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'Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask' book research gave author better appreciation for Berra the baseball player

Yankees catcher Yogi Berra at spring training on

Yankees catcher Yogi Berra at spring training on March 24, 1949. Credit: AP

Jon Pessah felt as if he got to know Yogi Berra the person well in 4 1/2 years while researching a biography out this month called “Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask.”

“It felt like he was sitting on my couch the last year I was writing the book,” Pessah said.

But the author also got a fuller appreciation of Berra’s greatness as a player.

“I ended up being more respectful for his baseball career — much more respectful for his baseball career,” said Pessah, a Newsday sports editor in the early 1990s who grew up in East Meadow and lives in Smithtown.

Even though Berra generally is considered just out of the picture on the Yankees’ Mount Rushmore of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, he was the superstar bridge from DiMaggio to Mantle.

“From 1949 to ’55, before Mantle really clicks in his Triple Crown year [in 1956], Yogi is the best player on his team,” Pessah said.

“Far and away. No one’s even close. I’m not joking about that. I was really surprised that that’s exactly true.”

From 1949 to 1953, the Yankees became the first and still only team to win five consecutive World Series. From 1950-56, Berra won three American League MVP awards and finished second twice, third once and fourth once.

And he did it all while catching. He played in at least 137 games in each of the seven years of his peak.

But Berra, who died at 90 in 2015, was more than a great player. He was a great character — with a great nickname — which is why people still are writing books about him in 2020.

Pessah said the previous accounts of the catcher's life did not deter him from chronicling Berra. He believes there always are more stories to mine and angles to explore.

Don Larsen, who threw a perfect game with Berra catching in the 1956 World Series, spent nearly three hours talking to Pessah before an Old-Timers’ Game.

But that is standard stuff.

There also was a man who recalled meeting Berra with his American Legion team at Ebbets Field early in that Series, and Berra tipping them off that Larsen had changed his delivery and was on the verge of “something special.”

The trickiest thing was pinning down historical facts about a guy known not only for tangled quotes he may or may not have uttered but also for tall tales told about him.

“Almost every decade of Yogi’s life has been chronicled, and he lived to be 90 years old,” Pessah said. “But it became a game of telephone. Somebody tells you a story and it gets passed on as right, but 25% is not quite right. The next time it’s told, it’s another 25% that is not quite right. By the time you read whatever version of whatever book you’ve read, who knows how much of that story is true?

"A big challenge of this book was that there are multiple stories certainly for every important thing Yogi has ever done, and some of the multiple versions are from Yogi himself.”

Berra publicly was hounded throughout his life by disparaging remarks both about his Italian heritage and physical appearance — and about his level of intelligence — in ways that are shocking from a 21st century perspective.

The slights did not come only from fans, journalists or opponents, but from within his own team.

In 1948, manager Bucky Harris asked the Daily News’ Joe Trimble, “You think the ape can bat fourth?”

Said Pessah, “Really? That’s the way you refer to ballplayers on the record to the Daily News beat writer?”

It was true that Berra did not look the part, an unconventional specimen who stood 5-7 1/2 and was 180 pounds of muscles and broad shoulders.

Berra was bothered by insults about his appearance but internalized them.

Said Pessah, “His very first manager told him, ‘Look, you’re really good and you’re Italian. You’re going to get it worse than anybody. And if you let them know it affects you, it’s going to be that much worse.’

“’So just play your game. Don’t throw the bat in the bat rack like you’ve been doing. Don’t turn beet-red like you’ve been doing. Just ignore it and at least you’ll minimize it.’”

Pessah said he was motivated to write the book because Berra was his father’s favorite player and the reason he became a catcher. Pessah in turn became a catcher.

Did Pessah come away liking one of sports’ seemingly most likable guys? He had his flaws like anyone else, but the answer mostly was yes.

“I have to tell you,” Pessah said, “I talked to people across the spectrum, inside and outside of baseball, his contemporaries, people younger who knew him, and everyone just enjoyed Yogi.”

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