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New Yogi Berra Biography ‘Yogi’ Recalls The Pride Of St. Louis’ Hill

Courtesy of the Hill 2000 Neighborhood Association
Lorenzo "Lawdie" Berra is at far right in the bottom row of this photo of young Hill residents playing sandlot baseball.

Eventually, Yogi Berra would be lauded as one of the greatest players Major League Baseball ever saw — a power hitter with 385 home runs to his credit, a terrific catcher and a three-time Most Valuable Player during his long career with the New York Yankees.

But in 1941, Berra was just Lorenzo “Lawdie” Berra, a 16-year-old kid in St. Louis’ Hill neighborhood who loved baseball. His Italian immigrant father wanted him to grow up and get a real job. Pietro Berra had already persuaded two of his older sons to quit promising baseball careers for jobs at a bakery and a shoe factory. The priest at St. Ambrose — brought in by the Berra parents to mediate with their obstinate fourth son — agreed.

Making matters worse, the St. Louis Cardinals weren’t sure the young ballplayer was worth serious investment. They offered his neighbor Joe Garagiola a $500 signing bonus. Berra was offered $250 — and told by no less than Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey he was a Triple-A player at best. Who could blame anyone for thinking it was high time Lawdie Berra give up his baseball dream?

How a funny-looking kid with an eighth grade education and doubtful prospects became not just a great athlete, but a beloved personality known for his “Yogisms,” is the subject of Jon Pessah’s engaging new biography, “Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask.”

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Pessah discussed Berra’s remarkable life, including his early years on the Hill. Garagiola, Berra’s lifelong best friend, was another son of Italian immigrants living on Elizabeth Avenue. Pessah interviewed contemporaries from their childhood as well.

“Even though they grew up during the Depression, it was a neighborhood full of kids, they were always playing baseball or football or soccer, and they loved their life,” Pessah said. “Their fathers all worked in the mines, in the clay factories, in St. Louis. They were working poor. They never went without, but they never had more than they needed.

Courtesy of Jon Pessah
Author Jon Pessah's new book is "Yogi: Life Behind the Mask."

“They all grew up happy, they played ball all the time. And that’s what I think instilled not just the athletic talents, but the kind of values Yogi had all his life, I think, came from that camaraderie and that feeling that nobody was better than anyone else and ‘we’re all in this together’ type of feeling that there was on the Hill.”

Pessah also discussed Berra’s marriage to Carmen Short. The couple met at Biggie’s Steakhouse, a famous St. Louis restaurant at Hampton and Chippewa, and were married for six decades.

By 1947, “Yogi had not dated all that much,” Pessah said. “He looked across the room [at Biggie’s] and sees Carmen Short, a beautiful young woman from Howes Mill [Missouri], 120 miles from St. Louis. He begs the owner of the restaurant to introduce them.” After a brief misunderstanding when Carmen thought Yogi was another ballplayer, a married man, they began dating.

“It was not very long after,” Pessah said, “that Carmen stopped seeing the ‘college hunks’ that she’d been going out with” — her sister Bonnie’s words, Pessah noted — “and just fell in love with Yogi, and they were engaged in July of 1948, and married in January of 1949, and were together 65 years.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.