Former Pirates infielder Dale Berra reflects on ‘unique’ childhood
Dale Berra was a first-round draft choice in 1975, reached the big leagues at age 20 and won a World Series ring with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979.
But all of those events — spawned through his athletic gifts and hard work — can’t compare to the one of which he is most proud and the one made possible simply by the lucky accident of birth.
He was born Yogi Berra’s son.
“Unique,” said Berra on Saturday night when asked what it was like growing up the youngest of three sons of one of the greatest and most popular baseball players of all time.
“How unique?” a reporter wanted to know.
“You’ll have to read my book to find out,” said Berra, 62, who was in town with several of his former Pirates teammates over the weekend to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their World Series victory.
Berra was kidding, of course. He was willing and proud to talk about life with his father. But he does want you to read his book, “My Dad, Yogi,” written with author Mark Ribowsky and released this year.
Yogi Berra was a Hall of Fame catcher and three-time MVP who played 19 seasons and in 14 World Series with the New York Yankees, winning 10.
In 1950, he struck out only 12 times while coming to the plate a career-high 656 times.
“I’d strike out that many times in a week,” Dale Berra recently said on WBUR, a Boston radio station.
But Berra was a fine athlete, excelling in baseball, football and hockey at Montclair (N.J.) High School before the Pirates drafted him with the 20th overall choice. When it became clear he would be a first-round pick, scouts came to Yogi with a warning.
“The scouts told (Yogi), ‘You better not let Dale play football or hockey because he’s going to be a first-round draft pick,’ ” Dale said.
“Dad said, ‘Go ahead and play, anyway. The heck with it. You could get hit by a bus just as easily.’ ”
Dale said he never felt pressure to live up to his dad’s achievements because Yogi never forced baseball on his son.
“He was the kind of guy, literally, when he drove up the driveway and I would say, ‘Would you play catch with me dad?’ He said, ‘That’s what you got brothers for.’
“Dad didn’t want to teach us. He wanted us to learn on our own. He didn’t want us to have any pressure, and he wanted it to be fun.
“He knew if you tried to teach and coach your own kid, it wasn’t a good idea.”
Even when Yogi was managing the Mets and Yankees and Dale was a child and pre-teen, he was rarely in the clubhouse.
“When I was 14, he was managing the Mets after Gil Hodges passed away,” Dale said. “I’d say, ‘Can I go to the ball game, Dad?’
“He said, ‘Go out and play yourself. What are you going to do here? It’s no fun.’ ”
Yet when Yogi was managing a game in Kansas City in 1984 and word reached him that his son had struck out three times against the Dodgers’ Don Sutton, he called the Pirates trainer’s room.
“The trainer comes out and says, ‘Dale, your dad’s on the phone.’
“And I say, ‘What do you mean? He’s managing a game in Kansas City,’ ” Dale told WBUR.
“And he goes, ‘Here he is.’ And I said, ‘Dad, you’re managing.’ He goes, ‘Don’t worry about what I’m doing. It’s between innings. I got the box score. How did you strike out three times?’ ”
In 1985, Dale Berra came to play for the Yankees. He said he is only the second player to join a team managed by his father. Earle Mack, son of Connie, is the other.
“Steinbrenner had promised him he would manage the whole season,” Dale Berra said.
Yogi wanted to play young players over some of Steinbrenner’s favorites, but “(Yogi) just said the heck with it (and played his guys, including Don Mattingly and Dave Righetti),” Dale said.
It cost him his job. but when Dale approached him, he acted just like a father.
“When I went in and tried to console him, he consoled me. He was only worried about me.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll play golf tomorrow.’ “
But from that day for the next 15 years, Yogi never entered Yankee Stadium.
“He had been in Yankees locker rooms his entire life, and he belonged at Yankee Stadium,” his son said.
“Joe DiMaggio on his death bed told George Steinbrenner, ‘I’m going to die soon, but before you die, you better get Yogi Berra back at Yankee Stadium.’ ”
Steinbrenner apologized, Dale said, Yogi accepted it, and in 1999 the Yankees held Yogi Berra Day, one of the most famous days in Yankees history.
Before the game, Yogi and Don Larsen re-enacted Larsen’s perfect game from the 1956 World Series.
“My father used (catcher) Joe Girardi’s glove and Don Larsen used (pitcher) David Cone’s glove,” Dale said. “Then, David Cone and Joe Girardi took the gloves back and went out and threw a perfect game.”
Berra retired after the 1987 season and eventually formed the management company LTD Enterprises with his brothers Larry and Tim (who played wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts) to manage Yogi’s business deals.
“We took the agents out of my dad’s life and had a lot of licensing and marketing deals and made it all a family business,” he said.
Yogi died in 2015 at the age of 90, so Dale now spends a lot of time in Montclair playing golf and reminiscing.
He was a key figure in baseball’s infamous drug scandal, testifying in two Pittsburgh cocaine trials in 1985 and ‘86 centering on drug abuse on the Pirates. He admitted to making four cocaine purchases in 1984.
But life is good for the youngest Berra, even when people approach him and rudely remind him he wasn’t as good as his father.
“I would turn around and smile and say, ‘You’re right, ’ ” Berra said. “They wanted me to say, ‘The hell with you or something.’ I never did. I never gave them the satisfaction.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .