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FAITHFUL FAN | Author of Yogi Berra book cites star’s faith and quiet, humble nature

Jon Pessah is coming to the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival to talk about a Catholic guy who grew up attending St. Ambrose Church in the Hill neighborhood of St. Louis and was known for being close to his faith.

Pessah is the author of “Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask,” the definitive biography of Lawrence “Yogi” Berra, the New York Yankees icon, winner of 10 World Series championships, and the most-quoted player in baseball history.

Pessah, a founding editor of ESPN the Magazine and 45-year veteran of sports and business journalism, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for editing and writing an examination into the role of racism in Major League Baseball. He’ll be at the virtual book festival at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7, with Ben Cohen, author of “The Hot Hand.” Tickets are $20, and may be purchased at bit.ly/2Tsycqe.

“This story ended up really taking a hold of my life, which books tend to do,” Pessah said. “But this one in particular because it turned out to be very personal. My father’s favorite player was Yogi and I grew up hearing all about him.”

The 68-year-old author, whose first memory of Berra was as an outfielder in 1960 at the end of a career, wrote the book to uncover more about Berra’s life rather than the caricature that most people associated with him. Pessah found that he was full of humility and grace. “I knew how different he was than he was portrayed. I didn’t know how quiet of a guy Yogi was. Everyone from people on the Hill who grew up with him — I met three men who grew up with him, one who lived on Elizabeth Avenue and two others who played with him. They were the same age as Yogi. They said the same thing as people on his baseball teams and people who were in his large circle of friends in New Jersey, that Yogi was essentially a very quiet man bordering on being shy.”

Yet on the field, Berra was a take-charge catcher, and he loved to talk to other players, Pessah said.

There was no question that the Church played a dominant role in the lives of all the kids who grew up on the Hill throughout the Depression and World War II, Pessah learned, stating that “St. Ambrose was the center of the universe.”

Berra’s mom went to church every day at 5:30 in the morning, he added.

As a Yankee and beyond, Berra attended Mass regularly. His pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Montclair, N.J. told Pessah that Berra would come to Mass and stay in the back, leaving immediately afterward to avoid being recognized.

Former Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry related to Pessah that in spring training, he and Berra searched everywhere for a church to go to Mass, eventually finding one in Spanish.

Former Yankee manager Joe Girardi, when he took over as skipper for Joe Torre, was nervous approaching Berra because of Berra’s close relationship with Torre. But Berra, who was on the coaching staff, made Girardi feel at ease, asking only for one favor. “Do you mind if I leave early some games so I can get to Mass on time?” Berra asked.

Sprinkled throughout the book is the fact that Berra never lost his devotion to the faith, Pessah said.

Former Cardinal great Red Schoendienst told Pessah about the tryout Berra attended for the Cardinals. Schoendienst and catcher Joe Garagiola were signed by the Cardinals that day, but Berra left empty handed. Schoendienst was struck by how solid Berra hit the ball. But the Cardinals’ executive Branch Rickey, who was known as a great talent judge, told Berra he’d never make it as a major league ballplayer.

“Yogi did not look like a baseball player. Yogi looked like he was put together with spare parts: short legs, long torso, big bulging shoulders that made him look like he didn’t have a neck,” Pessah said.

Three Most Valuable Player Awards later, the baseball Hall-of-Famer proved them wrong.

Kenny is a staff writer for the Review and a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Oakville.

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