I am telling this tale by popular demand. I use the term “popular” advisedly here. The demand came from just one person, but that personage, I should say, was Jim Benn, our guest last week who is popular indeed—both as a writer of wonderful historical mysteries and as a warm and charming colleague. So here is an account of the my one degree of separation from the man who was called the Perfect Yankee—the inimitable Yogi Berra.
It begins with my Uncle Joe—the youngest of my mother’s six brothers. Here is a photo of us during a family picnic at the lake just as the U.S. was getting into the worldwide conflict that Jim Benn so vividly portrays in his books:
My great grandmother--the original Annamaria Alfieri,
cousin Frank, Aunt Bella, Uncle Joe, Uncle John (already
in uniform) with his fiancée. Kneeling, my father, and out
front little me, on the move as usual.
Uncle Joe, a high school quarterback and a great dancer, volunteered as soon as he was old enough—in December of 1942. He served in the First Marines with a mortar platoon in the Pacific on Peleliu and was commended for “courageous actions and unselfish devotion.” When a comrade was peppered by Japanese bullets and seriously injured, with shots still flying, Uncle Joe brought the man to shelter, dressed his wounds, and carried him to safety. I still have the newspaper clipping reporting his commendation, which was left among my grandmother’s souvenirs.
|My mother Annamaria, Uncle Joe,|
my grandmother nee Alfieri.
By 1959, Uncle Joe had graduated from college on the GI Bill. Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto were about to open a bowling alley in nearby Clifton, NJ. Here is the founding of Rizzuto-Berra Bowling Lanes in Yogi’s own words:
“What’s so bad about New Jersey? Having lived here almost 60 years, I think it’s pretty good. Maybe it’s gotten a bad rap from comedians, I’m not sure. I do know it’s been a good place for me and my family for a long time, or we’d live somewhere else.
Sure, there’s more traffic, taxes, development and malls everywhere. But we’re still close to New York and the Shore, so nothing is too far even if it seems like it. Truth is, you don’t go far to find a good restaurant or almost anything you want. The Giants, Jets, and Devils are nice and close.
In the early ’50s, when I was a young guy on the Yankees, some of the players started living in North Jersey year-round. I can’t remember any traffic on the George Washington Bridge then. My buddy Phil Rizzuto encouraged me to move here from St. Louis, where I was from. He said there’d be more opportunities if I lived East; all the players had to find work when the season ended.
So Carm and I lived for a few years in Bergen County, then moved to Montclair, where we’ve been ever since. All those years Phil lived in Hillside, and we did a lot together. We worked off-seasons in the American Shops (clothing store) in Newark, and later opened a nice bowling alley in Clifton—the Rizzuto-Berra Lanes.”
Here’s a link to the full text of Yogi’s reminiscences:
Just as the bowling alley project was getting underway, Uncle Joe met Phil at the clothing store!! (Let’s imagine how different were the lives of first-class sports stars in those days—they worked in a clothing store in the offseason.)
Phil offered my uncle a job running what would soon become his and Yogi’s new business. In 1959, the 40-lane center opened to huge fanfare. My extended family and I were there for the grand opening, giving me my first opportunity to shake the gnarled hand of the man who spent so much of his time catching fastballs. In the ensuing few years, my older brother, my cousins, and I would go the bowling alley from time to time, and sometimes it was the ever-affable Yogi who served us our cokes at the bar.
Fast forward to the late 90’s when mutual friends of mine and Yogi and Carmen Berra invited me to the dedication of the Yogi Berra Library at Montclair University. I took along Paul, my younger brother and fellow life-long Yankees fan, and his son Justin.
|The photographic proof.|
At the reception, Yogi graciously chatted with me, reminiscing about the old days at the bowling alley.
For me, he remains my once and future hero. I have beside me as I type Jim Benn’s latest—THE REST IS SILENCE—in which Yogi makes an appearance. I can’t wait to meet up with him again on the page.
Annamaria - Monday