By Glen Sparks
The familiar combination of green, white and red—particularly near restaurants and on every fire hydrant—tells you something about this tidy neighborhood tucked away on St. Louis’s southwest side.
Those restaurant names—Ragazzi’s, Zia’s, and Charlie Gitto’s among many others—probably give it away. So does the aroma of simmering pasta dishes and the smacking of bocce balls on a weekend evening at Milo’s.
Italian immigrants flocked here beginning in the late 1800s. They left the old country to seek jobs with clay-mining companies in St. Louis. It was hard work, but the American Dream was within reach. And buona fortuna to you, too, amico.
Pietro Berra arrived in 1909, Giovanni Garagiola in 1911. They were friends back in Malvaglio, near Milan in northern Italy. The men found work at the Laclede-Christy Clay Products kiln in St. Louis for a buck-twenty a day, something like that. In time, Pietro and Giovanni married their sweethearts and began their families.
Lawrence Peter Berra was born May 12, 1925, Joseph Henry Garagiola on Feb. 12, 1926. The two boys, along with friends, played soccer and baseball and dreamed of making the major leagues, particularly for the hometown Cardinals. Of course, they all went to mass every Sunday at St. Ambrose Catholic Church, located at 5130 Wilson Ave.
The kids called Berra “Lawdy” in those days, a take-off on Lawrence. One warm summer day, the kids were walking out of a local movie theatre. One of the features was a grade-B pic, probably filmed on some Hollywood sound stage. The picture featured a Hindu holy man as one of the characters. A yogi.
“Hey, Lawdy, you look like a yogi,” one of the kids said. Yogi. Some accounts say it wasn’t a movie, per se, but more like a documentary. One version, much different from the other two, is that Berra was sitting on the ground with his legs crossed. Just like a yogi. Anyway, the name obviously stuck.
Yogi grew into a short, stocky teenager. Joe was taller and looked faster and more athletic. They both tried out for the Cardinals in the summer of 1941. The Redbirds offered Joe a contract with a $500 bonus. Branch Rickey, a great judge of talent and the Cardinals’ general manager, watched the tryout. He didn’t offer Berra anything.
Finally, Rickey told Berra he’d give him a $250 bonus. That just made things worse. So what if Joe was better looking? Yogi was every bit the player Joe was and deserved every bit as much money. That ended the negotiations.
Yogi ended up signing with the Yankees, of course. He played 19 seasons in the Bronx and hit 358 home runs to go with a .285 batting average. Berra made 15 All-Star teams, won three Most Valuable Player awards and celebrated 10 World Series championships. A Hall of Famer, he became a legend, both for his kindness and for his malapropos (Yogi-isms), real and imagined. (“When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”)
Joe played nine seasons in the big leagues, for the Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Giants, derailed in part due to a severe shoulder separation that he suffered. He hit .257 lifetime and smacked 42 homers. A member of the 1946 St. Louis team that won the World Series (Joe acquitted himself quite nicely, going 6-for-19 with two doubles and four RBI.), he famously quipped once that, “I went through my entire career as the player to be named later.”
Garagiola couldn’t hit a good curveball. Fortunately, he was bright, ambitious and could relay a great yarn. Television awaited. Joe did Cardinals games on KMOX from 1955 to 1962 and later worked on the Yankees broadcast crew. He called Mickey Mantle’s 500th career home run on May 14, 1967, at Yankee Stadium against the Baltimore Orioles. Mantle belted the homer off Stu Miller in the seventh inning. New York won 6-5.
From ’67 through 1973, Garagiola did some work on the Today Show and occasionally served as guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, once getting the gig with Beatles members John Lennon and Paul McCartney as guests. Garagiola also hosted some game shows (Sale of the Century, Strike It Rich, etc.) and worked the NBC Game of the Week every Saturday with Tony Kubek and, later, with Vin Scully. Some of Joe’s best stories revolved around Yogi, naturally, and his time with the woeful 1952 Pirates, a team that lost 112 games.
“One day, we had a rainout, and we staged a victory party,” Garagiola once quipped.
Baseball is a funny game, Joe liked to say. He wrote a book by that very name. Garagiola liked to kid around. He didn’t make any jokes about chewing tobacco, though. He hated the stuff, called it “spit tobacco” and waged a passionate fight to get ballplayers to quit dipping.
Joe and his wife, Audrie, eventually moved to the desert. They called Phoenix home for many years, and Joe did color work on the Arizona Diamondbacks telecasts. The Baseball Hall of Fame honored him with the Ford C. Frick Award for writers and broadcasters in 1991. The Hall honored him again in 2013, this time with the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to baseball.
Joe’s boyhood friend Yogi died last Sept. 22. A bronze plaque sits in front of Yogi’s house in the 5400 block of Elizabeth Avenue on the hill. Two more plaques sit across the street. One honors Mickey Garagiola, a St. Louis celebrity. The other is dedicated to Mickey’s brother and Yogi’s friend, Joe.
Above Garagiola’s plaque stands a wreath decorated with flowers, baseball memorabilia and a small sign (green, white and red, of course) identifying the Hill. The Rev. Vincent Bommarito a pastor at St. Ambrose, said in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article that Joe “loved the Hill.” Certainly, the Hill still loves its favorite sons.