Farewell to an all-Amer­i­can odd­ball

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BY WES­LEY PRUDEN

agree. “The fu­ture ain’t what it used to be.” Hil­lary Clin­ton would give him no ar­gu­ment about that.

Ge­orge W. Bush, once the man­ag­ing part­ner of the Texas Rangers (of the Amer­i­can League) and the for­mer pres­i­dent (of the United States), could bend the lan­guage a lit­tle him­self, and he oc­ca­sion­ally looked to Yogi as model. “Yogi’s been an in­spi­ra­tion to me,” he once said, “not only be­cause of his base­ball skill, but for the en­dur­ing mark he left on the English lan­guage. Some peo­ple think he might even be my speech­writer.”

Yogi earned his place in the Hall of Fame quickly, fol­low­ing Bill Dickey as the Yan­kee catcher (“Bill Dickey is learn­ing me all his ex­pe­ri­ences”) and named three times the Amer­i­can League’s Most Valu­able Player. He went on to man­age both the Yan­kees and the New York Mets. Yogi’s Mets, an ex­pan­sion team, of­ten played like Yogi talked.

But there was another side to Yogi that he, like most of the men of his gen­er­a­tion, did not of­ten talk about. When duty called men to arms in World War II, he cheer­fully traded the base­ball field for the bat­tle­field. He was 18 in 1943, catch­ing for the Nor­folk Tars of the Pied­mont League, when his draft num­ber came up. He quickly vol­un­teered for the Navy, and when the Navy called for vol­un­teers for D-Day duty on “a rocket boat,” as­sault­ing the in­va­sion beaches of Nor­mandy, he vol­un­teered for that, too.

The rocket boat was a mod­i­fied Higgins land­ing boat, the pine-andma­hogany in­ven­tion of the ge­nius of An­drew Higgins, a self-ed­u­cated boat­builder whose seven New Or­leans yards pro­duced 20,000 of them for the am­phibi­ous land­ings that won World War II. The boats mea­sured only 36 feet long and were de­signed to ferry the troops to the beach. The Navy armed them with two .30-cal­iber ma­chine­guns and rafts of rock­ets, and as­signed them to ac­com­pany the in­va­sion force to the sound of the guns.

“It’s amaz­ing what that lit­tle boat could do,” Yogi re­mem­bered decades later, when I talked to him in re­search­ing a book about Higgins, the Marines and “that lit­tle boat.” In­structed to “shoot at any­thing that moved,” Yogi obeyed. “We all aimed at the first plane be­low the clouds and we shot down one of our own planes.” It was an easy mis­take to make be­cause the Luft­waffe, with few planes left by 1944, could not pro­vide air cover for the de­fend­ers.

“The pi­lot was mad as hell,” Yogi told Gary Bloom­field, au­thor of a book about Amer­i­can ath­letes at war. “You could hear him swear­ing as he floated down in his para­chute on us.” Yogi went on to cover a sec­ond land­ing in south­ern France, and he was dis­charged in 1946 to re­sume his re­mark­able base­ball ca­reer. He was grate­ful for the life he lived, he said as he ap­proached the end of it. “I’m glad I’m still alive to hear about it.”

Yogi once com­plained that “I never said some of the things I said.” It’s OK, Yogi. We’re all glad you did. And thanks for happy days at the ball park, too. RIP. Wes­ley Pruden is editor in chief emer­i­tus of The Washington Times.

Yogi Berra

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