Campy and Yogi are long gone, but their mitts meet again at the Stadium
Almost 60 years ago, Hall of Fame catchers Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees competed against each other in the last of the five World Series (1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956) in which their teams met. Between them they won six Most Valuable Players awards in the 1950s. They faced each other in more World Series games — 31 in which they both played — than any other two catchers in history.
They were the bulwarks and spiritual leaders of two of the greatest teams of all time and they dominated the sporting scene when New York was its unquestioned capital and baseball stood alone as the most important spectator sport.
I’m a bit of a baseball historian, so my friends keep me informed about their connections to the game.
Michael Yamashita is one of those friends. Mike is one of the most prominent adventure and nature photographers in the world. He’s shot the US-Canada border end to end, the entire length of Marco Polo’s journey from Venice to Beijing, the Mekong River from the source to the mouth, and more of China’s Great Wall than any other photographer. He was raised in Montclair, New Jersey, and his neighbors and good friends while growing up were the Berras. He was a teammate of Yogi’s two older boys, Larry and Tim.
Years ago he told me that the one tangible souvenir he had of those years was Yogi’s mitt. Mike moved from shortstop to being the starting catcher his senior year at Montclair Academy, taking the position vacated by Larry Berra when he transferred to Montclair High in order to face tougher competition. Mike got Yogi’s glove to use that year and has had it ever since.
John Storyk is another one of those friends. He has designed countless recording studios, starting with doing Electric Lady Studios for Jimi Hendrix when John was just out of Princeton in the late 1960s. He has expanded his practice to include all acoustically-sensitive spaces, so he has worked on the sound in many public venues (including the 2016 Olympic facilities in Rio) as well as office conference rooms and home theaters.
And years ago, John told me that his cousin was Lee Scott, who was the Traveling Secretary for the Brooklyn Dodgers when we were growing up and when major league baseball was first becoming integrated.
Last May, we went up to John’s house in the Hudson Valley to help him celebrate a landmark birthday. He was excited to tell me that he had reached out to his cousin Lee’s widow to get a piece of memorabilia that he highly valued and that she had. He had gotten Roy Campanella’s catcher’s mitt!
So, of course, as the only person on the planet who knew where both mitts were and their significance in the overall scheme of things, I had to create a reunion. (I also knew that just about anybody would enjoy meeting either Mike or John, and they’d definitely get a kick out of meeting each other.) And the reunion had to be at the ballpark. The venues where Campy and Yogi had faced each other, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and the original Yankee Stadium 100 yards from its current edition in the Bronx, were (like Campy and Yogi), no longer with us. But we agreed that the current edition of the Stadium was the best available substitute.
The Berra-Campanella and the Dodgers-Yankees rivalries were central to our lives growing up as sports fans in the 1950s. The 1956 season, the last of the oh-so-many in which both NYC-based teams won their pennants, was the first full baseball season of my memory. The World Series took place in the early days of 4th grade. The first World Series game I went to was the 4th game of that Series at Yankee Stadium. My friend and fourth grade classmate Steve Zuckerman’s first live World Series game was the next day, Game 5. That was Don Larsen’s Perfect Game. It was also the last time that Yogi’s mitt and Campy’s mitt were together in Yankee Stadium.
So on a lazy afternoon in August this year, John, Mike, and I, their fabulous wives and mine, and the two mitts came together at the ballpark. Since John is a Very Good Customer at Yankee Stadium, he has his own sales representative and secured fabulous seats for us in the Suites level, behind the plate and in the shade!
The fact that it was a pretty lousy ballgame, and the Yankees only managed a few isolated solo home runs while their own pitchers were being lit up, hardly mattered.
Now, about the mitts. It was interesting to see that Campy’s was very close to the circle within a circle (a circular “pocket” in the center of a circular glove) that had prevailed for decades, but Yogi’s was bit more hinged. Yogi’s teammate, backup (at the time he last faced Campy), and ultimate successor behind the plate for the Yankees, Elston Howard, was credited with pioneering the development of the hinged mitt, more like a first baseman’s mitt, that is the current standard. But you can see from these that Yogi had already moved things a bit in that direction. (Of course, to be fair, we don’t know the precise provenance of the two mitts. Campy caught with Brooklyn from 1948–57 and Yogi with the Yankees from 1946–64.)
Neither of the mitts has made it through the last half-century unscathed. The strap on Campy’s mitt is extremely fragile. And Yogi’s has a bit of a gouge taken out of the thumb where a mouse got to it while it was packed away in some closet. You really wouldn’t want to try to catch a decent fastball with either of them.
The marvelous thing about the way we enjoy baseball is that it is timeless. There is a brand of baseball fan, of which I am one, who sees every major league game in the context of history. It has been brief enough — I’ve been paying close personal attention for about half the time there have been major leagues — that we can still really know it. Thanks to Mike and John, and to Yogi and Campy, we got a full dose of that at the ballpark on our outing. And a very good time was had by all.