By Joel Alderman
Yogi Berra, who just died at age 90, not only left a lasting impression on baseball and American society in general, but he should be remembered, although not too many are still aware of it, as having played several games in West Haven and New London, Connecticut.
It was during the tail end of World War II, and Larry Berra, as he was better known then, was in the U.S. Navy, and stationed at the submarine base in New London.
The Sub Base had a population of 10,000 gobs and featured an outstanding baseball team, to help the morale of the athletes and their fellow trainees.
In 1945 an obscure Navy man, Lawrence Peter Berra, was on that team. It included several who had already played in the major leagues, and others, such as Yogi, who were headed in that direction after the war.
The player-manager was Lt. Jimmy Gleason, an ex-Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati outfielder. Also included on the roster was Sig Gryska (St. Louis Browns second baseman), Al Scherer (former Brooklyn Dodger pitcher), and Junior Thompson (former 20-game winner with Cincinnati, who helped the Reds win the 1939 and 1940 National League pennants).
Playing mostly on the road, the New London Sub Base team faced the semi-pro West Haven Sailors, managed by Harry Noyes, four times that year, and even squeezed in a trip to Yale Field, when Yale was on a year round wartime schedule.
Yogi played in all five games, either as an outfielder or a catcher. Although he was not outstanding, let’s stroll down memory lane and help preserve the record of his appearances for the future. Through the help of newspaper archives, I am pleased to present the following account of this future Hall of Famer’s imprint on Connecticut.
Sunday, June 24, 1945; Sub Base 9 West Haven 5
A crowd of 3,500 went to Donovan Field, in the Savin Rock amusement park at West Haven, hoping to see the Sailors extend their winning streak to eight games. They were disappointed but likely impressed by the visiting team. Berra was probably unnoticed. He played left field and had two putouts. But, batting fifth, he was hitless in five plate appearances.
Donovan Field was a bandbox, with a left field that would make Fenway Park’s Green Monster, appear a distant target. The sub team had three home runs, while Cy Block and Bill Doherty connected for West Haven.
Sunday, July 22, 1945; West Haven 2 Sub Base 1 (11 innings)
This time a near capacity crowd of 4,000 turned out on another Sunday afternoon, and they were rewarded with a thrilling 11-inning game in which the Sailors defeated the service team, 2-1.
A run in the third inning for the Sub Base held up until the bottom of the ninth. Cy Block, a West Havener who would later play some in the majors, led off with a single, and Ken Strong, to be known better as an NFL star, bunted him to second.
If the name Ken Strong sounds familiar to the present generation, it should. The football field at West Haven High school is named for him. (He was also a part of our Greatest Athlete in CT History Tournament).
Block advanced to third base on an infield out. Then Ben Ferriola, the catcher, hit a line drive single to left to tie the score 1-1.
The Sailors won in the 11th and again it was Cy Block who led off with a single. Junior Thompson, who like West Haven pitcher Lee Davis went the distance, fanned Strong. Block then stole second and went to third on a passed ball.
Again it was Ferriola who drove in the run for the ball game with his third hit of the day.
Berra once more batted fifth, and managed a hit in five at-bats. He played left field but had no line in the box score.
Sunday, Aug. 19, 1945; West Haven 7 Sub Base 3
A rivalry was now developing, and 4,500 fans squeezed into rickety Donovan Field to welcome the Sub Base back to West Haven. They were rewarded with a 7-3 victory by the home team. This time Yogi was behind the plate, still batting fifth. He had two hits, including a double.
With the Sailors in front 7-1, Yogi singled to centerfield in the seventh driving in two of his teams three runs.
Hugh Masterson, former ace of the Washington Senators, would have been the starting pitcher for the Sub Base. However, he had just received his discharge from the Navy the day before the game and was due to report to the Senators in the next few days. Such was wartime baseball.
Monday, Sept. 3, 1945; Sub Base 5 West Haven 4
Another packed attendance of 4,200 went to the Savin Rock ball park on Labor Day of 1945. The Sailors had taken two out of three from the Navy men, who were determined to even the series in their last meeting. They came into the game with a 59-8 record.
Several major league teams had visited the Sub Base in New London that year and were defeated. They were the Washington Senators, New York Giants, the New York Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers, St. Louis Browns and Boston Braves. Only the Philadelphia Phillies left New London’s Cassin Young Field with a victory.
Before making their last trip to West Haven, the Sub Base had won the New England Service League championship by defeating another star studded service team, the Quonset (Rhode Island) Flyers, two weeks previous.
The result on Labor Day was another nail biter which went 10-innings as the Sub Base won, 5-4.The game featured a controversial call by Al Barlick, who would become one of the National League’s all-time great umpires.
Barlick was also in the service and was in West Haven several times to work with the local arbiters.
Tied 4-4 since the third inning, the Sub Base moved in front in the 10th on a double and a single.
Fireworks developed in the bottom of the 10th, and Yogi was in the middle of them. Cy Block, who had three hits including a three run homer, was called out on a third strike foul that catcher Berra snagged, although the Sailors violently protested that it first hit the dirt.
Local umpire Pop O’Neil, working third base, called it a foul but, Barlick, the first base umpire and probably the most respected of the crew, overruled him for the strike out. Even then, nobody took issue with Barlick, and succeeded.
Berra was 0-3, but apparently was walked twice since the box score shows six other batters with five turns at bat. He was also listed as having two assists, which may have come on attempted steals.
The series with the West Haven Sailors and the New London Sub Base, with 20-year old Yogi Berra in its lineup, ended with two wins for each team.
Wed., July 11, 1945; Sub Base 5 Yale 2
In addition to the four games at Donovan Field, there was the one at Yale Field. It took place on July 21st during Yale’s third wartime summer baseball season.
Yogi Berra went four for five with a double and scored a run. He made four putouts in left field. The captain of that Yale team was Paul Walker, a three-sport star who later played in the NFL with the New York Giants. The coach was Red Rolfe, former New York Yankee star.
For the record
Hardly anyone had ever heard of Lawrence Peter Berra in those days. He was just another Navy man playing baseball while doing his tour of duty for Uncle Sam. But the record will show that he played those five games in West Haven during the summer of 1945, four at Donovan Field and one at Yale Field, and several in New London.
While the world wide baseball public is taking note of Yogi Berra’s great career, it is appropriate for us in Connecticut to realize that it included those times on baseball fields in West Haven and New London, while in the service of his country exactly seventy years ago.