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Remembering Yogi Berra

When most people think of Yogi Berra it’s highly likely some of the quotes attributed to the Hall of Famer will come to mind. Yogi’s quotes are legendary and other than Shakespeare, Robert Frost and Mark Twain I’m not sure if another person has had a larger impact on the common expressions we find ourselves repeating more so than Yogi.

Yogi Berra played 18 seasons with the New York Yankees and the catcher was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972. He played in 14 World Series, 10 of which were won by the Bronx Bombers.  Yogi’s quotes like “it ain’t over till it’s over,” …… “Baseball is ninety percent mental, and the other half is physical” and my favorite …… “It’s déjà vu all over again” will live with us forever. For those great quotes Yogi Berra will always bring a smile to our faces, however most of us living in the 21st Century don’t realize how he helped reshape professional sports in the 20th Century.”

What’s interesting about Yogi Berra is that he came along at a time when Sports Agents did not exist.  But that significantly changed when he developed a friendship with Frank Scott.  Frank Scott is who most consider to be the first Sports Agent.  Frank Scott was originally the Yankees road secretary, and had insight into public appearances the Yankee players made throughout the city.  As the story goes, Frank Scott and his wife were visiting with the Berra’s one night, and Carmen (Yogi Berra’s wife) noticed Frank Scott wasn’t wearing a watch. She excused herself and came back with a whole tray of wrist watches and told him to pick one out.  He learned Yogi had been compensated with wrist watches from making those personal appearances for the Yankees. Scott would later tell The New Yorker Magazine it was in that moment he realized there should better compensation for players who endorse products and make public appearances.

Shortly thereafter, the “wheels” within Frank Scott’s mind began to turn and he started Frank Scott Associates, with Berra as his first client.  Needless to say, the Yankees and Frank Scott parted ways with the Yankee front office challenging Scott with where his loyalty stood; i.e., with the players or the club.  But according to at least one Berra biographer, Yogi began collecting monetary sums unlike any other player of his era! As a kid I actually remember this because Yogi Berra was always on television. From what is recorded Yogi Berra made $2,500 from speeches in his first year with Scott.  His personal appearance fee at banquets were minimally at the rate of $200 and over time and before his death, it was not unusual for the 90-year-old to earn up to $50,000 for each major public appearance.

From those beginnings, it didn’t take long for this business arrangement between Yogi and Frank Scott to become a standard for all well-known professional athletes. Frank Scott went on to become a baseball sports agent for Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. He later expanded into the gridiron to represent football legend Frank Gifford. But it all began with Yogi. During his time as a player, and the years that followed, Yogi made television appearances on The Phil Silvers Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. In addition, Yogi secured a 15-year endorsement deal promoting Yoo-Hoo, the famous chocolate soft drink. To this day you can surf the internet and find pictures of Yogi Berra promoting Yoo-hoo, the chocolate drink of champions!

I doubt whether this shrewd business fact about Yogi will change how he is remembered. After all, because of Berra’s “Yogi-isms” most will remember him as a less than intellectually gifted person by the way his words flowed from his mouth. But I, like the State of New Jersey, will remember him as a visionary and pioneer for the professional sport athlete. In 2008 for his wisdom, philanthropy and contributions to sport Mr. Yogi Berra was part of the inaugural class of the New Jersey Hall of Fame. It should be noted Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein were also part of this class. I think we would all agree this is pretty good intellectual company. Also, as a lover of music, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bruce Springsteen was inducted into this same New Jersey Hall of Fame class. Obviously, two really good entertainers received deserving recognition. But while all of this has significance on New Jersey’s regional stage, Yogi Berra should be remembered as a pioneer on a national stage for how he changed the professional sports financial landscape.

Today, when the longevity of a professional sports career is discussed, we think of the hazards of playing the game and the impact injury has on the length of a player’s career. However, back in Yogi’s day marginal or average players, making relatively meager salaries, sometimes elected to shorten their career for financial reasons and give the sport up to pursue more profitable career options. Very few could make sports a full time job. Even Yogi, early in his career, worked as a waiter in New York restaurants during the offseason to carry him financially throughout the year until he learned how to make his celebrity a full time occupation. This was the norm for the vast majority of ballplayers until Yogi and Frank Scott started to modify the financial scene.

I could easily deduce the boys of summer who were part of the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 were given a chance at vindication in the 1950’s when Yogi and Frank Scott changed this financial playing field. Those “Eight Men Out” who had been taken advantage of by professional baseball owners, now some 30 years later had a champion in Yogi Berra who found a creative way to use his celebrity and address the financial limitations ballplayers typically faced. The same financial limitations that allowed professional gamblers to tempt key Chicago White Sox players into throwing the 1919 World Series were being overcome by the hard work and ingenuity of Frank Scott and Yogi Berra. As much as anything, Yogi’s celebrity status as an advertising icon provided a model for professional athletes to improve their financial standing without associating with illegal elements of society.

Certainly, Berra’s athletic talent is what made him an All-Star and kept him the Yankee line-up, but the Yankees also benefitted from the overall Berra sports package. Everyone loved and looked up to Yogi. He was a billboard king. Before Berra, only Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio had as much marketing appeal. And here’s something to think about, in the 1950’s a decade where the Yankees made 8 World Series appearances, which resulted in 6 World championships with line-ups that included Mickey Mantle, Don Larsen, Allie Reynolds, Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto, Tony Kubek, Hank Bauer, Ralph Terry and Whitey Ford; it was Berra, a .285 career hitter, who had as much negotiating leverage with Yankee owners Daniel Topping and Del Web as did the great Mickey Mantle. By comparison, in 1957 which was Berra’s top salary year, Yogi made $65,000 while Mantle was on the payroll for $60,000. As a reminder, this was the year after Mantle won baseballs triple-crown and was the American League MVP. It wasn’t until after Yogi had somewhat paved the way did Mantle’s income rise to six figures in subsequent years.

Yogi Berra’s net worth was reported to be ~$5 million at the time of his death.  Not bad for a post-World War II baseball player.  But many of our younger generation will believe Berra’s wealth was built through baseballs salary structure and being a part of the most successful sports franchise in professional sports history. This opinion is not entirely off-base for Berra was known for his frugal spending and healthful habits that led to a long and prosperous life. But Yogi’s wealth was more the result of his association with Frank Scott and being able to put money in Scott’s pocket as well as his own thanks to building celebrity status and garnering outside endorsement deals. Given the times and where baseball had been some 30 plus years earlier, this was quite an accomplishment. Yogi laid the ground work for player bargaining power and in some ways contributed to a business mindset among players that would lead to landmark decisions and the downfall of Major League Baseball’s reserve clause which ushered in the current era of free agency.

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