Yogi has fond memories of The Boss
Hall of Famer was close to Steinbrenner after reconciliation
LITTLE FALLS, N.J. -- In the lobby of the museum that bears his name, Yogi Berra spoke fondly on Tuesday of late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, the man who over the past 30-plus years had been boss, adversary and, finally, friend to the Hall of Famer and American icon.
It was here, at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University, that the relationship between the two men changed in 1999, when Steinbrenner and Berra reconciled after 14 years of acrimony following Berra's dismissal as manager of the Yankees.
"He came in late," Berra remembered, chuckling. "But when he came in, he said, 'I'm sorry.' He said, 'It was the worst mistake I ever made in my life.' I said, 'George, everybody makes mistakes.'"
There weren't many more mistakes after that day. Berra, 85, and Steinbrenner, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 80, maintained a close, warm friendship from that point, catching up with one another in Spring Training in Tampa, at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day or Old-Timers' Day, and at the World Series. They last spoke nine days ago, on July 4, when Steinbrenner celebrated his birthday.
"I talked to him at 8 o'clock in the morning," Berra said. "I asked how he was feeling. He said he felt fine. I wished him a happy birthday."
That conversation, though, made Tuesday's news tougher to grasp.
"I just said, 'No, no.'" Berra recalled. "It didn't happen. I just talked to him."
Joining the Yankee great were his wife of 61 years, Carmen, and their youngest son, Dale, who played for the Yankees from 1984-86 and was instrumental in bringing his former boss and his father together in 1999.
"When George came here, we were humbled that he came here to apologize," Dale said. "Of course, Dad was going to be gracious and accept his apology. And from then on, they've been best of friends."
"We went through some bad times, like everybody else did," Yogi added. "But we made up."
Those bad times began in April 1985, when Steinbrenner fired Berra just 16 games into the season. In retelling the story, Berra choked up for the first and only time on Tuesday.
"When I got fired in Chicago, I didn't like the way I got fired," he said. "Usually the owner calls you up and tells you they're going to make a change. But he sent Clyde King to tell me. I got fired other places. I got fired by the Yankees in '64, I got fired by the Mets, but the owner called me. And I didn't like the way he said it. That's when I said I'd never come back to Yankee Stadium."
For 14 years, Berra stuck to his promise but didn't dwell on it. ("I had other jobs," he said, smiling.) After their reconciliation, however, Berra was happy to be a part of the Yankees family again, returning for reunions at Yankee Stadium, for World Series games and visits to Tampa each spring.
"Going down to Spring Training was great," Berra said. "I used to go up to his box when the game started and sit with him, have lunch with him. We'd talk about the players. He'd say, 'What do you think the team will look like? I said, 'I think we'll be pretty good.' He was great. Can't say any more. He was great. It's sad for me today."
Though Steinbrenner was often known as a demanding owner who fired managers and other employees at will, the Berras recalled a kinder man.
"I first met him during the World Series in California," Carmen said. "And he decided he was going to sit with the girls in the stands. We were all saying, 'Oh my gosh, he's going to sit with us.' And so the cotton candy man came by and he bought us all cotton candies.
"So here are all the Yankee wives eating cotton candy in the stands. And he bought one for himself. I had heard some stories about George Steinbrenner, but I said, 'He can't be all bad. Any owner who sits in the stands and eats cotton candy has to have a real wonderful, mellow side."
Shortly after that, the Berras stood up and made their way back into the museum, walking past an enlarged photo of Yogi standing on the field last fall with Derek Jeter, first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden. Before they disappeared around the corner, one more question came from the lobby.
"Yogi! Is George a Hall of Famer?"
"He'll get in. He'll get in."
Dan Cichalski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.