The Day I Played Against Yogi Berra, and He Let Me Win

I played baseball in Yankee Stadium.

Posted Sep 23, 2015

I grew up in Dunmore, Pennsylvania as a die-hard Yankee fan. It was pinstripe country. During my grade school years, if the Yankees were in the World Series (and at the time, they often were), we got out of school early so we could watch the games on television.

When the games weren't televised, I listened to them on the radio, even when I was in college and just home for the summers. One time, the local station screwed up, and instead of airing the local ad, they played an announcement that was only supposed to reach listeners reasonably close to the Bronx. George Plimpton was recruiting fans to play for his team, the George Plimpton All-Stars, who would take on the Mickey Mantle All-Stars before the real game started on September 9, 1973. To try to get a spot on Plimpton's team, we had to write him a letter telling him why we should be selected.

For the first time in my life, I wrote my heart out. I told George Plimpton that at my age (20), I should probably be pining for a boyfriend. But what I really wanted was to play baseball in Yankee Stadium.

He wasn't the first official person to whom I had confessed that fantasy. For years, I used to beg my father, who had little interest in baseball, to take me and my friends to Yankee games. Back in the day, it was possible to wait outside the lot where the players and managers and owners parked and snag autographs and snippets of conversation as they passed by. One time, I stopped one of the higher-ups (a vice-president, I think) and asked him what I could do to become part of the Yankee organization. I didn't have the nerve to admit that I wanted to be their shortstop. He told me I should take a course in typing.

Undeterred, I was still listening to Yankee games all those years later. I wrote my letter to Plimpton, and not too long afterwards, a person in a uniform appeared at my Dunmore doorstep holding a telegram. I had been chosen for the team. I really would get to play in Yankee Stadium.

My dad didn't even need to be persuaded this time. My mother, some siblings and a friend all squeezed into the car, and off we went. I was so nervous and excited, I hardly slept the night before.

At the Stadium, I was escorted into the locker room where I met George Plimpton and the other players. We were quite the rag-tag team, with players ranging from 8 to 96 years old. I was one of two women. The guys all got uniforms to wear. Lilianna (if I am remembering her name correctly) and I only got Yankee t-shirts, but we got to keep them.

Before the game, we had a practice. Stepping out onto that field was magical. I got to roam the outfield and take swings at Plimpton's batting practice pitches.

I knew who I most wanted to see once the Mickey Mantle All-Stars arrived (I had a big fat scrapbook of The Mick), and headed straight for him. Did he ever wish he was not famous, I asked. "Yeah," he replied, "but then I'd have to work."

The game was actually just one long inning. We put up all of our players (or all of the ones who wanted to play — I don't think the oldest one did), around 15 of us, and they put up the nine of theirs, including Mickey Mantle (who played first base), Whitey Ford (pitcher, of course), and Yogi Berra (catcher). The George Plimpton All-Stars rotated on and off the field when Mickey Mantle's team was up.

I heard sometime afterwards, from a friend of a friend, that Lilianna claimed to be the first woman to play baseball in Yankee Stadium. She wasn't. I got to take the field first. She rotated in later. (This is my 15 minutes of fame and I'm owning it!)

One of the guys on Plimpton's team was disdainful of my presence on the team, and insisted I was only chosen because I was a girl. I was delighted when he struck out. (Big of me, I know.)

Then it was my turn. Whitey Ford wasn't exactly throwing his best stuff, but I managed to get two strikes on me anyway. I stepped out of the batter's box and walked back to Joe Garagiola, who was umping. "Look," I told him. "I came all the way from Dunmore, Pennsylvania. My parents are here. My siblings are here. A friend is here. I can't strike out!" He assumed his most avuncular tone and said, "Don't worry, honey — I'll take care of you."

I hit the next pitch to the third baseman (Clete Boyer, I think), and was thrown out at first. That might sound anticlimactic, but to me, it was exhilarating. When I took a personality course at Vassar a year or so later and had to write about a peak experience, that's what I described. (Somehow, I don't think it is what the professor had in mind.)

My name appeared on the scoreboard in Yankee Stadium. (I still can't believe that.) A photographer took pictures and a few weeks afterwards, a plaque of me standing there at home plate showed up in my mailbox. They spelled my name wrong (De Palo), but that became just another charming part of the tale.

The game was no Paper Lion. Plimpton never even wrote about it. But to this day, 42 years later, it is still one of my favorite memories.

Yogi Berra, you and Joe Garagiola and Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle really did take care of me that day. I'll miss you.

[Note. Publishing a book is not nearly as thrilling as playing baseball in Yankee Stadium, but it is the most exciting thing going for me at the moment. After four years of working on it, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, is finally on the bookshelves.]