Part of me always thought Yogi Berra would live forever. He was a link back to the very first important post-War sets (1947 Tip Top and 1948 Bowman rookie card) to the modern era when you could usually find a few throwback cards in Topps issues. There always seemed to be accessible sets featuring Lawrence Peter Berra.
Just think, if you were eight years old in 1948 and just beginning to enjoy the thrill of chewing that gum out of baseball card packs, you would be 75 years old today and Yogi would have been part of your consciousness for nearly 70 years. Frankly, not having Yogi around and in new sets would seem to be unimaginable.
And Yogi had a great card experience. He, along with Warren Spahn, were the last two players from that first Bowman set to still have cards in the 1965 Topps set. Interestingly, they are both Mets cards that year. Spahn was brought over because the Mets were hoping his rough 1964 season was a fluke after that incredible run of success through the 1963 season. Spahn did appear to be able to pitch forever and during that 1963 season actually pitched a 16-inning complete game which he lost 1-0 when Willie Mays belted a homer to win the game. Future Hall of Famer Juan Marichal was the winning pitcher and there is actually a book which details that famous game and the elements both before and afterwards. Meanwhile, the Mets were hoping something was left in Yogi’s bag of tricks but also were hoping to take advantage of being able to hire another former beloved Yankee and use him to help draw fans. While neither played after the 1965 season, Spahn ended up on the Giants roster and Yogi again retired after nine at-bats but both are forever linked in that set.
But we as collectors were not finished with Yogi. He popped back in on the 1973 Topps set, in 1975 as part of the Topps MVP retrospective and then in the early 1980s as a Yankees coach (Donruss) and manager (Topps). Even after George Steinbrenner fired him and we thought there would not be any more Yogi cards, he reappeared as the featured face on the Astros Team Leaders card in 1987 while managing the Astros. Yes, four decades after Yogi first appeared on cardboard, you could still pull him out of a pack.
What amazes me in retrospect was how few dedicated Yogi collectors there truly were in the NY area. While there were more collectors of the current Yankees there was never quite the same exuberance for Yogi or even Whitey Ford cards. Sure, you could sell their cards but in today’s parlance, there were not many super collectors chasing them. And perhaps that has to do with just how underrated Yogi was as a player. After all, it took until the stat masters of today to re-rank catchers and you will now see Yogi constantly amongst the two or three best of all-time.
More importantly, you rarely heard anyone say a bad word about Yogi as a person. There were countless fans who would go to his house and they usually were greeted warmly, and even if they did not get the autograph they desired, they never felt like they were intruding. Compare that to Jimmy Spence’s story about as a youth trying to get Thurman Munson’s autograph. It developed Munson had a large and not always friendly dog and that dog chased Jimmy and his friends down a couple of blocks before the kids all realized perhaps getting Thurman’s autograph was not a good idea. I always heard good stories about Yogi and his family and that was what counted. In addition, you always heard about how nice Tim Berra was about signing his football card and other items at their racquetball place. I have no story about the old bowling alley right off Rt 3 in Clifton, NJ, but I’m sure whenever either Yogi or the Scooter, Phil Rizzuto were there they always signed for their fans.
But while Yogi has passed, he will always live forever not only through our memories and his museum but also through those nearly 70 years of cards he had. And Yogi, the next time I go to dinner with my wife, we will try not to be one of those people who never goes to a place anymore because it’s too crowded.