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'You Won't Be My Son Anymore': Yogi Berra's Tough Love For Dale11:19
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Dale Berra with his dad on the bench at Wrigley Field in 1970. (Courtesy Dale Berra)
Dale Berra with his dad on the bench at Wrigley Field in 1970. (Courtesy Dale Berra)

One day in 1992, very early in the morning, Dale Berra was summoned to what he calls a "tribunal." There, in the den of his parents’ home in Montclair, New Jersey, Dale’s father, Yogi, led the proceedings.

"He simply said to me, 'You won't be my son anymore if you continue to use cocaine,' " Dale recalls.

He says those words came from a man who was more complex than the general public ever knew.

Growing Up A Berra

Yogi Berra won 10 World Series and three MVPs in his long Yankees career. He was a celebrity, and a big league manager with the Yankees and Mets.

Yogi Berra (left) won 10 World Series championships with the Yankees. (Courtesy Dale Berra)
Yogi Berra (left) won 10 World Series championships with the Yankees. (Courtesy Dale Berra)

But when the three Berra boys went to their dad for baseball advice …

"He didn't want to teach us," Dale says. "He'd say, 'Go watch Cleon Jones hit. He'll show you how to hit the ball to right field.' Or, if I wanted to take ground balls, he'd say, 'Watch Bud Harrelson take ground balls. Do it that way.' "

All three Berra sons excelled in sports. Dale graduated high school in 1975. Two years later, he was playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Berra was a reliable utility infielder and a member of the Pirates’ World Series-winning 1979 team.

In 1982, he led all National League shortstops in home runs. He was finally an everyday player.

Dale thought he was on his way to a long and successful career.

Life In The Bigs

But two seasons later, Dale was struggling. In one 1984 game between the Pirates and the Dodgers …

"You know, I'm facing Don Sutton with that curveball that starts behind your left ear and ends up over the outside corner down and away, " Dale says. "And I struck out three times."

Dale Berra played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1977 to 1984. (Courtesy Dale Berra)
Dale Berra played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1977 to 1984. (Courtesy Dale Berra)

At the time, Yogi was managing the Yankees. But he’d keep his eye on the Pirates’ box scores. That same day, Yogi was in the Yankees’ dugout for a game in Kansas City.

"So, between innings, he calls our trainers' room. The trainer comes out and says, 'Dale, your dad's on the phone.'

"And I say, 'What do you mean? He's managing a game in Kansas City.' And he goes, 'Here he is.' And I said, 'Dad, you’re managing!' He goes, 'Don't worry about what I'm doing. It's between innings. I got the box score. How did you strike out three times?'

"You know, my dad would only strike out 12 or 15 times in an entire year, and I'd strike out that many times in a week.

"I said, 'Dad, Don Sutton's really tough to hit.' And he said, 'He is? He's got to throw it over the plate, doesn't he?' "      

What Yogi didn’t realize was that Dale was dealing with an even bigger problem than Don Sutton’s curveball.

'I Liked It Too Damn Much'

It had begun on New Year’s Eve, four years earlier, in 1980. Some of Dale’s friends had brought cocaine to a party.

"I said, 'You know what? Let me try it.' And I tried it. And you know what happened? It's a very simple thing, with no intellectualizing it now: I loved it. I liked it too damn much."

Dale says he used cocaine for the rest of his Major League career. During those years, he considered his drug use to be — in his words — "recreational and responsible."

“I should've had a breakout year. [1984] is the year where the use of cocaine caught up to me.”

Dale Berra

"To me, an addict was a guy laying on the street with a needle in his arm," Dale says. "Or a guy shaking in the corner and couldn't control himself. Or a guy missing games, and missing team buses and flights, and not showing up for practice. That was an addict. Not me."

Dale Berra’s habit didn’t cause him to miss games or practices. But it wasn’t helping, either. In 1984, he went on to strike out 78 times in 450 at-bats. He batted just 0.222.

"I should have been getting a lot better," Dale says. "I should've had a breakout year. That is the year where the use of cocaine caught up to me.

"I didn't realize that it was taking away the split-second timing that it takes to hit a 95-mile-an-hour fastball. Or do the geometry on a slicing line drive hit by Mike Schmidt. But I justified it, because I never missed a game. I never missed a plane. I never was late. I never played the game on cocaine.

"All those things told me I had no problem, when it was robbing me of my skills. And I was too dumb to realize it. It's the biggest regret of my life."

Dale did not know at the time that a trade to the team his father managed was in the works.

"No," he says. "I had no idea."

Dale Berra was traded to the New York Yankees on Dec. 20, 1984.

"The opportunity to play from my father was a dream come true," he says.

Dale Berra poses with his father at Yankee Stadium after being traded to New York. (Paul Burnett/AP)
Dale Berra poses with his father at Yankee Stadium after being traded to New York. (Paul Burnett/AP)

Yogi confided to a handful of friends that it was a dream come true for him, too. But he didn’t tell Dale that.

"I was driving in to the stadium with him for the day of the publicity shoot where they were announcing the trade," Dale says. "He drove. And I said to him, 'So, Dad, this is a big day. What do you think?' He goes, 'I think you won't play unless you hit, kid.' And I said, 'Oh, OK.' He goes, 'You know, I'm not going to treat you any different than the other players. If you hit, you play.' "

Testimony

But during the offseason, months before Dale even had his first at-bat for the Yankees, he was staying in his parents’ Montclair home when the doorbell rang.

"It was very early in the morning. My mom and dad were both home. I was upstairs in the bedroom, and I came downstairs," Dale says.

It was the FBI.

"All they said to me was, 'We would like you to come to Pittsburgh to testify in front of a grand jury about cocaine in Pittsburgh and Major League Baseball,' " Dale says. 

"Dad came in and said, 'What's this all about?' And I said, 'They just want to know about some cocaine stuff in Pittsburgh.' Dad said, 'Are you OK? Are you in trouble?' And I said, 'No.' I said, 'I'm not, Dad. And I am OK.'

"He trusted me, and he believed me. Because I thought I was."

Dale was asked to testify in September. But, in the meantime, there was baseball to play.

Yankee Son And Yankee Dad

On the first day of 1985 spring training, Dale needed to ask a question. As is the baseball custom, he addressed his manager as "Skip."

"And Ron Guidry got up, right in the middle of the team meeting, and said in his Cajun accent, he said, 'Dale, that man is not your “Skip.” That man is your dad. From now on, when you speak to him, I don't ever want to hear the word “Skip” out of your mouth. It's “Dad.” Yogi, you call him “Son.” ’ And that took all the pressure off us right then and there," Dale says.

The season began, and Dale realized that the Yankees loved playing for his dad.

Dale Berra hits a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 10th inning against the Detroit Tigers on July 1, 1986. (Courtesy Dale Berra)
Dale Berra hits a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 10th inning against the Detroit Tigers on July 1, 1986. (Courtesy Dale Berra)

"It was wonderful to hear Mattingly talking about, 'Yogi, what a great manager he is.' And Don Baylor going, 'Gosh, darn it. Come on, let's go out there and win for Yog,' " Dale says. "I loved playing for him, because he’s my dad. It was a tremendous experience for 16 games."

The injury-depleted Yankees struggled out of the gate. George Steinbrenner had promised to stick with Yogi for the whole season. But on April 28, the Yankees lost to the White Sox in Chicago.

"After the game, I go into the clubhouse, and there's guys cursing," Dale says. "Baylor's in the shower, throwing food in the shower. Mattingly's cursing up a storm, throwing a garbage can. Ken Griffey Sr.’s crying at his locker. Ron Guidry is crying at his locker. They said to me, 'Go into your dad's office.' So I walked in there, and I said, 'Dad, what's going on?' He said, 'They got rid of me, Dale.' And I wanted to console him." 

But Yogi would have none of that. Instead, he delivered what might have been the most poignant of his Yogi-isms: "You have your future ahead of you. Mine is behind me."

Yogi Berra never managed another team.

The Pittsburgh Drug Trials

Dale Berra following his testimony on Sept. 11, 1985 in Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Dale Berra following his testimony on Sept. 11, 1985 in Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Toward the end of that season, Dale Berra testified along with several other Major Leaguers at the Pittsburgh Drug Trials. Six men were found guilty of distributing cocaine. Eleven players, including Berra, were suspended. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth commuted all 11 suspensions in exchange for community service and fines. Dale played one more year for the Yankees and then another for the Houston Astros. He retired in 1987.

"I could have been a lot better," Dale says. "Cocaine took what I think would have been an All-Star-type career."

It also took his first marriage, which ended in 1989 after a conviction for cocaine possession. Dale’s drug use continued for a few more years, and then his family had had enough.

"And Dad, knowing my history, called my brothers and said, 'That's it. I've had enough. I'm no longer going to ask him if he's OK, because I don't trust him anymore,' " Dale remembers.

And that brings us back to that early morning in 1992.

The Tribunal

Dale’s phone rang. It was his dad.

" 'Come up here. I want to talk to you,' " Dale remembers Yogi saying. "So I quickly put on my clothes, knowing full well that his inflection was different. Something about him was different."

"My Dad, Yogi," by Dale Berra
"My Dad, Yogi," by Dale Berra

Dale arrived at the Berras’ Montclair home. His mother and two brothers were in the den. His father presided over the tribunal.

"He simply said to me, 'Your brothers over there are not going to be your brothers anymore. Your father sitting here will not be your father anymore. And you won't be my son anymore if you continue to use cocaine. And don't tell me that you don't use it! If you ever use it again. You have no family,' " Dale says. "I was shot through the heart.

"In that instant, the obsession, the compulsion, was lifted from me.

"And that was 27 years ago. And I have never wanted or never even gave thought to another drink or drug. We never even talked about that again. Dad wouldn't even bring it up again. He didn't. He just knew I was OK."

Father's Day 

These days, Dale Berra and his wife, Jane, are raising two daughters, ages 14 and 12. Yogi attended his granddaughters’ softball and lacrosse games before he died in 2015. Dale says he’s thinking about him a lot this Father’s Day weekend.

Dale Berra’s new book is “My Dad, Yogi: A Memoir of Family and Baseball.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dale Berra led all National League shortstops in RBIs and total runs. In fact, he was second in RBIs and tied for fourth in runs. Berra also never struck out three times in a game against Don Sutton.

This segment aired on June 15, 2019.

Gary Waleik Producer, Only A Game
Gary Waleik is a producer for Only A Game.

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