I want to take a moment to remember Charlie Silvera, best known as Yogi Berra’s backup on the Yankees, but known to me as the crusty old scout who I loved talking to over the years in the press box of Oracle Park. Charlie, who was already a notably old man when I first met him nearly 20 years ago, died on Saturday at age 94. On one hand, this is longer than any reasonable human could hope for, but on the other it is still shocking for a guy who I assumed would live forever.
“They hated the Yankees,” he once told me. “They respected us, but they hated us.” That hatred might have had something to do with the fact that New York won six championships during Silvera’s tenure with the team, including five straight from 1949 to 1954. (He was the final survivor of the dozen men who played on all five clubs.) He spent nine years with the Yankees, during which time he started only 114 games, accumulating 484 plate appearances and a single home run. (Berra, after all, rarely took days off.) After a single season with the Cubs (and 13 more games started), Silvera followed Billy Martin to three teams—the Twins, the Tigers and the Rangers—where he served as a coach under his former teammate.
Charlie was at the center of a wonderful story about friendship, which involved growing up in San Francisco and playing against two men at rival high schools who would one day be teammates in New York: Jerry Coleman and Bobby Brown. Their relationship ended up spanning 70-odd years.
Charlie once told me the amazing story of Ralph “Pine Tar” Buxton being recruited for the Yankees by Casey Stengel based at least in part on his ability to teach pitchers on the staff how to cheat. That ended up in The Baseball Codes, as did Silvera’s classic quote about backup players receiving less-sought-after positions in the train’s sleeper car: “The stars, the starting lineup would have the middle of the car, and Charlie Silvera would spend his lifetime over the wheels. Bobby Brown says that anybody that rode over wheels for his whole career deserves whatever he got.”
Charlie also told a host of stories that didn’t make the final copy. Among them;
- “I remember when Allie Reynolds hit Chico Carrasquel with a curveball. It was probably Chico’s first year, and he got all upset. Allie said, ‘You think that’s bad, I’m gonna hit you next time with a fastball.’ ”
- “The only guy who ever threw at me was Early Wynn, and he would throw at his mother. But that was a way of testing you, to see if you hung in, if you were scared. And with no helmets!”
- “Whitey Ford didn’t like to switch signs. He had the same signs—one finger for a fastball, two for a curve—with a man on second, or not. He wanted to get the ball and throw. He didn’t want to lose his concentration. [Vic] Raschi used a scoreboard sign: If [the numbers of the count, added together] were even, it was a fastball, odd was an automatic curveball. If you flapped, it changed them. They were tough signs to use, but Raschi wanted to use them.”
- “[Eddie] Lopat, he had one sign, ‘wiggle finger,’ because he could see when he got to the top of the mound if the batter was going to move up. He was a slowball pitcher, but he could ride his fastball in. It was limited, but it was effective. That was it. Wiggle finger.”
- “In Chicago, they had a light in the scoreboard, in the circle of the zero [in Sherm Lollar’s #10], that would flash for a curveball. In Cleveland, they would put guys out in center field. Eddie Bockman used to go out there and get the signs from center field. Dean Chance went out there. They used binoculars or a telescope. Chance said he was going to go out and be inconspicuous, then wore the brightest red shirt he could find. In the playoffs in Baltimore, when Minnesota was playing there, [George] Mitterwald was catching and [Johnny] Roseboro was out in our bullpen with binoculars, trying to get the signs, and they caught him. One of our pitchers turned him in, one of our own, because he said that was cheating.” [That pitcher, Al Worthington, is featured prominently in The Baseball Codes.]
- [Under the heading of professional courtesy]: “Lew Brissie was shot up in World War II, had a bad leg and wore a protector over his shin. Phil Rizzuto still bunted on him, and Brissie would throw at Rizzuto because of this. He went after Phil, threw at his head. He felt that this was taking advantage of a wounded veteran. He was one guy we all knew not to bunt against.”
- “When you joined the Yankees, you were told the do’s and don’ts about what to do and what not to do. When I joined the club, Red Ruffing, Joe Gordon and Joe DiMaggio were in the service, so the four policemen on the team, the disciplinarians, were Tommy Henrich (age 33), Johnny Lindell (27), Snuffy Stirnweiss (29) and Billy Johnson (27). They were the ones that said, ‘You don’t get ’em tomorrow, you get ’em today.’ They said ‘Don’t fuck with our money’ to anybody who might be messing up during games.”
- “[Catcher] Clint Courtney had been in the Yankee farm system, went to spring training with us, and then was traded to the Browns. [Gil] McDougald had played with him at Beaumont, and Courtney had him out in a play at the plate but McDougald kicked the ball out of his glove for the go-ahead run. So Courtney is the first hitter up in the bottom of the ninth, and he hit the first pitch off the screen, kept running and he jumped feet first into Rizzuto, who had the ball at second. Well, that’s the last time Courtney saw anybody friendly from our team, because he was just clobbered from all over. The retribution went on and on and on. Billy Martin tagged him on the face and knocked his glasses off. And Whitey Ford was jumping up and down, stomping on his glasses. Courtney had a little trouble finding his way home.”
- “I was catching, with Ted Williams hitting and Bill McGowan umpiring. They called McGowan ‘Number One.’ He was a grouchy old bastard, but he was a good ball-and-strike umpire when he wanted to be, and generally, Yankees vs. Red Sox was something big. So we go to a two-and-one count, and the next pitch caught a lot of the plate. I said, ‘Jeez, Bill, that was a pretty good pitch.’ He said, ‘Throw the ball back, you bush bastard. They came here to see him hit, not you catch.’ ”
That was Charlie in a nutshell. Humble, endearing, and salty enough to remain forever intriguing. It was at his house that I got to hold a game-used Ted Williams bat, one small piece among a wondrous array of memorabilia collected over a career spent paying attention to that kind of thing in ways that I wish more ballplayers would have done.
The guy was never a star, but he was baseball, through and through. He will be missed.