Bill Newman: Innocence lost, decency found — thanks to Yogi Berra

Last modified: Friday, October 02, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — I miss Yogi Berra.

A signed photograph of him, a Father’s Day gift from my wife Dale, hangs on a wall in my office, close to the one of Mickey Mantle, above the one of Bobby Kennedy, near the one of my late dad and our daughter Jo laughing together.

The Yogi photograph captures him in full catcher’s regalia — his cap on backwards, flying forward about six inches above the ground, arms extended, his catcher’s glove in his left hand, the ball in his right, about to tag Ted Williams, who is sliding hard toward home with dirt flying from his spikes.

Yogi’s death a week ago should not have shocked me. After all, he was 90. But it kind of did — probably because Yogi has been a part of my life since I was old enough to read the sports section of the newspaper, and also because I had just researched an aphorism from Yogi to use at a talk at the Wellfleet Library.

There, Easthampton author Ellen Meeropol and I presented a program titled “Disappeared in America: Imagination and Fact.” Ellen spoke first — about her novel “On Hurricane Island,” a spit of land off the coast of Maine, where she situates a harrowing tale about interrogations and survival at a secret domestic detention facility.

My talk focused on black site prisons across the globe, the secret police lock-up in Chicago and witness-protection programs across America — ways our government makes people in prison vanish from view.

My talk began with a rhetorical question, “What will happen to civil liberties in America if we suffer another terrorist attack?” I answered, with thanks to Yogi for giving us this bit of wisdom, “It’s tough to make predictions, particularly about the future.”

Yogi Berra, who won the Most Valuable Player award three times, played in 18 All Star games and 14 World Series (where the Yankees won 10), in recent decades has became as famous for his malapropisms and paradoxical quotes as he was for his prodigious baseball skills.

During the early years of Yogi’s major league career, when you used the phone, the only person you suspected might be eavesdropping was the lady at the telephone exchange who dialed the number for you. For some years after that you still needed the operator to place a long-distance call.

But times change. In response to 9/11, Congress enacted the USA Patriot Act, and the government began widespread wiretapping, eavesdropping, unauthorized data collection and surveillance of all of us.

The United States also instituted programs of extraordinary rendition and extrajudicial killings, mostly by drones, routinely tortured detainees and constructed a maximum security prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for people never charged with a crime. Most frightening, perhaps, the government convinced many Americans that the Orwellian world it was creating was both justified and necessary and should be accepted as the new norm.

In 1958, while Dwight Eisenhower was president, Berra caught 88 games and didn’t make an error. The year before the Russians had launched Sputnik into orbit, but the president, understanding that the satellite did not pose a national security threat, encouraged Americans to calm down. When he left the Oval Office, Ike also urged us to beware the dangers of the military-industrial complex.

In October 1963, Yogi played in his last World Series, where the Dodgers, relying on the brilliant starting pitching of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres, swept the Yankees in four games. The following month the first electronic push-button — non-rotary — phones were offered by Bell Telephone. Less than a week after that, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and a generation lost its innocence.

J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal surveillance, his secret files, Cointelpro, and the FBI’s efforts to destroy the civil rights movement and its leaders were still to be revealed — mostly in 1975 at the Church Committee hearings, more formally known as The Senate Select Committee ... [on] Intelligence Activities. What struck us then as appalling invasions of privacy would barely register now on the scale of governmental unwarranted surveillance.

Yogi epitomized decency. He conjures feelings of a bygone era, a simpler one — remembrances that come back to me when I glance at the baseball cards taped to the wall across from my desk — the ones of Moose Skowron, Whitey Ford, Bobby Richardson and, of course, The Mick.

Today, in contrast, because we have failed to control the technology that can monitor our every movement and record our every utterance, the future for liberty and privacy looks precarious indeed. As Yogi put it — these words being the ones I used to conclude my talk at the library — “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Rest in peace, Yogi.

Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer, host of a WHMP weekday program and author of “When the War Came Home.” His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at


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