Originally created 10/24/98

Hall of Famers help Yogi dedicate his museum



UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- Some of baseball's greatest players were on hand Friday to help Hall of Famer Yogi Berra dedicate a museum about his life and career. They couldn't resist a few verbal jabs at their longtime friend and former New York Yankees catcher.

Ted Williams, who played for the other team in the great Yankees-Boston Red Sox rivalry, recalled the first time he saw the 5-foot-8, 190-pound Berra, in ill-fitting shin guards and chest protector: "Who the hell is this guy?"

By the end of his 19-year career in 1965, everybody knew: a record three MVPs, the most home runs by a catcher, the most hits and most games played in the World Series -- and two hands worth of World Series rings.

"One for each finger," moaned Williams, 80, who never got one in his Hall of Fame career.

Berra, master of the malaprop, remained unflappable amid the hoopla surrounding the $2 million museum built through donations at his adopted alma mater, Montclair State University.

"Usually when you get something like this, you're dead or you're gone," Berra said.

The museum is filled with Berra's old uniforms, bats, and the mitt -- now bronzed -- he wore when catching Don Larsen in the only perfect game in World Series history against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956.

"I've seen pictures here I never saw before," Berra, 73, said.

The museum overlooks the school's new baseball stadium, which is also named for Berra and is home to the minor league New Jersey Jackals. The school gave Berra an honorary doctorate in 1996.

Fellow Montclair resident and Hall of Famer Larry Doby, 73, was among the stars saluting Berra.

Doby was the first black in the American League and second in the majors when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1947, just 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League.

He recalled getting few hellos from other players that year, but two who did were Berra and Williams, he said.

And what prompted Williams, who can stand but uses a wheelchair to get around following several strokes, to come from Citrus Hills, Fla. to the dedication?

"There's nobody that I've known in baseball that I've had more regard for than Yogi," Williams said. "He was a hell of a player."

Much of the banter centered on this year's Yankees, whose World Series victory parade in Manhattan took place just hours before the museum dedication.

"They won it too fast," Yogi quipped. "Better than the Red Sox," he added, ribbing Williams.

Could Yogi's 1961 World Series champion Yankees -- whose roster included Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford -- have beaten this year's version?

"Ask Gil," Yogi replied, tossing the question to Gil McDougald, the Yankees shortstop in the 1950s.

"I don't know the answer," said McDougald, 70, who lives by the ocean in Spring Lake.

All agreed the current Yankees are a potent group, but Doby cautioned, "When you say greatest, I think you're stretching."

Former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca recalled the Yankee teams that won five World Series from 1949-53, noting dynasties are difficult to attain now.

"Free agency changes the whole marketplace," Branca, 72, said.

"They look pretty good to me," Williams said. "And even the OWNER was great," he added with a grin, giving a ribbing back to Berra.

Berra vowed never to return to Yankee Stadium after owner George Steinbrenner fired him as manager in 1985, but has been softening his stance.

"I'm thinking about it. Maybe next year," Berra said.