Yogi, George grew close in recent years
The first time I saw George Steinbrenner was when he appeared at the back entrance of our just-opened Museum & Learning Center in New Jersey, wearing a beige turtleneck and blazer and looking visibly nervous. It was Jan. 5, 1999, and The Boss had flown up from Tampa to ask Yogi Berra for forgiveness. George wanted to meet with him face-to-face and hoped to get the Yankees legend to return to Yankee Stadium after his 14-year estrangement from the team.
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Of course, George was the cause of the estrangement. He had fired Yogi 16 games into the 1985 season, but it was the disrespectful manner in which it was done that rubbed Yogi so badly. George impulsively had somebody else tell Yogi he was gone.
Fortunately, both men had mellowed in those 14 years. As Yogi waited by the back entrance, he looked at his watch upon The Boss’ arrival and said, “You’re late.” Both men laughed. The ice was broken, followed by a heartfelt apology to Yogi and his wife, Carmen, in my office. George told Yogi that firing him the way he did was “the worst mistake I made in baseball,” and later told Suzyn Waldman, the broadcaster who helped arrange the meeting, that he would drive a rickshaw over the George Washington Bridge if it meant getting Yogi to return to the Stadium.
THE BOSS: 1930-2010 Iconic Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died Tuesday at age 80. Get complete coverage right here.
Since then, Yogi Berra and George Steinbrenner — both iconic Yankees figures from the Midwest — forged a sweet, warm friendship. Five years older than The Boss, Yogi began calling him “Kid.” Whenever Yogi ventured into Yankee Stadium to catch a game — and he became a most regular presence over the ensuing 11 years — George’s face would light up. They would hug and have enthusiastic conversations about their families and baseball. They were together in George’s private suite, in the limited company of family and closest friends, during the 2009 World Series.
Yogi called him every Fourth of July to wish him happy birthday. When he called nine days ago, Yogi reported that George, who was in a wheelchair with his mental well-being also compromised, seemed unusually cheerful and lucid. So when he heard the news Tuesday morning, Yogi couldn’t believe it. “No,” he kept saying to his wife.
When Yogi arrived at the Museum, he was wearing his ever-present Yankees cap. We agreed to hold a news conference as the phones were ringing for interview requests. Certainly Yogi — who was largely instrumental in the Yankees' winning 10 world championships as a Hall of Fame catcher — had a complicated relationship with Steinbrenner. He coached for the team during the Bronx Zoo days of the late ‘70s. Then he became one of his 22 managers during the wild-and-crazy ‘80s. And they became close pals in their twilight years.
And Tuesday, in front of clicking cameras and a cluster of media microphones, the Yankees’ greatest living player talked about the irrepressible Boss, praising him for his insatiable desire to win, but being candid about his impetuousness and toughness as an owner. “I will miss him,” Yogi said, his voice choked with emotion.
Then he paid George Steinbrenner his final tribute. “I sure would’ve liked to play for him,” he said.
Dave Kaplan is the director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, a nonprofit sports education organization on the campus of Montclair State (N.J.) University.