Farewell to an all-American oddball
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.