Not long ago, the world lost Yogi Berra, the squat, jug-eared philosopher in Yankee pinstripes, as famous for his cryptic quotes as his 358 home runs.
And as it mourned, a nation of fans passed around the most famous samples of garbled wisdom from the Hall of Fame catcher: “It ain’t over till it’s over,” “It’s déjà vu all over again,” “Nobody goes there nowadays. It’s too crowded.”
But in Nash County, a retired photographer named Bob Bartosz went scrambling through his garage, searching for a relic all his own – a souvenir that came with a priceless bonus: a personalized Yogi Berra aphorism, heard by only a handful of people, presented for the first time – ahem – in this column.
Bartosz told me the following story in his Battleboro kitchen, holding up a squashed brown baseball torn apart at the stitching, Yogi’s looping signature scrawled across the front in blue.
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“It never dawned on me,” said Bartosz, 78. “I got one of the famous quotes.”
A bit of background:
Bartosz grew up in New Jersey during World War II, when he and his gang of sandlot pals managed to play games with a tennis ball and a broomstick, equipping two squads of nine with a total of five gloves. If you hit a ball into the sticker bush, by the sandlot rules, you forfeited your next at-bat.
But one day, in 1947, Bartosz smacked the cover off their decrepit ball and forced a teammate to run home and fetch his father’s roll of electrical tape to make repairs. The moment stuck with him: a 10-year-old’s moment of batting power.
Flash forward to 1974. Bartosz had grown up and landed a staff photographer’s job shooting Phillies games for the Courier-Post in Camden, N.J.
Later on in life, he’d shoot portraits for Fleer baseball cards, snapping shots of every player in the National League. But our story concerns his beat photographer time in the gritty 1970s, when players made less money than fans in the stands, when all-star home run king Mike Schmidt earned a paltry $35,000 a year, when major league teams knocked baseballs around until they were sufficiently spoiled to ship to the minor leagues.
It was April, and the Mets were in town. Bartosz stood watching a coach hit fielding practice, and aiming out toward the outfield, he bashed the Spalding out of its cowhide, sending it spiraling into the air.
“It floated down like a parachute,” said Bartosz, memory still fresh. “I had a flashback to 1947.”
When the husk of the ball landed in the grass, a Philly tossed it to Bartosz as a joke, and he stuffed it inside his camera bag. But as Bartosz walked off the field, he noticed Yogi Berra, then 48 and the Mets’ manager, jawing with a pair of sportswriters.
“Hey, Yogi,” said Bartosz. “Would you mind signing this ball?”
The affable Yogi agreed, and Bartosz flipped him the empty cover. He caught it awkwardly, expecting a heavier, intact ball. Then he stared at it, puzzled, and scribbled his name while uttering his sage brand of nonsense:
“That’s the first time I ever signed a baseball that wasn’t a baseball,” said Yogi Berra, granting a greater gift than his autograph.
Bartosz, who photographed Willie Mays and Steve Carlton and North Carolina native Johnny Oates blowing a championship gum bubble, never got to know Berra well. But long after he and his wife, Pat, retired to Nash County, he found that old shell of a ball inside a box in the garage, its ink still clear, its oddball humor unblemished.