By Ann Liguori
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We've lost a national treasure, the last of the true baseball legends.
Every year, particularly the past several years, when I visited with Yogi Berra at his charity golf tournament, I wanted to be sure to tell him how special he was, to cherish every moment I had the opportunity to spend with him.
The visits were shorter and shorter as I didn't want to take up too much of his time. Everyone wanted to say hello, to express their love and admiration. And he was always gracious, willing to say hi, share a memory, a thought. He was a man larger than life with his accomplishments on and off the field, yet so sweet and humble.
I had the privilege of interviewing Yogi during the past 30 years for radio, television and in print. The interview we did for my series on The Golf Channel 20 years ago took place at Marsh Landing Country Club in Ponte Vedra, Florida, during a Heisman Trophy tournament hosted by the Downtown Athletic Club. I later included the interview into my book, 'A Passion for Golf, Celebrity Musings About the Game.' I wrote: "Yogi's team crushed opponents for over a decade. Can this humble, unassuming, humorous man of advanced age (he was 70 when I interviewed him then) hold most of the important batting statistics in World Series history? His records for games (75), at-bats (259), hits (71), and doubles (10) may never be broken. As the purported light touch to the glamorous Yankee teams of DiMaggio, Rizzuto, and the Mick, Yogi's penchant for reading comic books didn't obscure the fact that he caught just about every important pitch thrown in that era, when his team won ten World Championships in fourteen trips to the big show."
"Yet the cute, easygoing man, with an ugly golf swing that resembles his batting stroke, short and choppy, makes solid contact every time. He's crafty around the greens and as skilled with chips and pitches as he was at golfing low pitches out of the ballpark. Yogi grunts, groans, cheers, talks to the ball, and puts a little body English into shots that need help. In fact, Yogi talks to the golf ball as much as he talked to opposing batters. On one hole, he reached the fringe of the green about 160 yards away with a seven iron and yelled, 'Get Up!' When the ball crept up a few more inches, he replied, 'I'll take it!' Attempting a bump and run shot, Yogi yelled, 'Stopppp! Stoppp! And an over-aggressive putt forced a 'whoa horsey' and an 'Egads!'
At his annual charity golf tournament which eventually benefitted the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, Yogi would stay on a par-3 tee box and hit a shot for every foursome. One year, he had a hole in one! Another year, I saw him use both hands to play. When I commented to him that he hit righty and putted lefty, and said "I didn't know you were ambidextrous," he said, "I'm not Ann, I'm amphibious!"
Yogi shined on the field in a much simpler time. He was a symbol of an era long before money dominated the game. His passion on the golf course reflected the simpler times of his playing days, when ballplayers didn't carry the power they have today. His bond with his teammates was a love for the game. The complaints were minimal, they didn't whine in public, and they had a blast. Nowadays, as Mickey Mantle once told me, "The players bring briefcases to the ballpark. It's all business."
During one of our interviews, Yogi told me that the first year he played, he earned the "five thousand minimum." In the off season, he worked at the American Shop with Phil Rizzuto in Newark, New Jersey, in a clothing store.
I asked Yogi if he remembers his very first Yogism: He told me, "I think the first one was in 1947. I was with Bobby Brown in St. Louis. They gave me a car, and I asked Bobby Brown to write out a speech for me. He said, 'Just tell them thank you for making this night possible.' I got up there and said, 'I wanna thank everybody for making this night necessary.'"
Yogi was the Ambassador for the PGA Tour's Bob Hope Classic in Laquinta, California, for years. He made that event even more special. One of my highlights when I was invited to play in the tournament in 2011 was sharing the stage with Yogi Berra as we handled out the checks to various charities. He was so delighted to be there every January, visiting with everyone, and, in later years, riding around in the golf cart, talking to people, sharing the love. His enthusiasm was infectious.
I knew Yogi played golf with Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope and when I asked Yogi if he could play golf with anyone, who his favorite foursome would be, the man loved by all, replied, "I played with everyone. They're all fun. I liked playing with Mickey when his legs were all right. Johnny Bench plays good golf. Graig Nettles is a good golfer. Gene Michael's a good golfer but George (Steinbrenner) doesn't let him out much. ... Bobby Murcer's a hell of a golfer. ... I play with the hockey players. I play with the pros. The most fun I ever had, I played with Babe Zaharias. When I first joined the Yankees in '47, she used to live in St. Petersburg. We used to go out and play golf."
The man transcended baseball on many levels.
It's difficult to talk about Yogi in past tense. And we shouldn't. His memory and legacy will last forever. Thank you, Yogi, for being you. For not taking the game or life too seriously. For giving so much to others.
And thanks so much for being such a special ambassador and friend to so many people, including me.
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