My growing-up time was mostly spent playing sports, basically with my brothers. Baseball to me was playing Wiffle ball, throwing pop-ups to myself, thinking of throwing the ball against the house, being all the different players on all the different teams, getting to play against older kids when I was younger and — and this was a big difference between me and other kids — going out to a major league ball park and being able to catch fly balls during batting practice hit by big league hitters and being able to be around big league players.
But also I would like to say I played all sports. Dad was a big advocate of playing all sports. As soon as the baseball season ended, I played hockey. As soon as hockey ended, I played football. Whatever sport was in season — I was playing it.
Growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, I was aware of my father’s greatness as a baseball player but not cognizant of it. I don’t know. That might be a Yogiism. I didn’t think too much of it. I think one of the reasons we — meaning my brothers and I — handled it so well is that we stayed in one town when we were kids. We weren’t moving around and having to make new friends. We weren’t a novelty except for maybe a little while.
When I tried out for a local team, I might have been Yogi Berra’s son. But I knew all the kids already, so it wasn’t like they were ready to see what I could do. They were not waiting to see me. They saw me every day in school and on the playgrounds.
I was a Mets fan growing up. This was when Dad was the coach and manager of the Mets. I remember going to spring training and seeing Casey Stengel down there. He was very friendly and talkative.
I was a batboy when I was about nine years old. It was very exciting. I became friends with Tom Seaver, Bud Harrelson, Ron Swoboda. I remember even the early Mets — Tommy Davis, Ken Boyer, Nolan Ryan. Dad said Nolan threw real hard.
When I was a kid, a day did not go by when I didn’t think I was going to be a professional athlete. I didn’t even know which sport. But I knew I was going to make a living playing sports.
I didn’t think of doing anything else.
I really didn’t think about what a privilege it was growing up as Yogi Berra’s son. I just looked forward to going to the ballpark. I didn’t like watching the games. I went to the ballpark with my dad not for the games but for the batting practice, playing the outfield and going after grounders. To tell the truth, the games were boring to me. During the games I used to go under the stands and throw the ball against the walls. I would go down to the clubhouse and help the clubhouse man. I liked playing much more than watching, much more.
I remember the Mantles coming over to the house in Montclair, the Fords coming over for a cookout in the summer. One thing I did notice was that me and my brothers, Timmy and Larry, were much better than the other players’ kids. I noticed this when I was nine, ten years old. I remember going in the backyard and playing Wiffle ball with the Mantle kid. I thought he was going to be better than he was.
My dad was signed with Spalding, which was a great glove maker at the time. We used to get good equipment, good stuff. Every once in a while we would get a glove from a major league player. I had started playing infield in Little League, and Chuck Hiller, who was on the Mets then, gave me a glove. I loved that glove, I cherished it. I did not use it as a memorabilia piece. I used it to play with. Dad told me Chuck Hiller was a good fielder, and I used that glove all throughout Little League.
In school when they were choosing teams, I was the first one picked. That was in every sport. I guess it was a combination of natural ability and the fact that we played so much. Dad never did anything with us, never put pressure on us. I remember asking Dad to have a catch with me when he came home from a game and he said, “That’s what you have got brothers for.” He didn’t play with us. My mom, Carmen, was always there for us. She would take me to games, pick me up, take me to soccer, take me to Pop Warner.
I started at shortstop as a freshman at Montclair High School — which nobody had ever done before. By my junior year I knew I was getting good and that the scouts were coming around. I was first-team All State. I had power and a good arm. Average speed.
After my junior season in baseball leading into the summer break, scouts told my dad that he would be wise not to let me play football and hockey in my senior year because they projected me as a high draft pick. My dad said, “The hell on that. Go ahead and play. If you are going to get hurt, you’re going to get hurt.” That was what he had done. He played all the sports. He always said, “Play ’em all.”
I was the eighteenth pick in the draft, first-round pick. I got a phone call from Joe Brown, who was the general manager of the Pirates. He congratulated me. I was hoping I would get drafted by the Mets, because Dad was still with the team, but it didn’t happen.
Howie Haak and Gene Baker were the scouts from the Pirates. They came over to the house. There were discussions. I got $50,000 to sign. This was 1975. At that time that was a lot of money.
I was excited at the idea of going away to play baseball. I had never been away from home for any period of time until then. Two weeks after high school graduation I was playing in Niagara Falls in the New York Penn League — a seven-hour drive from Montclair. I had my own car, my own apartment — $95 a month. We were only making $500 a month.
It was a rude awakening that first year in the minors. I was hitting .550 in high school. When you face college pitching and other first-round picks, you realize how difficult the game really is. I hit .260 there. I had never hit less than .400. But I led the league in RBIs. I was eighteen years old, and I won an award from the sportswriters there as the outstanding player in the league. The time was successful from my point of view. I enjoyed the experience.
Those were the first ballparks I played in — Albany, Elmira, Oneonta. They were nice little ballparks. Newark, New York, the little town where the farm team of the Milwaukee Brewers played, was odd. When it was a perfectly clear night, the game had to be stopped in the second or third inning because the sun would go down right in centerfield. We would wait a half an hour because it was impossible for hitters to see under those conditions.
When Dad was the manager with the Mets, he could always follow me through the minor league reports. But he got fired that year of 1975, and he was able to have time to come up and watch me play for about six games. They made a big deal up there having Yogi Berra in the ballpark. It was a big perk having a Hall of Famer in the ballpark. They turned it into a promotion. I remember I hit a home run the first time he saw me.
I went to A ball in Charleston, South Carolina, the next year and really learned how to play. The manager there was Mike Ryan, who had been with the Red Sox and Phillies. He taught me how to play. I played every day and expected to play every day.
I was then with Columbus, which had a lot of players who made it in the majors. The manager of the team was Johnny Lipon. He was great. I was good then, played every day. I was twenty years old, but I was leading the International League in home runs and RBIs.
Rennie Stennett broke his leg in the middle of August 1977, and I got a phone call that night: “Report to Pittsburgh.” That is pretty much when the adversity began.
My major league debut was August 22, 1977. The game was against the San Diego Padres. They had Gene Tenace, Dave Winfield, Cito Gaston, Rollie Fingers, Willie McCovey. We had a great team — Stargell and Dave Parker and Al Oliver. All those guys. That was the beginning of the “We Are Family” team.
I batted against Bob Shirley. I flew out to leftfield my first time up. Now it got tough. I was pinch hit for my third major league at bat, which never obviously would have happened before. The next game I didn’t even start. So all of a sudden you go from the guy who comes to the ballpark every day knowing you’re going to bat third, knowing you’re going to play, knowing you’re leading the league in RBIs and home runs. Then you are in the big leagues, and you don’t even know when you are going to play. As I said, now the adversity starts. Now it’s difficult.
I played nine years total in the majors — Pittsburgh, Houston, and the Yankees. But my formative years were in Pittsburgh. I played three years every day in Pittsburgh. That is where I got a chance to play. That was the highlight of my career.
As I once said, “You can’t compare me to my father. Our similarities are different.”
From Growing Up Baseball by Harvey Frommer & Frederic J. Frommer.
Copyright © 2001 by Harvey Frommer & Frederic J. Frommer. Excerpted with permission.