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The Yogiisms and the lovable gnome of a man are not what I remember most. No, the havoc Lawrence Peter Berra, who died last week at the age of 90, wreaked on a consistently talented White Sox team in the 1950s is what I recall most clearly.
As the current sorry edition of White Sox players - most of whom no doubt recognize Berra solely from AFLAC ads - gazed from their dugout at Yankee Stadium prior to last Thursday's game as New York manager Joe Girardi, a former Yankee catcher for four seasons in the '90s, along with three present Yankee catchers laid a flowered wreath in the shape of Yogi's number 8 in the catcher's box at home plate. No doubt nostalgia hung from every rafter of The Bronx shrine, but aging Sox fans could be excused for recalling the manner in which Berra extinguished hopes and dreams.
Let's go back to a balmy summer night at Comiskey Park on August 27, 1957. The Yanks, who led the second-place Sox by 4 1/2 games, were in town for a crucial three-game series to face a White Sox team that had won six straight. After seven innings, the score was tied at 6.
Up stepped Berra with Mickey Mantle and Enos Slaughter on base in the top of the eighth. Sox left-hander Paul LaPalme delivered, and Berra deposited the ball into the right field seats. If memory serves me, it landed in Yogi's favorite location - the upper deck. New York added three more runs in the ninth for a 12-6 victory, and they followed up the next two nights with one-run decisions over the Sox, effectively ending the pennant race. The White Sox may have won a more-than-respectable 90 games that season, but the Yanks won 98.
This was typical Yogi Berra behavior. One of the greatest bad-ball, late-inning hitters in the history of the game, he had a flair for the dramatic. He both hit for average and power. But what's most impressive about Berra is that he made contact 19 out of every 20 plate appearances.
Consider that he faced Sox lefty Billy Pierce, another stalwart figure of the '50s who died earlier this year, 195 times. In today's game, a manager likely would sit Berra against a left-hander of Pierce's stature, opting to play the lefty-righty strategy. That would have been misguided.
Pierce was able to strike out Berra a mere 13 times, while Yogi hit .284 against the Sox ace with nine home runs.
While hitting 358 career round-trippers, Berra never fanned more than 38 times in a season. He went to the plate 8,359 times and walked back to the dugout after striking out on only 414 occasions.
Today's game with pitch counts and relief pitchers who throw in the high 90s is vastly different than when Yogi played. Yet the hardest thrower of Yogi's era, Cleveland's Bob Feller, who was just as fast as today's hurlers, faced Berra 97 times and managed to strike him out only three times.
Comparing Berra's career to today's hitters, we note that 105 players have struck out at least 100 times this season through Saturday's games. Is there any other statistic that says more about the way the game has been transformed? Just five hitters - Wally Post, Woodie Held and Hall of Famers Mantle, Orlando Cepeda, and Harmon Killebrew - fanned more than 100 times in 1959. Can the pitching be so much more dominant today than it was 56 years ago?
Perhaps. Although today power hitters are handsomely rewarded. You also rarely see hitters choke up or make other adjustments when the pitcher gets ahead in the count. In Berra's day, adjustments were made.
Yogi played on dominant teams, appearing in 14 World Series. He has 12 more hits with 71 than any other Series contestant, coming on more at-bats than any player in history.
However, there were times, such as 1960, when Yogi didn't come out on top. On Bill Mazeroski's famous Game 7 walk-off homer, Yogi, playing left field, helplessly watched the ball disappear far over the wall in old Forbes Field.
And the great Henry Aaron had one of the best comebacks in verbal Series history in 1957 when Yogi, who as catcher incessantly talked to the hitters, pointed out that the trademark on Aaron's bat wasn't in the proper position. "Didn't come up here to read," replied Henry. "Came up here to hit."
Before we depart from the Days of Yogi and White Sox annals, let's return to that 1957 season and the aforementioned relief pitcher Paul LaPalme, who, by the way, shares a distinction with current Sox reliever Zach Duke: both were starting pitchers for the Pirates early in their careers, and both lost 16 games in a season while pitching for Pittsburgh.
Aside from serving up that late-season home run to Berra, LaPalme also yielded one of the most bizarre home runs in White Sox history. It came on May 18 in Baltimore, and John Snyder's White Sox Journal provides a lucid description:
White Sox pitcher Paul LaPalme costs his team a victory against the Orioles in Baltimore by throwing a pitch a half-minute too early. The contest was originally scheduled for the afternoon, but was switched to nighttime to avoid conflict with the Preakness. The game started at 7 p.m., and it was agreed beforehand to end play precisely at 10:20 p.m., regardless of the score, in order to allow the Sox to catch a midnight train for Boston.
Heading into the bottom of the ninth the White Sox led 4-3 with about 30 seconds remaining before the 10:20 p.m. deadline. League rules did not call for a suspended game, so the Sox would have won the game by stalling, or by issuing an intentional walk.
LaPalme threw a pitch over the plate, however, and Dick Williams hit it for a home run. Time was called by the umpires immediately after the home run.
Nothing quite that dumb has befallen this season's ballclub, but there certainly have been lapses in most departments. In Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Yankees, John Danks pitched well, but he got little support. Three of the first four White Sox hitters to start the game reached safely with Jose Abreu driving in Adam Eaton for an early 1-0 lead.
Can you believe that the Sox failed to get another hit the rest of the afternoon? That just doesn't happen. Yankee starter Adam Warren walked the bases loaded in the fifth, bringing Abreu to the plate. You sensed that this would be the deciding moment of the game, and it was. Abreu struck out, and the Yankees pushed across two runs off Danks in the bottom of the sixth on a base hit, stolen base, and doubles by Chase Headley and Alex Rodriguez.
Talking about A-Rod, Danks walked him in the fourth, and with two outs, the 40-year-old Rodriguez stole second. Danks got the next hitter, but Girardi said later, "If they didn't pay attention, I wanted him [Rodriguez] to get into scoring position."
Assuming the Yankee manager knows what he's talking about, apparently we expect too much if we think our athletes should "pay attention."
Abreu, who is trying to join Albert Pujols as the only players in history to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 in each of their first two seasons, didn't help his cause much in the four games in New York. Abreu had opportunities such as the one on Saturday, but he left nine runners on base in the series and drove in just one run in the four games.
He needs one homer and three RBI in this, the final week of the season, to reach Pujols' mark. Kansas City will visit The Cell for three games beginning Tuesday. The Royals simply are resting and preparing for the playoffs. Detroit will close out the season in a three-game battle for last place in the Central Division.
Yogi's well-known "it's not over until it's over" doesn't apply to the present group on the South Side. For them it was over shortly after it started.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.
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