Baseball is forever about relationships. It ties the game, teams and players together. It’s what makes baseball go.
One of the greatest of all baseball friendships began in the most unique of places, a submarine base in Groton, Connecticut in 1945.
The manager of the team was Jimmy Gleeson, a switch-hitting outfielder who played five years in the majors and hit .313 for the 1940 Chicago Cubs. Gleeson was told by his commanding officer that two young Navy men, a boxer and a baseball player would be arriving on base.
Gleeson’s son Bill picks up the story from there.
“When my dad got to the submarine base, he was the lieutenant in charge of sports activities and he was also the manager for the baseball team,’’ Bill said.
The two sailors showed up and one was a squatty little man.
Turns out that was Yogi Berra.
Yogi, a gunner’s mate, participated in D-Day – 77 years ago today – in a 36-foot boat called a rocket boat because it shot a stream of rockets on the beach before the landing. He returned state side and in 1945 he convinced the brass he really was a baseball player, so he got sent to the submarine base to play baseball.
Jim Gleeson, who died in 1996 at the age of 84 in Kansas City, recalled that first meeting with Yogi years later, saying, “I was managing the baseball team. A ballplayer and a boxer were supposed to come to the office. I thought Yogi was the boxer.’’
Gleeson did not buy in right away on Yogi the ballplayer, after all, Gleeson was a major leaguer, he thought he knew what major leaguers looked like. Yogi didn’t get into the starting lineup right away but after a few successful pinch-hit appearances he showed Gleeson his Hall of Fame skills. Yogi was soon the starting left fielder and just as in the 1942 movie “Casablanca’’ this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Yogi Berra and Jim Gleeson.
“I didn’t know that little guy that was hitting next, but I knew Gleeson. That little short guy looked about 18 or 19 years old and it turned out he hit a home run with the bases loaded. His real name was Lawrence ‘Yogi’ Berra.’’
You just never know who might be playing baseball on a submarine base in WWII.
Mel Ott’s Giants came through for an exhibition game and the sailors won. Gleeson, who knew Ott, gave him the inside scoop on just how good Berra was and soon the Giants offered the Yankees $50,000 in a trade for Berra.
At the time, the Yankees really had no clue about Berra’s talents. He was just another guy they signed. In his only minor league season, Class B ball, he hit .253. Then came the war.
But once the Yankees saw that Hall of Famer Mel Ott wanted Berra for his Giants, they took a fresh look at Berra and in 1946 he played at AAA Newark for the Yankees and did so well, hitting .314, Berra was promoted to the Bronx.
“The rest is history,’’ Bill Gleeson said.
Yes, Hall of Fame baseball history.
At the submarine base, baseball was the order of the day as the team competed in two different leagues. But there was more baseball to be played. To make extra money the talented players would play under assumed names in semi-pro leagues as well and in one of those games they were playing against a team managed by Crash Davis, who was also in the Navy at that time.
Yes, the real Crash Davis. Jim Gleeson knew him because Davis was an infielder for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, playing 148 games from 1940-42.
Baseball really was a much smaller world back then.
Four decades later, the movie “Bull Durham’’ comes out and Bill Gleeson rents the movie, takes it over to his dad’s house and they sit and watch the movie, some good father and son time with “Crash Davis’’ and all the other baseball characters in the classic baseball movie.
Yogi Berra (left) before D-Day.
“Dad didn’t talk a lot about baseball, we sat through that whole movie and my father never said a word who Crash Davis was,’’ Bill recalled. “He knew the baseball clown in the movie, Max Patkin, but never said a word who Crash Davis was. A couple years after my dad passed away, I typed in Dad’s name and baseball memorabilia and up popped dad’s name and Crash Davis’ name. I clicked on it. An interview came up with Crash Davis talking about World War II and that he was managing a Rhode Island team. His team was ahead by one run in the ninth inning. The other team was ahead by one run and had runners on second and third and he saw Jimmy Gleeson coming out of the dugout, playing under an assumed name. He recognized my dad and so he gave a signal to walk him and the next guy up hit a grand slam. He later found out that guy’s name was Larry Berra.
“That would be the only time my dad got walked to get to Yogi,’’ Bill added with a laugh.
Davis, who died in 2001, remembered that game well and told an interviewer from the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society years later: “We were playing in Providence, Rhode Island and all those players were using assumed names. Jimmy Gleeson, who had been with the Cubs and Reds, was playing in that league and first base was open so I elected to walk him. I didn’t know that little guy that was hitting next, but I knew Gleeson. That little short guy looked about 18 or 19 years old and it turned out he hit a home run with the bases loaded. His real name was Lawrence “Yogi’’ Berra.’’
The friendship grew. Jim Gleeson never made it back to the major leagues as a player, but in 1957 he was a coach with the Kansas City Athletics with such future Yankees as Ryne Duran, Ralph Terry, Hector Lopez and Clete Boyer. In all Jim Gleeson spent 42 years in baseball as a player, minor league manager, major league coach and a scout.
Jimmy Gleeson's and Yogi Berra's Sub Base Team.
Whenever Yogi and the Yankees would come to Kansas City, Jim Gleeson would travel to the Crown Center and the Yankees hotel to have lunch with Yogi. In 1964, Yogi wanted to help Gleeson get his major league pension. Gleeson was one of those pre-1940 players screwed over from qualifying for the pension so that season Berra made Gleeson the Yankees first base coach.
That was quite a baseball year, 1964 as the Yankees made it to the seventh game of the World Series, losing to Bob Gibson in that seventh game. Yogi thought he was going to get a new two-year contract from Ralph Houk after the season, but he got fired instead and was replaced by Johnny Keane, the Cardinals manager.
That didn’t work out.
“Dad needed 22 months to pick up his pension, so he thought he would go back and coach two years and grab his pension,’’ Bill said.
“I think six weeks after dad died my mom got a letter from Major League Baseball that dad got his pension.’’
The friendship lasted a lifetime. “They talked all the time,’’ Bill Gleeson said.
In fact, when Jim’s wife Julia passed away in 2004, the phone rang one Sunday afternoon and Bill’s teenage daughter picked it up and said, “Dad, there is some guy on the phone who says he’s Yogi Berra. Is that possible?’’
At that point because of Yogi’s Aflac commercials, everyone knew Yogi Berra.
Yogi was calling the family to offer his condolences. Yogi died at the age of 90 in 2015.
In 1964, Bill was lucky enough to live his own childhood baseball dream with his father being a Yankees coach.
Young Bill was 10 years old and when school was let out in Kansas City for the summer, he was able to live the summer of his dreams, living a few blocks from Yankee Stadium in the Concourse Plaza Hotel, and hanging out in the Yankees clubhouse whenever the Yankees played in the Bronx. He turned 11 in late July and the clubhouse was his playground.
“All the players had to sign 48 baseballs every day and they would sell them in the stands,’’ Bill recalled. “Mickey Mantle hired the batboy to sign his 48 baseballs every day and gave him $5 a day. Welp, Whitey wanted someone to sign his, so he asked me if I’d sign them. I did it one time and got paid $5 to sign Whitey Ford’s name on 48 baseballs. I just didn’t feel right about doing it anymore so I didn’t. I can still do a good Whitey Ford autograph, though.’’
Bill and Jim Gleeson, Yankees clubhouse 1964.
What was it like being in that clubhouse of pinstripe legends?
“Whoever designed the set for the movie “61*’’ was in that clubhouse,’’ Bill said. “It’s absolutely identical as I remember it, right down to the table out in the middle and the cooler with Yoo-hoo chocolate drink, which by the way, Yogi loved.’’
Jim Gleeson also had managed in the Yankees system, guiding players like Al Downing and Jim Bouton so Bill was familiar with some of the Yankees. He talked Downing into throwing him a fastball one morning at the Stadium. Yes, a fastball.
“So Al Downing went over and got Elston Howard, and Elston wrapped me up in the catcher’s gear, put a helmet on me and we went out to home plate,’’ Bill said.
Downing, who was 13-8 in 1964 with a 3.47 ERA, had told young Bill that he did not want to pitch to him because Bill would step out on the pitch.
“I did not step out on him,’’ Bill said proudly. “I never saw it. But to this day I will never forget the sound that ball made going by.
“Mel Stottlemyre (9-3, 2.06) came up that year and he and I became really good friends,’’ Bill said. “Jim Hegan was a coach. He gave me his catcher’s mitt. I had that forever and ever. It’s probably out at my folk’s house. Eddie Ford was Whitey’s son and he and I were good friends and we almost got banned from the clubhouse one time. We found out (Joe) Pepitone was deathly afraid of anything reptile – and Eddie had an iguana – so we put it in Pepitone’s locker one day before he showed up and oh my God, the whole locker room went nuts.’’
Bill Gleeson became a dentist and recently retired after 41 years. Through the decades it was difficult to pull baseball information out of his father, but he would try on the golf course or when they went duck hunting with some of his father’s baseball buddies like Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes.
Driving to the duck club one day Bill asked his dad if he remembered his first major league start and first at-bat in that game.
“Yeah, like it was yesterday,’’ Jim said.
“This guy named Lefty Grove was pitching and it took him three pitches.’’
Another mile or two down the road, Bill asked, “You remember your first major league hit?”
“Yeah, like it was yesterday,’’ Jim Gleeson responded.
“Who was pitching?’’
“Lefty Grove, I got a triple off the son of a bitch the next at-bat.’’
Jim Gleeson also played for the 1937 Newark Yankees, one of the great minor league teams of all-time. He was later sold by the Yankees to the Cubs for $25,000.
If you watch the 1993 movie “Rookie of the Year,’’ along the 25-minute mark, you will see Jimmy Gleeson in a Cubs uniform, spearing a baseball. “They open up the doors to let the kid in the clubhouse and there is a six-foot-high picture of my dad,’’ Bill said.
You also probably have seen other baseball video of Jim Gleeson and never realized it until now.
When Jimmy set off to play professional baseball, his father Matthew presented Jimmy with a 16-millimeter camera to record his travels. Matthew came over to America from Ireland with no money to his name and became a successful businessman. In fact, he owned a movie theater in Kansas City that he sold to Howard Hughes. Matthew proudly went back to visit his home country in 1932, driving his Nash to New York and taking it on a boat to Ireland. To read more about Jim Gleeson and his Irish heritage, check out the Irish American Baseball Society on Facebook or Twitter.
“Dad took a lot of pictures and this is back in the ‘30s,’’ Bill said of the most special baseball home movies. “In the ‘60s, I’m in the basement trying to look at this film. They were so faded you couldn’t see anything. Then in 1991 HBO calls him and says ‘We’re doing a series called “When It Was a Game’’ and we are looking for old time films.’’.
What a find and HBO was able to bring the old films back to life.
“When they sent Dad back a contract, he named me his agent,’’ Bill said, “and they paid him very nicely for the films and lot of his films are in the second series. I saw him at least four times in those films. A lot of the Wrigley ones were his and he was roommates on the road with Dizzy Dean.’’
That’s Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean. Dizzy was quite the character.
“I still remember that Dad got a Christmas card from Dizzy one year,’’ Bill recalled with a laugh. “It said: ‘To Jim Gleeson, the best .400 hitter in baseball; .200 left and .200 right.’’
Jim Gleeson had many baseball friends. His was a career of building friendships, playing and watching the game he loved.