Did Branch Rickey Really Believe Yogi Berra Would Never be a Major League Ballplayer?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about baseball and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the baseball urban legends featured so far.

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Branch Rickey did not think Yogi Berra would be a major league ballplayer.

STATUS: I’m Going With False

Joe Garagiola, while never really having a great career in the Major Leagues, still stuck around for nine seasons in the big leagues as a catcher before embarking on a much more successful career post-baseball as a sports announcer and then panelist on The Today Show (he would also serve as the host of a number of game shows, including To Tell the Truth).

However, interestingly enough, while Garagiola might not have been the best catcher in the major leagues, he turned out not to even be the best catcher on his STREET, as he grew up on the same street in St. Louis with future Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra (who sadly passed away this week at the age of 90)!

In 1942, both teenagers were seen as roughly equitable, with Garagiola actually receiving slightly more favorable reviews from most scouts.

In that same year, the St. Louis Cardinals and their then General Managers Branch Rickey signed Garagiola to a contract along with a $500 signing bonus (which was a nice chunk of change in 1942).

At the same time, Rickey seemed quite dismissive towards Berra as a ballplayer, including reportedly saying that Berra was too awkward and would never make it in the big leagues.

Ultimately, the Cardinals did offer Berra half of what Garagiola was offered, which Berra turned down.

The next year, the New York Yankees ended up throwing their money around and made Berra the same bonus offer (although, as it turned out, he would have to stick with the team all season to get the bonus money, something that was not made all that clear when he was first signed) and Berra, naturally, went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Yankees.

Here is Berra and Garagiola together in 1947…

Berra held a grudge against Rickey for years, bitter over Rickey’s dismissive attitude toward him.

However, I don’t believe Rickey WAS really that dismissive toward him, and even Berra, much much later in his life, seemed to come around to that way of thinking, as well.

You see, in 1942, Rickey was nearing the end of his tenure as the General Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.

After that season, he became the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

As soon as he became the head of the Dodgers, he sent Berra a contract and the signing bonus that he wanted.

Since nothing had changed for Berra between earlier that year and when Rickey sent him the contract (as in, Rickey did not re-scout him or anything like that), it sure seems awfully suspicious, doesn’t it?

A great talent evaluator like Rickey, coming to the end of his tenure with one team, KNOWING he is soon going to take over another team, decides not to sign a player with the first team and then, upon moving to the new team right away sends the same offer he refused to make before?

It sure sounds like Rickey was trying to stash Berra away so that he could get him when he was with the Dodgers, doesn’t it?

Berra himself ultimately came around to that line of thinking, saying in his 2005 auto-biography, Ten Rings: My Championship Seasons (with co-author Dave Kaplan) :

Looking back, I think Rickey knew he was a lame duck with the Cardinals. He knew he was going to the Dodgers and maybe he was trying to hide me. Maybe it was true, because I got a telegram in November from Rickey telling me to report the next spring to Bear Mountain, about thirty miles north of New York City, where the Dodgers held their wartime training camp. But it came a few days after I’d just signed with the Yankees for the same $500 bonus Joe got.

Since then, Berra said multiple times in interviews that he thought that was likely the case (although he spun it as “Rickey wanted me, but I didn’t go with him because of the earlier snub, even if it was a calculated snub”) that Rickey DID want him, but not as a Cardinal.

And I think that appears to be the most likely scenario – you don’t sign a guy and then, as soon as you take over a new team, you send him a contract and tell him to report to training camp?

I certainly cannot guarantee that I know what the inner workings of Rickey’s mind were, but I think it is likely enough that I’m willing to go with a “false” here, especially for the more specific claim (that has been made many times over the years) that Rickey did not think that Berra would make it as a major leaguer – THAT seems to be pretty plainly false, as he offered him a professional contract the same year that he supposedly doubted his abilities to ever play pro ball.

The legend is…


R.I.P. Yogi!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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