Monday, November 3, 2014

Yogi and Me

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:

Summer 1942:
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    


  1. Annamaria, what a great story! I never knew about the Berra/Rizzuto bowling alley. Hmmm. What a great setting for a murder mystery...

  2. You were the muse for this one, Jim. If I could write short stories, I would love to set one in RB Lanes. I have exactly one published (in Queens Noir). Every time I get an idea for short fiction, plot complications run away with it and the idea demands to be a novel. It just occurred to me, that if I set a piece in 1960, these days it would be considered historical, even though I would be writing from memory. HOW did that happen?

  3. Great memory, great tale, AmA. And the way THAT happens, it's called living a great life while surviving one daily catastrophe after another. Not just ANYONE can do it, and it's not for timid souls. But then, on the other hand, if JEFF can do it...

    1. EvKa, your second sentence says it all for me. As for Br'er Jeff, I assure you, "timid" does not apply to him!!!

      I remain, bruised but unbowed in NYC.

  4. I love the story and the photos, Annamaria, and you haven't changed a bit. Still staggering. By the way, thanks for standing up to EvKa for me; it's starting to become too much to berra on my own.

  5. That's how it rolls here on MIE, Br'er: I do the staggering, and you do the swaggering.

    1. I was going to respond with simply, "Ho, ho, ho," but feared it might be misinterpreted by certain types who shall go nameless.

    2. All I'm doing is a whole lot of gaggering...

      What you two need is the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion singing, "If We Only Had a Room."

  6. You do know some fascinating folks! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  7. From my brother, whose son is the little boy with me and Yogi in the photo above...
    "Quick addendum to your Yogi blog: Andy (Our older brother) used to take me to the rb lanes on Saturdays. He worked on pin spotters & I swept lanes for which I got free bowling & pool. Uncle Joe was giving me some tips once when The Scooter got on the intercom & said 'who's teaching who on alley 14!' How could we not be Yankee fans? I also met Yogi again after the bowling alley and before the museum dedication at his golf tournament for Juvenile Diabetes Fund. In my foursome was Jerry Orbach! I used to help run all star HS basketball games to raise money for them."

  8. Replies
    1. Yes, Caro. What guys--Yogi, Jerry, and my brother PJ, who taught High School physics in a public school and became head of the science department. He was New Jersey High School Teacher of the Year. What he brags about is his students and how they went to MIT, Stamford, Harvard, RPI, and Stevens Tech, and hundreds of other prestigious places. He retired last year. Now he brags about the quality of the teachers who are carrying on. He was the person who hired and inspired them. Can you tell how proud I am of him?