Read an Excerpt
The Life and Times of an American Original
By Carlo DeVito
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Carlo DeVito
All rights reserved.
Life on the Hill
Ellis Island was originally a small spit of land that barely rose above the water's reach during high tide. Because of its abundant and rich oyster beds and plentiful and profitable shad runs, Ellis Island was originally called Kioshk, or Gull Island, by the local Indian tribes. And for generations during the Dutch and English colonial period it became known as Oyster Island, as well as Dyre, Bucking, and Anderson's Island.
During the 1770s Samuel Ellis became the island's private owner. After Ellis's demise, the island became a hangout for pirates and was later named Fort Gibson, which was an ammunition and ordinance depot. It was eventually designated as the site of the first federal immigration station by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890.
From 1855 to 1890, Castle Garden in the Battery (originally known as Castle Clinton) served as the New York State immigration station, with approximately 8 million immigrants, mostly from Northern and Western Europe, passing through its doors. These early immigrants came from nations such as England, Ireland, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries and constituted the first large wave of immigrants that settled and populated the United States. Eventually, the docks at Castle Garden proved inadequate for numerous reasons, and a new location was needed to process new immigrants.
The island measured roughly 3.3 acres, but through the years, with the addition of landfill obtained from ship ballast and possibly excess earth from the construction of the New York City subway system, the small island mushroomed to 27.5 acres. The new immigration station on Ellis Island opened its doors on January 1, 1892. According to the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., "Annie Moore, a 15-year-old Irish girl, accompanied by her two brothers, entered history and a new country as she was the very first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island on January 2. Over the next 62 years, more than 12 million were to follow through this port of entry."
Certainly other American ports had similar offices, including Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, Savannah, Miami, and New Orleans. However, for major steamship companies, such as White Star, Red Star, Cunard, and Hamburg-America, the most frequent port of call was New York Harbor, making Ellis Island the main portal for immigration during that period.
"First- and second-class passengers who arrived in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship; the theory being that if a person could afford to purchase a first- or second-class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons," states the Foundation. "The Federal government felt that these more affluent passengers would not end up in institutions, hospitals, or become a burden to the state."
This was not the case, however, for steerage or third-class passengers. With few amenities and traveling in cramped quarters well below ship, these passengers were mostly poor, having either pooled their life savings, borrowed money, or spent every cent they had to cross the Atlantic to begin their new life in the New World. Few had anything but a name to point to in this strange new land, if that. Few spoke English or had a practical profession. These passengers were ferried over to Ellis Island for processing, including a health inspection and a mental examination. For those who seemed healthy and whose papers were in order, the three- to five-hour ordeal was uneventful. For those who did not seem healthy, their stay might be several weeks or longer.
* * *
In 1912 a diminutive Italian man standing 5'3" stood on the wooden deck of La Lorraine, an old passenger steamer, which had sailed from Le Havre, France. Built by Compagnie Generale Transatlantique in St. Nazaire, France, in 1899, La Lorraine was 580 feet long and 60 feet wide, had two funnels and two masts, and ferried 1,114 passengers across the Atlantic Ocean.
On La Lorraine's way to docking, the man looked up and, among a small crowd of other passengers, saw for the first time the largest and most famous statue since the Colossus of Rhodes. He saw the Statue of Liberty.
He stood, like the others, gazing at the statue and the skyline of this famous port city. The statue, with its green-copper cloaking, smooth lines, and flaming torch held aloft, was a symbol of a simpler time, when many people from around the world kicked the dust of Europe and other continents off their boots and prepared to make a new life in this new land.
It would not be easy. He did not know the language, like many of his fellow passengers of mixed extractions, but it did not matter.
Pietro Berra first saw the Statue of Liberty on September 28, 1912. Like so many other immigrants, he had come over in steerage class and was one of those who was taken by ferry to Ellis Island, where he was processed with the other poor of Europe. He was 17 years of age. The manifest says that he was on his way to see an uncle in St. Louis, Missouri.
Pietro had plans. He was coming to America to seek his fortune and eventually establish his family. He had been a tenant farmer in the small town of Malvaglio, approximately 25 minutes south of Milan. In Malvaglio, Pietro had courted a young girl named Paulina, and his goal was to make enough money to go back, marry this slight woman, and bring her to the New World.
After being processed, he left the East Coast and headed west to make his fortune. According to Yogi, "After he worked in Colorado and California, he got a job in St. Louis." In California his father worked as a farmhand. Eventually Paulina and Pietro were married, settled in St. Louis, and had a family.
* * *
In St. Louis, Pietro, like a number of other Italian immigrants, had found a home on the Hill — or, as it was called then, Dago Hill — a small but tight-knit low- to middle-income neighborhood of St. Louis. This was the Little Italy of that metropolitan area. Even up until the mid-1960s, the area was still popularly referred to as Dago Hill, but eventually this name was seen as degrading and offensive, and locals began to refer to it as simply the Hill. In fact, in 1961, in one of his numerous autobiographies, Berra pointed out that his family was referred to as "hill guineas, which is alright with me because everybody knows that's where the best Italian cooks come from."
Its streets, not unlike Little Italies in New York, Trenton, and Philadelphia, were dominated by small, brick row houses and dotted with barber shops, shoe and watch repair stores, and fresh produce and fish markets, as well as corner groceries, bars, and restaurants.
The Hill is located on high ground south of the River des Peres and Interstate 44. The neighborhood's traditional boundaries even today are Shaw Boulevard to the north, Columbia and Southwest Avenues to the south, South Kingshighway Boulevard to the east, and Hampton Avenue to the west. It was named the Hill because it was, in fact, the highest point in the city.
St. Louis historian Tim Fox wrote, "The area came to be dominated by Italian immigrants in the late 19 century, who were attracted by jobs in nearby plants established to exploit deposits of clay discovered" in the 1830s.
Pietro took turns working as a farmhand and construction gang member, and then he worked on the St. Louis Arena. Like many other new immigrants, Pietro eventually worked in one of the numerous factories. He and fellow Italian Giovanni Garagiola eventually settled in at the Laclede-Christy Clay Products Company, where they produced brick and other clay products. Pietro and Giovanni worked side by side, right near the fiery-hot kiln where the clay was baked.
On February 21, 1913, Giovanni Garagiola had arrived from Le Havre at Ellis Island. He, too, was headed for St. Louis. Giovanni and Pietro would become lifelong friends. Little did they know it, but their families would still be connected well after the turn of the next century.
In the beginning, Pietro and Paulina lived on Columbus Street. Their first child, Anthony, was born there around 1914. Three years later, Paulina was pregnant again. Homesick, she decided to return to Italy to visit family. While there, World War I broke out. Their second child, Michael, was born in Malvaglio. Mother and son would stay several years before returning. Then they had John in 1922, and on May 12, 1925, Lawrence Peter Berra was born in St. Louis. Pietro, by that time, had been a naturalized United States citizen for two years.
Pietro and Paulina had actually named their son Lorenzo Pietro Berra. But in their family's attempt to assimilate, like many European families, the names were translated into English. Neither Pietro nor Paulina could pronounce the English version of Lorenzo, which was Lawrence. At home he was called Lawdies. That was the best either parent could manage. Outside in the neighborhood, he was known as Lawdie, whether he liked it or not.
With steady factory jobs and ruthless saving, the family could eventually afford better accommodations and moved to 5447 Elizabeth Avenue, which was one of a new series of houses being built. Lawrence was five years old when they moved to this new house in 1930. It remained in the possession of Berra family descendants for almost the rest of the century. Giovanni Garagiola, his wife, Angelina, and their family moved into 5446 Elizabeth Avenue.
All the homes in the Hill were narrow row houses, which were usually owned by their residents. Many were passed down from parents to children and remained within families for generations. The houses were usually kept in good repair, well painted, and well cared for. Lawns were usually well tended, and the small backyards were dotted with vegetable and flower gardens. The Garagiolas had a bocce court in their backyard, where Pietro and Giovanni spent many afternoons and evenings together. Statues of the saints and members of the Holy Family adorned most plots. People spent lots of time talking over back fences. Most owners were factory workers, but there were small business owners, tradesmen, and a few professionals as well. Most people who lived on the Hill were Italian.
The area became known for the 39th Street Market, a produce market, and for the numerous little Italian restaurants that dotted the small enclave. The area was known for foods like John Volpe and Co., Home of Splendor Brand Italian Salami, and Mama Foscano's Home-Style Italian Ravioli, as well as restaurants like Cassani's and Ruggeri's. Residents of the Hill were fond of their restaurants, as were people from all over the rest of St. Louis, who eagerly sought out the foods and atmosphere.
Life in the Berra household was very much like it was in many immigrant Italian American households. Everyone worked. Everyone's earnings went into a communal pot to be distributed by the husband and wife jointly. Expenses were kept low, and money was continually and steadily — if not in great quantity — saved for important purchases and the costs of surviving old age. Times were tight during the Depression, and factory workers did not have the same unions and protections of the current age. These families had to manage their money carefully.
Pietro was the center of this family. Short and lean, he was nevertheless a powerfully built man whose musculature improved from the hard factory work of the period. And his rule, in his house, was law.
"Pietro ruled his little family with an iron hand," wrote Berra biographer Gene Schoor. "He was the old-fashioned Italian father. No one could have loved his children more, but he insisted on the discipline he had learned and lived under in the old country." No one dared speak the word "no" to Pietro in his own home. And corporal punishment was the norm.
According to Schorr, "Pietro enforced that law with his good, strong right hand." Paulina very rarely punished the boys herself, but would instead tell her husband about infractions of the family code, and Pietro would mete out the punishment.
Expectations were low and simple: live a good, clean life, work hard, make money, and support the family.
No one wore fancy clothes. Few women on the block ever bothered to look at ads for the stores downtown; instead, most of the women bought material from a Jewish dry-goods merchant named Gianin. He came through the neighborhood, selling his wares. Gianin was able to dicker with these women in their own dialects, be it Lombard, Sicilian, Piedmontese, or some other regional tongue.
As Mickey Garagiola, Joe's brother, remembered later, Christmas gifts the children received were usually fruit. "We didn't expect much," he said. "Maybe a new pair of pants. You wore those pants on Sundays and never to play ball." Everyone went to church together on Sunday morning — no exceptions.
Both Pietro and Giovanni went to bed around 8:00 in the evening and were generally up at dawn. Giovanni was especially fond of puttering around in his garden before boarding a truck bound for the Laclede-Christy Brick Works. Giovanni had another reason to be mindful of his garden. It turned out years later that he had been burying money in the garden, having become distrustful of banks during the depths of the Great Depression. This was a commonplace practice on the Hill in those times. When confidence was restored, many residents began digging up their savings and bringing their money to the bank. "It smelled to high heaven," Mickey said, looking back. The reason? Many used horse manure to help grow better tomatoes.
The center of activity in the Berra household was the kitchen. While breakfast and lunch might be rushed or chaotic, dinner was planned and, like church, everyone attended. Dinner was always a big event, whether during the week or on the weekend. But rules were rules. And the first rule was, no one reached for or grabbed anything until Pietro helped himself to whatever he wanted in whatever proportion he wanted. And no one was permitted to leave the table until he excused himself first.
During the week, bread and milk or coffee were the breakfast norm. Eggs were expensive and not normally served. Dinner meals consisted of meat and potato dishes, featuring liver, chicken, pork chops, or lamb chops. All these were served alongside of big bowls of piping-hot spaghetti, and lots of fresh bread.
According to Berra, Sunday dinner started early, with an antipasto loaded with luncheon meats such as salami, ham, balogna, capicola, and other Italian meats. These meats would be served with assorted slices of breads and rolls. It was not unusual for the Berras to go through five or six loaves of bread a day.
Antipasto was followed by the risotto course, which was served separately. Yellow or white rice, flavored with saffron and cheeses, was sometimes accentuated by different small pieces of meat or fish mixed in.
A salad always accompanied these meals: lettuce, cucumbers, scallions, radishes, tomatoes, and sometimes escarole. The salad was mixed with oil and vinegar and a little red wine, which Pietro made down in his basement.
"I used to like to help him with the wine," Berra said.
Pietro would load dark grapes into a barrel as Yogi cranked the press, creating a purplish froth and thick juice. They would leave it for a few days while it fermented, then drain just the juice into a galvanized tub before ladling it into small barrels. They would rest the wine for two months and then bottle it. While the whole family loved Pietro's wine, Yogi always stuck to milk.
After the salad, the two main courses were offered. There was always a chicken dish and an alternate meat dish, which varied. Sometimes it was roasted lamb, other times it was beef. And on special occasions, Paulina served her own homemade ravioli. Paulina always served side dishes of fresh vegetables, heaping bowls of steaming fresh string beans or carrots or lima beans.
Berra related that he once nibbled on bread during a meal without finishing his piece and left a large part of it on his plate. Pietro backhanded the young Berra in a flash.
"What did I do?" asked a shocked Lawdie.
"What do you think I buy bread for? To eat, not to waste!" glared the elder Berra. From then on, Yogi always ate everything he took.
Like many Italian neighborhoods, bread was a popular and important staple. It was not uncommon to hear the familiar call of "Andiamo due pane!" yelled out from bread trucks passing by. Fazzio's was a popular choice. Another was the Missouri Baking Company, which was owned by Stefano and Anna Gambaro. Lino Gambaro was friends with Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola and is still known in the neighborhood as "Uncle Lino" to family, friends, and customers.
As late as 1999, Lino looked forward to visits from his old, out-of-town friends when they regularly returned to the Hill.
Excerpted from Yogi by Carlo DeVito. Copyright © 2014 Carlo DeVito. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.