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by Yogi Berra
Don't compare them because you can't. It's impossible to compare eras and say today's players are better or worse. How would our Yankee teams compare to other great Yankee teamshow would I know? What's true is each had something in common: good players. Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle were great, that's for sure. But what people forget is how much each guy loved the game. Each gave everything he had to baseball. Each helped make Yankee history and tradition. It's a tradition I'm lucky and proud to be part of.
Funny, where I grew up, nobody cared or knew about the Yankees. Growing up in St. Louis in the 1930's, all we knew were the Cardinals and Browns, and maybe we liked the Cardinals a little better because they were. In the later years of the Depression, the W.P.A. ran an instructional clinic at Sherman Park and some of the Cardinals players would come and talk to a bunch of us kids. And Joe Medwickmy favorite player happened to be a regular customer when I was a 12-year-old newspaper hawker on the street corner.
All summer all we did was play baseball. Those were the days. Occasionally a lady on our street, Mrs. Domenica, would take us to Sportsman's Park to see those Cardinalsthe Gashouse Gang. We'd sit in the leftfield grandstand and see Medwick, Dizzy Dean and Frankie Frisch, but to be honest, I always preferred playing than watching.
The Yankees? Babe Ruth might as well as been a cartoon character because he didn't seem real. There was no TV then and all you heard and read about Ruth is being this great popular character who hit monster home runs. Never saw him play nor did I ever see Lou Gehrig. Gehrig emerged as a star in 1925, same year I was born.
When I started following baseball in the 1930's, Italian-American players were a rarity. I did notice the Yankees had Tony Lazerri, Frank Crosetti, Joe DiMaggio, but it was the Cardinals who fired my imaginations and big-league dreams, especially me and Joe Garagiola, who grew up right across the street from me. When the Cardinals held tryouts in Sportsman's Park in the summer of 1942, it was a great thrill. Me and Joe dreamed of making the Cardinalsand Joe's came true. After the tryout Branch Rickey, the Cardinals general manager, gave Joe a $500 signing bonus. Me? I got discouraged. Rickey told me I'd never become a major-leaguer.
What I didn't know was that Leo Browne, who ran our American Legion program, told George Weiss, the Yankees farm director, about me. After the Cardinals beat the Yankees in the World Series that October, Weiss told the Yankees bullpen coach John Schulte, who lived in St. Louis, to check around on me. So one day Schulte came to our house, said he'd never seen me play, but had talked to some people. He was willing to offer me the same $500 to sign with the Yankees organization, and $90 a month to play for Norfolk in the Piedmont League. My father didn't want me to play ball. My brothers finally convinced him to give me the chance. So he signed it. I was 17 and joining the New York Yankees organization. I hadn't a clue what lay ahead.
After playing in Norfolk in 1943, I served in the Navy, then joined Newark, the Yankees' top farm team, in 1946. Being short and blocky, I wasn't your classic-looking ballplayer. But I could always hit pretty good, and liked to hit bad pitches. There were a lot of stories written and said about me, not all of them true. One true one is when I first walked into Yankee Stadium in my Navy uniform on a weekend liberty, someone said I didn't look like a ballplayer. Peter Sheehy, the clubhouse manager, said I didn't even look like a sailor.
And in spring training 1947, one of the writers told Bucky Harris, our manager, "You're not really thinking of keeping him, are you? He doesn't even look like a Yankee." All the teasing and razzes never bothered me. If you have pride, that's all that matters. I had a real pride in being a Yankee, being part of something that was awfully good. Like I said, maybe it's something about the uniform.
What I know is all my years on the Yankees we were a tight-knit team, everybody pulling for each other, never any jealousies. We wanted to win, bad. Sure we had some pretty good ballplayers. When I came up we had DiMaggio, Henrich, Rizzuto, Keller, not too shabby. Those guys made a lasting impression on the young guys. Nobody played harder, nobody did that little extra better than them. They took the game serious and instilled that pride. When Casey Stengel became our manager in 1949, he did the same. "Don't ever forget," he told us, "once you put on that shirt with the Yankee emblem on it, you become a Yankee and you stay a Yankee. Great things are expected of you just because you're wearing that uniform. Don't ever let it down."
There's no other place like Yankee Stadium, either. I learned that real quick. Two weeks into my rookie year was Babe Ruth Day. He had throat cancer and was pretty weak. His voice was like a whisper and he wasn't up to putting on his old uniform. But just seeing him was enough. This was the greatest player ever, the reason they built Yankee Stadium, and I just got chills watching him. Then he said farewell. Never thought I'd see him again.
A couple of months later, we were playing the Browns in St. Louis and Ruth came to Sportsman's Parkanother stop on his farewell tour. Before the game, a photographer grabbed my arm and told me to take a picture next to Babe. I didn't know what to say I was so nervous. Then Babe put his hand out to me. He said real softly, "Hiya kid." A year later he was gone.
I played a number of games in right field in my rookie year. A few times I thought about Babe, since I was standing where he stood. In 1949, the Yankees brought in Bill Dickey as a coach and to help my catching. He was a great player and a teammate of Babe's and Lou Gehrig'sand probably Gehrig's closet friend. Once I asked Dickey about Gehrig since I'd never seen him play. He told me he was the most serious-minded and best competitor he ever saw. Could outmuscle any pitch and was strong as an ox. He played all those games because it was his job and the team needed him. How can you not respect that? I was surprised when Dickey told me Gehrig got jittery before World Series games. But like Dickey said, he wouldn't be human if he didn't.
DiMaggio once told me when he first came up, Gehrig always made him feel welcome. He was just a kid, a long way from home, and I think he had a good influence on him. Nobody I knew played the game with the heart DiMag showed.
People laugh when I said Dickey learned me his experience, but Gehrig helped Dickey as a young player, too, and that's part of that traditionsomeone's always giving help and advice. When Phil Rizzuto first came up in 1941 he was trying to take the shortstop job away from Frank Crosetti. And the guy who gave him the most help and advice was Crosetti.
I played with DiMaggio for five years and there wasn't anything he didn't do perfect. Sure he was quiet, but not silent. He wasn't one to get up on a soapbox or preach a sermon. We all kind of left him alone; I could still see him drinking his coffee and smoking his cigarettes by his locker, by himself. But he'd join in card games on the train and some of us would go out to eat with him, if he asked you. He just didn't like to be bothered a lot. Kept a lot of feelings to himself. One time I couldn't resist playing a gag on him. He was at his locker opening his mail and out popped a long, squirmy worm. For some reason, DiMag knew it was me and started chasing me around the locker roomwe had a good laugh over it.
The main thing is DiMag cared so much about winning. Did everything right. Played hurt. Expected everyone to bust their butt, too. And if you didn't he'd let you know.
He was always great with me. Him and Tommy Henrich were still connected to the great teams of the 1930s, and they made sure the younger guys did things the Yankee way, the little things. Hit to the opposite filed. No mental mistakes. Always hustle. Never get down on yourself.
DiMag was real class. Always came to the ballpark in those tailored suits, very businesslike. I think his desire rubbed off on everybody. I'll always remember 1949 when he missed the first 65 games we played. He had that bone spur in his heelit was almost impossible to walk without pain. Then he joined us in Boston, our biggest rival, and helped us sweep the series. It was almost unbelievable. He hadn't played all year and then played like he hadn't been away. Even the Red Sox fans cheered him.
Nineteen fifty-one was DiMag's last year and Mickey Mantle's first. I don't know what you can say about Mickey except he was as good a teammate you could have, one heck of a guy. Boy we had fun. I still miss him, too. For raw talent, I don't think Mickey ever knew how good he was. Nobody had his mix of power, speed and good baseball sense. He was lightning-fast when he first came upfastest guy I'd ever seen. Then he has those knee injuries; there no telling how much more he could've done if he had two good legs. Darn he was strong. He swung so hard and he'd hit those huge home runs. He'd hit them 600 feet and I'd hit them half that and remind him they still count the same. Well, he liked to put on a show. Guys in the other dugout would stop everything to watch him in batting practice.
Mickey was a tremendous competitor. Tremendous desire. Always wanted to play no matter how bad he hurt. For years he batted third, me fourth, and I'd see him almost with tears in his eyes he was hurting so bad. But he playedplayed more games as a Yankee than anyone.
Sure he liked to go out in those dayswe all didhe and Whitey asked me to stay out late with them. But I'd always leave around 11told them they didn't have to catch the next day, but I did. Once Mickey got on me that calling a game wasn't too tough, so one day I arranged for him to call the signs from centerfield. Then I'd relay his signalsif he stood up it was a fastball, if he bent down it was a curveto Whitey. By the seventh inning, I think we were ahead 2-0, and Mickey came over to me in the dugout and said, "I got you this far, now you finish." Told me he didn't want the pressure of calling a wrong pitch that would cost us.
People always think Mickey and Roger Maris were rivalsthat's wrong. It was a great thing when they hit all those homers in 1961. Sure they wanted to break Babe Ruth's recordwhat athlete wouldn't? We really didn't care who hit more, as long as we won. There's nothing Mickey wouldn't do for youhe cared about the game so much, cared about his teammates better than anyone I ever knew. Even when I became manager in 1964, Mickey busted his tail. Had a great comeback season, playing hurt the whole time. Remember the World Series and that homer off Barney Schultz in Game 3? Well, right before he got up, he told me if he was going to hit it out. Then he hit the first pitch into the upper deck.
Like I always say, I was born at the right time. I was lucky to play with the Yankees. If I had to do it over again, I'd do it again. There's such a tradition of success, so much history. Every person who walks in Yankee Stadium knows it and sees it. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, what can you say? They were the best. They said they felt lucky to be Yankees, too.
Copyright © 2006 by The New York Times Company