I recently had a chance to interview Charlie Silvera, who backed up Yogi Berra at catcher for the Yankees from 1948 to 1956, and the first thing he mentions is the intensity around the right field corner and bullpen area.
“I’d go out there in the bullpen,” the 80-year-old Silvera says, “and there’s more colleges in the Boston area than any place in the world. The young adults sure gave you a bad time—but we had a lot of fun. They weren’t malicious like people are now.”
Silvera’s words, spoken the day before the 2005 season kicked off, proved prophetic last Thursday night, when a semi-malicious Red Sox fan—and now-former season ticket holder—Christopher House hit Gary Sheffield in the mouth as he was chasing Jason Varitek’s eighth-inning triple, leading to a punch from Sheffield and an emptying of the New York bullpen.
Silvera, who won five consecutive World Series rings with the Yankees from 1949 to 1953, knows how crazy the Boston fans can be.
“We used to stay at the Kenmore Hotel,” he says, “and when we’d walk to and from the park, you almost had to take your life into your hands because the people would be waiting for you along the roof.”
Still, the Sheffield incident was a little uglier than most of the confrontations in Silvera’s playing days.
“That park is something else. I mean, the people are right on top of you and everything. They can be vociferous, but they’re fair.”
Thursday night wasn’t quite fair, and it’s a tribute to Gary Sheffield that the incident didn’t become Pacers vs. Pistons round 2. Still, as paying customers looking for entertainment, the near-fracas, coupled with two managerial ejections, sure beat the alternate end of the spectrum, epitomized by those priceless interleague matchups pitting the Devil Rays against the Pirates on sweltering June afternoons.
“I enjoyed Boston, the town, the competition, and it was great just to be there,” Silvera says. “It was baseball at its finest.”
It still is, and in fact the rivalry has never been stronger. In Silvera’s day, the Nation-Empire rivalry had competition—the cross-town Brooklyn Dodgers were perennial pennant winners as well.
I ask Silvera about his team’s monumental collapse in the 2004 ALCS, and the first player he mentions is Dave Roberts, responsible for one of the most famous stolen bases in Major League history.
“He sort of ignited the fuse there,” Silvera says. “Well, that’s the way it goes, and it was good—it had to happen. Boston, poor people, they’re like the Cubs fans.”
Silvera now works as a scout for the Cubs, and can sympathize with an organization whose last World Series title came when Mark Twain was still alive.
Though he had a lifetime .356 OBP, Silvera hit just one career home run and appeared in just one of New York’s seven World Series during his tenure. Nevertheless, he is one of many players to contribute to the greatness of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us,” but baseball and the Boston-New York rivalry have only improved since the golden age of Silvera’s playing days. Baseball has history in a way that basketball and football don’t. Silvera is one piece of that history, simultaneously a reminder of what was and a reason for why the present is so special.
Casual fans have never heard of him, but Silvera has his own following. He was close friends with Mickey Mantle—“Nice guy, great ballplayer” Silvera says of the Mick—and warmed up Don Larsen before his legendary perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Silvera even played with Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee link from the Gehrig/Ruth days to the fifties and sixties of Mickey Mantle.
He wasn’t an all-star, or even a starter, but Charlie Silvera was still an integral part of one of the best teams and best rivalries of the century. It’s contributions by guys like him that make today’s battles so meaningful.
Just something to think about to put this unprecedented April frenzy into context.
—Staff writer Stewart H. Hauser can be reached at email@example.com. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.