, his drives truer, his putting improved. He dubbed some iron shots, and once he hurled his club with all the fury of a Tommy Bolt. Once he sliced deep into the rough and yelled, "Timber!" Once, asked for his score on another hole, he growled, "The number on my back." The number on the back of his Yankee uniform is eight. But for all of that, he was in the high 80s for the round.

Now that everyone was rested, the nights were given over to gin rummy and some moderate drinking. Baseball talk kept creeping into the conversation despite all the protestations that this was to be a nonbaseball holiday for Larry.

"I'm at the stadium one day," someone said. "A man walks, Mantle's up, hits the first pitch and grounds out. Should Mickey have waited the pitcher out if he was getting a little wild? Shouldn't the take sign have been on?"

"Not with a power hitter like Mantle," said Yogi. "Mickey hits on his own. Maris, too."

"Will you be calling pitches, Larry? You know the hitters better than anybody on the club."

"I wouldn't second guess my catcher," said Yogi.

"Will you miss talking to the umps?"

"I kind of think I'll be talking to them once in a while."

"You going to bring the lineup cards out to home plate or send them out with a coach?"

"I'll take them out," said Yogi.

"Man, the first day you do, the fans are going to tear the roof off the Stadium. Everybody's pulling for you, Larry."

Yogi frowned and, half to himself, he muttered, "I think I can manage. But I got to find out. Handling the players, I'm not worried. Like Joe Garagiola says, 'You got their respect, you don't have to win it, you can only lose it.' I don't blow my top often, but I can get mad, I can be firm, I can put my foot down if anybody gets out of line. I don't know. Eighteen years with the Yanks, a catcher's got to learn something."

The third day of golf was the best yet. Everyone was relaxed and playing better, including 13-handicap Yogi Berra. But, as it happened, he and Eddie Marck were matched with two of the best golfers of the group, John Mahmarian and John Ravaschio. Yogi and his partner were soundly beaten. John Ravaschio was the star of the match with a 76 that included some shots that would have done credit to Nicklaus or Palmer. He came off the 18th green enormously pleased with himself, although he tried hard to dwell modestly on a couple of bad shots. A sudden inspiration came to Yogi Berra and his friends. They decided that Ravaschio was ripe for "a tank job," a frame-up in which his own partner would do everything he could to throw the match and the gallery would cooperate by every evil means possible. Yogi and Cullere challenged Ravaschio and Mahmarian (who was, of course, in on the joke) to a nine-hole match for an $800 side bet. Ravaschio, flushed with success, didn't hesitate an instant. They teed off immediately.

With everyone conspiring against Ravaschio, it seemed reasonably certain that Yogi and Mickey would win. But despite everything, Ravaschio was hotter than ever. Golf carts raced ahead of him, and his ball was kicked into the rough or a sand trap. They beat him to the green and moved his ball away from the cup. His partner putted atrociously. When Ravaschio putted, half the gallery was seized with coughing fits and the other half jammed the brakes on their golf carts. On the 9th tee it was getting dark and, by the time the foursome reached the green, Ravaschio had only the moonlight as he holed out for a 37.

The gag was revealed back in the suite at the Carolina after everyone had a drink in hand. Attorney Frank Murphy paid eloquent tribute to Ravaschio's golfing prowess, described him glowingly as a sportsman and a gentleman. Murphy concluded by saying, "Finally, my dear John, I must tell you that you have been had, you have been in the tank—we were all in on it—and, dear friend, you do not get $800. You do not get a dime. Gentlemen, let us drink to John Ravaschio!" The victim, who knew all about tank jobs, shook his head and said, "I only got suspicious once. Remember when I said, 'Who am I playing with—the Marx Brothers?' "

"Ah, yes," said Attorney Murphy. "That worried us for a minute. We thought you were wise." Murphy raised his glass and drank deeply. He was obviously pleased with his little speech. Immediately, there was a huddle at the far end of the toom. It was agreed: Attorney Murphy would be cut down to size—he would be framed at gin rummy that very night.

Early next evening, Yogi Berra stood on the veranda of the Carolina. He was asked about his immediate schedule after Pinehurst.

"First," he said, "I'm going to sit down with Ralph Houk and go over the roster and see what players we want to take to the early camp and talk about some good prospects we've got at Richmond and some of the other farms. I'll spend all the time I can with my family. Then on November 18 I got to go to Dallas for the Yoo Hoo convention. [Yogi is vice-president of the Yoo Hoo company, which makes a chocolate drink.] Yoo Hoo is going very good, we ought to sell 2 million cases this year. Well, then it won't be long before the minor league meetings in San Diego and the major league meetings in Los Angeles. I got to make some trips out with the Yankee Caravan. We'll go around Connecticut and New Jersey."

"Does that mean speech making?"

"No. I can't make speeches yet. But getting up answering questions about baseball, I don't mind that. Actually, I kind of like it. There's nothing tough about answering questions when you know what you're talking about."

And the golfing blacksmith knows his baseball.

PHOTO PHOTOROBERT HUNTZINGERTAKING THE FAMILIAR STANCE HE HAS ASSUMED AS A CATCHER FOR YEARS, YOGI LINES UP A PUTT ON HIS GOLFING HOLIDAY

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)