Yogi Berra, my grandfather, and New York Yankees teammate Phil Rizzuto attended Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins at Boston Garden 59 years ago Thursday, on April 13, 1958.
They were perfectly Brylcreemed and dressed to the nines in suits and ties, and were undoubtedly excited with their season opener at Fenway Park two days away. But that night, Grampa was interviewed about his passion for hockey.
"You have to be enthused, because there's so much body contact in this game, and there's a lot of wonderful plays in hockey," he said. "You see the pass-work when they form the lines, see a right or a left winger go up there, and it's really exciting."
Grampa made a living in baseball for nearly 50 years. He won 10 World Series as a player with the Yankees, three more as a coach, three MVP awards and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. Baseball was, quite literally, his life. But hockey was also a huge part of it.
Grampa grew up in the Italian section of St. Louis known as The Hill. From the high ground that gave the area its name, the black-domed roof of St. Louis Arena was clearly visible; it was an easy, mile-and-a-half walk down Sublette Avenue across Interstate 64 from the aviation fields in Forest Park. It made Grampa proud that bricks forged by his father, Pietro, in the Laclede-Christy clay pits made up the building's massive walls.
Video: Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto enjoy 1958 Stanley Cup Final
Like all the kids on The Hill, Grampa played many sports growing up, and told stories of taping newspapers to his shins to play roller hockey. On days when the minor-league St. Louis Flyers had home games, after school or an early shift at the shoe factory, Grampa would nap in the afternoon to make sure he could stay awake to make the trip to the rink. It was there, watching the Flyers, that Grampa fell in love with hockey, and where he later fell in love with my Grammy Carmen; Grampa took her to a hockey game on their first date, in the winter of 1947.
Sometimes, they would double-date with Grampa's pal Joe Garagiola and his soon-to-be-wife, Audrey. Other times, Grammy's sister Bonnie, her roommate at the time, would tag along. "One night, our seats were up front by the goal where the plexiglass barrier was," Aunt Bonnie recalled. "Two players crashed into the glass fighting, and one hit his face with such force it broke his nose and blood went spurting all over. Carmen and I were simply horrified, but of course, Yogi loved it!"
Grampa became friendly with many of the players on the Flyers, and he would skate with them at practices during his offseasons. In 1948, a photo of Grampa shooting on Flyers goaltender Mousie McDonald made its way into a St. Louis newspaper, then into the hands of Yankees owner George Weiss, who was terrified his catcher, a budding star, would get hurt. "George saw me on them skates and he wasn't too happy," Grampa said. "He said, 'You better get your butt off of them skates.'"
While on the road with the Yankees in Boston and Chicago and Detroit, Grampa attended hockey games whenever he had the chance. In New York, Grampa took my dad, Larry, and his two brothers, Tim and Dale, to countless New York Rangers games at old Madison Square Garden. New York was a small town back then, and Grampa knew many of the Rangers players from nights spent hanging out at the 21 Club, Toots Shor's and the Copacabana. Dale remembers watching Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion and Bobby Hull when they would come to town and spending time in the Rangers locker room with Grampa's pals Ed Giacomin and Rod Gilbert.
"That was long before I ever put on skates," said Dale, who was a two-time all-state hockey player at Montclair High School in New Jersey before being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first round in 1975. My father and uncles say that Grampa rarely got to watch any of them play baseball because he was always on the road during the spring and summer. But during the late fall and winter, when Dale was playing hockey, Tim football and Dad hoops, Grampa never missed a game. He'd get up at 5 a.m. to drive Dale to hockey practice twice a week and would stand out in the cold and watch him play in the partially outdoor rink in Newark's Branch Brook Park.
Video: Lindsay Berra on Yogi's love of hockey
Dale recently attended a friend's 60th birthday party, and in attendance was the goaltender from Montclair rival West Essex High School. "My buddies and I used to score on him at will," Dale said. "He says it was because he was distracted by the guy in the trenchcoat and the fedora who stood right behind him for the entire game, even when he switched ends. He couldn't play with Yogi Berra watching him."
It was Grampa who introduced me to hockey. When his best friend, John McMullen, brought the Colorado Rockies to New Jersey in 1982 and renamed them the New Jersey Devils, Grampa became an instant Devils fan and started bringing me to games, where I too fell in love with hockey's speed and precision. I learned to skate at public sessions when my mother would drop my brother and me off while she did food shopping and ran errands. She wished I would be a figure skater, but I quickly swapped my white figure skates for a pair of Bauers.
Grampa watched my games the same way he watched Dale's. His trenchcoat and fedora had been swapped for a Yankees or Devils jacket and a ball cap, but he'd park himself behind the goal under the big scoreboard at South Mountain Arena, where he used to work out in the New Jersey Devils weight room every morning with McMullen and longtime Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, and watch me as I played for Livingston High School. I'd hear the whispers as we lined up for faceoffs: "Holy smokes! I think that's Yogi Berra!"
I was the only girl on that team, the captain my senior year, and as one of the smallest players on the ice, I got hit hard and often. But I was scrappy and smart and always in the right place at the right time, and Grampa got the biggest kick out of watching me play. Once, I got blind-sided after a whistle at the end of a period by a player who was none too thrilled to have girls on the ice. I fell backwards and landed on my rear end, bruising my tailbone. It hurt like crazy, and I'll never forget the look of shock on Grampa's face and the subsequent belly laugh when his 15-year-old, ponytailed wisp of a granddaughter came off the ice cursing a blue streak.
When the Devils were winning their three Stanley Cup championships -- in 1995, 2000 and 2003 -- Grampa was a regular in their locker room. "Having Yogi around was a big, positive influence for us," then-Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko told NHL historian Stan Fischler. "He was our good-luck charm because he knew all about winning. His pedigree rubbed off on us and we loved that he rooted for us so dearly. Knowing that made us feel we couldn't lose."
Grampa's hockey buddies became regulars at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University, and at the museum's annual golf outing. In 2014, when the Devils had missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, Gilbert showed up with a patchy growth on his face. Grampa pointed to it and said, "What the hell is that?" And Gilbert said, "It's a playoff beard, Yogi. It's what happens when your team actually makes the playoffs."
Now, even though Grampa is gone, his relationship with hockey continues. Gilbert, along with Daneyko and fellow former Devil John MacLean, still come for golf each June. Lamoriello sits on the museum's advisory board and remains a close friend of the family, and the museum just purchased a dasher board at Clary Anderson Arena in Montclair, because it just felt right to have Grampa's name on the boards in the rink where he watched Uncle Dale learn to skate. At the first annual Yogi Berra Museum Awards Dinner on May 12, which would have been Grampa's 92nd birthday, at the Plaza Hotel in New York, we will be honoring the McMullen family for its contributions to the community.
Lamoriello always says that one of the biggest things he learned from Grampa is no matter what success you have, you have to love the game. There's no doubt Grampa loved baseball. But he certainly loved hockey, too.