Chicago Cubs: David Ross, meet Yogi Berra

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 28: Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations of the Chicago Cubs, (L) David Ross, new manager of the Chicago Cubs (C) and Jed Hoyer, general manager of the Cubs (R) pose for a photo as Ross is introduced to the media at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 28: Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations of the Chicago Cubs, (L) David Ross, new manager of the Chicago Cubs (C) and Jed Hoyer, general manager of the Cubs (R) pose for a photo as Ross is introduced to the media at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images) /

Chicago Cubs: David Ross, meet Yogi Berra

A Brief History of Yogi’s Raw Deal

Berra finished his playing career as a player-coach in 1963. He got the Yankee job in the first place for three reasons.

Reason one: When general manager Roy Hamey decided to retire, the Yankees decided to take advantage of incumbent manager Ralph Houk‘s smarts and kick him upstairs into Hamey’s old job. Leaving them in need of a man on the bridge.

Reason two: Freshly swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1963 Series, the first time the imperial Yankees ever lost a Series in four straight, the Yankees were still imperial enough to find it impossible to fathom that the crosstown, infant Mets began out-drawing them at the gate despite being . . .

Put it this way: The 1962-63 Mets featured Abbott pitching to Costello, and as often as not nobody knew who was on first. Or anyplace else. They had the Four Marx Brothers covering the infield, the Three Stooges patrolling the outfield, the Harlem Globetrotters on the bench, the Keystone Kops in the bullpen, and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton on the coaching lines. They had the still phenomenally popular Casey Stengel managing the troupe. And they were about to get a brand-new playpen named Shea Stadium for 1964, too.

Reason three: Somebody else actually wanted Berra on the bridge. After previous rumors that the Boston Red Sox had eyes on him, the Baltimore Orioles were ready to name Yogi their skipper for 1964. And the Yankees had nobody else anywhere near prepared to manage who also had box office appeal.

Well, they still had Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford, as brainy as it got, but Ford wasn’t quite ready to give up the mound. They also still had Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. But just like Babe Ruth a few generations before, the haunted Mantle wasn’t exactly the most responsible of men off the field. The Yankees wanted a baseball mind who was box office bank and unlikely to be caught carousing, hustling, or behaving like a law unto himself off the field.

When you looked past Ford and Mantle, there was only one man who answered to all three qualifiers affirmatively. And if the Orioles were so serious about thinking of him as managerial material, the Yankees married that to Stengel’s old only-half-kidding attachment of “my assistant manager” to their longtime catcher and decided Yogi Berra on the bridge made baseball and box office sense.

Grandpa Rossy, pay attention now: It isn’t going to be as easy managing your buds as you think. And your team isn’t aging half as fast as the 1964 Yankees began to age. Yogi was about to learn the hard way.

In baseball terms, Berra had many of the same growing pains as other first-year managers often do. He also had his big hitters slumping on and off, and he didn’t have a terrific bullpen, either. “The relief pitcher who can come in over the last two innings and get the other side out can cover up a multitude of sins,” wrote Bill Veeck in The Hustler’s Handbook. “Yogi didn’t have him. Except for one brief period early in the season when Steve Hamilton was stopping them, and the final month of the season when they had [Pedro] Ramos, the Yankee bullpen was useless.”

Veeck also revealed a backchannel pipeline to Houk’s office in the executive suite for assorted Yankees to complain about their former teammate now proving himself what they thought was a  half-competent skipper. Yogi also didn’t know what even Veeck knew: when the Columbia Broadcasting System bought the Yankees controversially in mid-1964, Houk “told them that the Yankees weren’t going to win the pennant because Berra had butchered the job, but that everything was going to be fine again next year when Yogi was gone.”

Houk even had a candidate in mind to replace Berra after the season: Cardinals manager Johnny Keane, facing a lot of the back-channel backstabbing Berra faced, despite Keane’s ability to make and keep the Cardinals cohesive especially when it came to managing their young black players. Somehow, Houk got the back-channel word from Keane that, yes, since his own execution papers were being drawn, he’d love to have the Yankee job if Yogi was going to lose it.

Then came the earthquakes down the stretch:

  • The Philadelphia Phillies collapsed into the infamous ten-game losing streak, and surges by the Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds (hoping to win one for their cancer-stricken manager Fred Hutchinson) threatened a National League season ending in a three-way pennant tie.
  • Thanks to late-season rookie call-up Mel Stottlemyre and the acquisition of Ramos for the bullpen, in hand with a sudden surge of regrouped hitting, the Yankees fought their way back to win the last American League pennant of their fabled old guard. (“Unless I have been very sadly misinformed by all those sensation-seeking columnists,” Veeck snarked, “the manager during that stretch run was Yogi Berra.”)
  • The Phillies and the Reds finished the season against each other while the Cardinals, given two surprise losses by the Mets (of all people), won on their final day and put the pennant into their pocket.
  • The Cardinals beat the Yankees in seven in the Series. “[T]hey kicked all four losing games away,” Veeck wrote, “something not even the most visionary Yankee-haters ever expected to see.” (Actually, it didn’t help that Ford’s elbow began ailing in earnest starting and losing Game One and wouldn’t be able to pitch again in the set. Future Ball Four author Jim Bouton’s 1.56 Series ERA in two starts wouldn’t be enough. Hall of Famer Bob Gibson‘s gutty Game Seven would prove too much.)
  • The following day, Keane showed up at a press conference called by Cardinals owner Gussie Busch to announce his re-hiring. Keane handed Busch a letter of resignation instead. Berra went to the Yankee offices thinking he’d been called in to start planning for 1965 and came out with his head on the proverbial plate.
  • CBS learned the hard way they’d bought a white elephant: the Yankee farm was parched, the few promising prospects proved to be journeyman major leaguers until the advent of Thurman Munson, and the company proved to know as much about administering baseball as their most popular international entertainment discovery, the Beatles, knew about playing the game. By the time the Yankees returned to competitiveness, CBS sold the team to George Steinbrenner.

Yogi moved to the crosstown Mets as a coach. In due course he succeeded Gil Hodges as their manager, even winning a National League East at the last minute before winning a pennant in five arduous games against the West champion Reds before getting close-but-not-quite to beating the Oakland Athletics in a seven-game World Series.

Keane learned the hard way he’d outsmarted himself into disaster: he proved unable to handle an aging team built for the big innings that no longer came. (Bouton would observe in due course that Keane was too willing to sacrifice a season to win a game.) When he was fired early in 1966, he looked twenty years older than he really was and would in fact end up dead of a heart attack at the near-beginning of 1967.