Alumnus Jon Pessah Pens Book on Yogi Berra

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Alumnus Jon Pessah Pens Book on Yogi Berra
Apr 20, 2020

How do you persuade someone in 50 words or less to read yet another book about Yogi Berra? That was an assignment The New York Times gave to John Williams, who wrote on April 12:

“Miss baseball? Want to spend time with Yogi, watch him move from his childhood through war and early disappointments, never losing the certainty that baseball was his life. Want to witness great moments in baseball history from the inside? Want to know who Yogi really is? This is your book.”

Such praise sold me on the book, “Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask” by Jon Pessah, a 1974 graduate of the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism (before the college was named for Philip Merrill). The first question posed in a recent email interview with Pessah, a lifer in the sports news business, why another book on Yogi Berra when maybe only Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln have had more books written about them?

“Every good journalist knows there are so many untold stories no matter what the subject,” Pessah wrote in an email, “so I was confident that with time — I took 4.5 years to report and write this book — and hard work, I would find plenty of new and interesting stories about Yogi. And that was the case.”

Pessah, 67, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up on Long Island where he still lives. He graduated from Maryland in 1974, worked at the Prince George’s Journal and the Washington Star before becoming sports editor at the Hartford Courant and Newsday, leaving Newsday to help start ESPN The Magazine. He eventually left editing to write investigative and explanatory pieces for the magazine until meeting literary agent David Black, who convinced Pessah to try writing books.

Hi first book, “The Game,” was his inspiration to write “Yogi.”

“The Game was a book on baseball that concentrated on the labor the labor wars, the rise of George Steinbrenner and free agency, and the steroid scandals of the Bud Selig era,” Pessah wrote. “Much of it was very intense investigative journalism. I wanted to do something that would put a smile on people’s faces, and that made me think instantly of Yogi. And it didn’t hurt that he was my father’s favorite player, too.”

What made Berra such a fascinating figure to so many?

“The obvious: he was a tremendous baseball player, and upon examination of his record, he was the best player on the best team in Yankee history — the 1949-1953 Yankees who won a record five straight World Series titles. It was the tail end of Joe DiMaggio’s career and the early years of Mickey Mantle, who did not really hit his stride until 1956,” wrote Pessah.

“But there was so much more. He was a unique personality, and was one of the nation’s first TV stars — he was a constant on variety shows like Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason and Perry Como. Playing in the media capital of the world for the most famous team in all of sports certainly did not hurt, either. The media — newspaper writers, magazine writers, radio and TV people — all loved him and couldn’t do enough about him. He was far more easy to relate to than classically physical marvels like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Ironically, as quotable as the media of the time made him seem — and there are more quotes from Yogi in Bartlett’s Book of Quotations than any United States president — Yogi Berra off the baseball field — was actually a shy and quiet man.”

Of his time in College Park, Pessah reflected: “I loved playing basketball on the old asphalt courts on campus and drinking freshly squeezed lemonade at Albrecht’s drugstore on Route 1. I arrived on campus a year after Lefty [Driesell] — the same class as Tom McMillen, Len Elmore (the subject of my first real interview as a sportswriter). The excitement following that basketball team grabbed the entire campus.

“But my real favorite thing was writing and editing for The Diamondback, where I got my first taste of being a journalist. I was hooked after that. I can still remember covering the 1974 ACC Tournament, especially the final game, often called ‘The Greatest Game in college basketball history.’ No. 1 North Carolina State of David Thompson, Tom Burleson, Monty Towe against No. 3 Maryland of McMillen, Elmore and John Lucas. Sadly, N.C. State won, 103-100, in overtime. I sat courtside on press row, and the entire game is still seared in my memory.”

Pessah’s latest book is certainly worth reading, and if you are a Maryland alumni or student, I’m sure he’ll sign it for you.

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I am sad to report the Coronavirus pandemic is forcing the cancelation of two of my favorite Povich Center events: The annual Workshop for high school and college students, scheduled for April 18, and the weeklong summer camp for high school students, scheduled for July 6-10.

Both events were Povich Center highlights, with guests from journalism and broadcasting outlets giving of their time to assist future journalists.

To name some of the volunteers who rarely missed were Povich Center assistant director Kaitlyn Wilson (formerly of PressBox); former assistant Povich Center director Beth Mechum; Merrill’s Kevin Blackistone and Kate Yanchulis; The Washington Post’s Liz Clarke; Radio 630 A.M’s Andy Pollin; Merrill College broadcasting professor Joe Yasharoff; ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian and Heather Dinich; Hood College professor Alan Goldenbach; USA Today columnist Christine Brennan; author Jane Leavy; photographers Joel Richardson, John McDonnel and Jon Newton; Washington Post sports reporter Ava Wallace; Philadelphia Daily News reporter Aaron Carter; columnist Mike Wise; television commentators Dianna Russini and Kristen Berset-Harris; editor/writer Len Shapiro; The Washington Post’s Mark Selig; high school journalism teachers Evva Starr (Wootton) and Louise Reynolds (Whitman); The Baltimore Sun’s Jeff Barker; Merrill grad Lindsey Simpson; the AP’s Dave Ginsberg; ESPN’s Around the Horn producer Aaron Solomon; the Washington Redskins’ Larry Michael; Baltimore Ravens’ Patrick Gleason (director of public relations) and Ryan Mink (editorial director, Ravens.com); New York Public Relations’ Harrie Bakst; USA Today’s David Meeks; Merrill’s Lucy Dalglish, Rafael Lorente and Adrianne Flynn; The Undefeated’s Kevin Merida and David Steele; Washington Mystics’ Ketsia Colimon; and Terrapin pals Sasho Cirovski, Gary Williams, Missy Meharg, Brenda Freese, Rose DiPaula, Zach Bolno (now at George Mason), Dustin Semonavick and Sean Ellenby.

Additionally, UM athletic director Damon Evans never said no; nor did his predecessor, Kevin Anderson. Center friend Alan Bubes paid for the summer camps.

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Applause for Merrill College senior Andrew Kostka, who recently won two first-place awards given by the Society for Professional Journalists covering its Region 2 area. Kostka, writing for The Diamondback, captured sports writing prizes for large universities writing about Maryland defensive back Nick Cross and the Terrapin football program — a year after the death of Jordan McNair.

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Finally, sad to note the passing of Hall of Fame running back/receiver Bobby Mitchell, who played for the Cleveland Browns before becoming the first African-American star to play for the Washington Redskins (1962). Mitchell died April 5 at the age of 84. He was truly a great player and a first-rate team executive for the club. Mitchell also was a sportswriter’s dream — always available for a lengthy interview or quick quote. Of the current practice of most interviews monitored by a member of the team’s public relations staff, Mitchell would laugh at that and say he would handle his discussions with the press.

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