It wasn’t him they came to see.
Mickey Mantle had left the New York Yankees and returned home to Commerce, Oklahoma to treat a skin rash. His last time to the plate was as a pinch hitter on March 29, and manager Casey Stengel was not very happy when it was reported that Mantle had been spending time fishing near his home town.
But all was well when Mantle rejoined his team in Nashville on April 7, 1953 to face the Vols. He made up for lost time by slugging a 420-foot, 2-run double in the seventh inning. New York won the game 9-1 before 2,693 Sulphur Dell fans.
Yankee pitching coach Jim Turner, a Nashville native, was honored at home plate before the game by Governor Frank G. Clement who appointed Turner a Tennessee Colonel on the Governor’s staff.
As was often the case, Yogi Berra crouched silently behind the plate that day. His contribution to the Yankee cause include participating in one double play with Phil Rizzuto and adding a single and scoring a run. He was later spelled by utility catcher Charlie Silvera and the box score and news articles tell of no further heroics by the 1951 American League Most Valuable Player that day:
On the season Berra would hit for a .296 average, drive in 108 runs, have 27 home runs and 161 hits, and finish second to Cleveland’s Al Rosen for the 1953 MVP award. In 1954 and 1955 he would add the MVP trophies to his book case.
Berra retired as an active player in 1965, but returned to the Yankees in 1976 as a member of manager Billy Martin’s staff. When the Nashville Sounds and New York began their major-minor league affiliation in 1980 the two teams were scheduled to play an exhibition before the regular season began. Those plans were thwarted when an eight-game strike delayed the remainder of the spring training season.
On April 16, 1981 the Yankees did return to Nashville to play an exhibition game versus the Sounds. A standing room crowd of 17,318 fans attended the game as the major league team won by a score of 10-1.
“You couldn’t have put another fan in Greer Stadium with a shoe horn,” says Farrell Owens, general manager of the local club on that day.
In June of 1981 another strike occurred and caused the loss of scheduled games between June 12 and August 9. During that time owner George Steinbrenner sent his coaches to various minor league affiliates to scout and instruct players at those locations.
Owens remembers those days, too. “Yogi Berra came to Nashville for about 10 days. He wore his Yankees uniform and sat in the dugout during the games. I even had my picture taken with Yogi down on the field.
“He didn’t say a “Yogi-ism” or anything out of the ordinary as he was known to do.
“But I wish he had.”
In Berra’s last season as a coach for New York, the Yankees invaded Nashville once again. On April 28, 1983 New York had a four-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning, but a five-run rally with two outs pushed the Nashville Sounds to a 5–4 victory. The attendance was 13,641.
Yogi would become the manager for a second time in 1984.
Fast forward to about 2012. I was called to the home of another collector to view a box of Yankees memorabilia he was selling. I saw a few things I wanted: a few World Series tickets, a Joe DiMaggio mini-bat, and some programs. After agreeing on a price, I placed the box in my car and headed home.
Later that day I found an autographed baseball at the bottom of the box, and it was a real treasure. Inscribed on the side was “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over” and signed “Yogi Berra”. As a life-long New York Yankee fan, I proudly added the ball to my collection.
Today we have learned of the death of Yogi Berra. We are familiar with many of his famous quotes, and whether he actually ever uttered all of them is no matter. We lost a living, breathing treasure; one for the Yankees, for baseball, and for adoring fans.
For all those great things you said and all those great plays you made, Yogi, you can now rest in peace. And it will never be over.
© 2015 Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.