To best describe fans’ devotion to Montclair’s most beloved Baseball Hall of Famer, you’d have to turn a well-known Yogi-ism inside out: Everybody still went there, even though the place was crowded.
“It was a wonderful tribute to Yogi and a testament to how he touched so many lives,” said David Kaplan, director of the Museum and Learning Center. “All the youth performers were remarkable. It was a beautiful day – Yogi probably ordered the great weather – to celebrate his life and legacy in a special way.”
More than 1,000 fans visited the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday afternoon to say goodbye and share memories of the 10-time World Series Champion. Many members of Berra’s family were on hand to celebrate Berra’s life with fans.
Local youth performers including Montclair High’s Passing Notes, Jazz House Kids, the New Jersey Youth Chorus performed, with Hillside’s Drums of Thunder ending the memorial with a final, memorable performance.
Family and Fans Remember Yogi
The afternoon was about more than just baseball. Family and fans spoke about Yogi’s generosity, compassion and respect for others. Deputy Mayor of Montclair Robert Russo, remembered Yogi would always advise him to bring people together. Longtime baseball analyst Ed Randall said Yogi was “wonderful, kind and generous. He was never a guy you had to know. It was like you knew him forever.”
Around 2:45 sons Larry, Tim and Dale Berra, as well as grandchildren Lindsay and Larry, reminisced about their dad and grandfather in the auditorium where Yogi used to watch many World Series games with his fans.
Grandson Larry led off the story session by reflecting on the breadth Yogi’s appeal saying that after he passed there was an outpouring of support. “I’m a schoolteacher and I was getting condolence emails from 13-year-old students of mine and 75 year old men.”
“He was just a normal, everyday grandfather,” Larry recalled. Onetime Larry stole a piece of fruit from his grandfather’s kitchen. Later, he recalled seeing Yogi in the kitchen signing bananas and saying “This fruit is mine.”
Yogi’s son Larry added. “That was dad. He was very methodical. He would always have his vodka at 5:30, not 5:29 or 5:31. He sat in one particular chair to watch TV, if you were in it, he’d say ‘Get out, you’re in my chair.”
Granddaughter Lindsay chimed in, “I did the South Beach diet when I was 27 years old. In that diet you were allowed to have 14 almonds as a snack. I mentioned that to grandpa.” Yogi adopted the practice and would count out 14 almonds and put them in little bags. “When Joe Torre was advertising for Bigelow Tea, he told grandpa about the benefits of green tea, so grandpa had to have his green tea every day.”
Half the Calories of Milk
In addition to being methodical, Yogi was a creature of habit.
“I came into the kitchen early one morning and saw him pouring half and half onto his cereal,” said Lindsay. “I started to think ‘don’t do that’ and wanted to stop grandpa, but grandma (Carmine) was gesturing behind Yogi, ‘No, no, no’. I was so confused,” Lindsay recalled. “So I went to the pantry where she had walked and she told me ‘Don’t say anything to him, he’s been doing this for 70 years. Somebody a million years ago told him that half and half was called that because it had half the calories of milk.’”
Tim Berra, who ran a Racquetball club in Fairfield with his father, remembered Yogi fondly.
“He put his name on that racquetball club and that was his palace. He ran it like clockwork. My dad was saying hello to everyone, folding towels, bringing them up from the laundry. We had a great time and it was very successful.”
Yogi’s leadership on the diamond carried over to his family, according to Tim.
“For me growing up he was such an inspirational character. You wanted to live your life the right way with dad there. I wish every kid in the world could experience that kind of thing with their father. There were very few things in my life more important than making my dad feel proud.”
Yogi was known for treating all players with respect. Lindsay gave fans some insight that.
“I remember having conversations with my grandma about that. Yogi was the son of Italian immigrants and he heard ‘dago’, ‘wop’ and all those derogatory things they’d called Italians in the 1920s and 30s. He knew what it was like to be on the end of that and he didn’t want other people to be in that situation. He was on the right side of the color line when it was the wrong place to be.”
Records can be broken and accomplishments can be surpassed, but Yogi’s values–teamwork, leadership, respect, treating people with dignity, inclusion, and sportsmanship are an enduring legacy, according to Museum director David Kaplan. “The number of people who came, and all different generations, reflects the impact the Museum & Learning Center will continue to have moving forward.”