When Major League Baseball endured a players’ strike in 1981, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner didn’t want to pay his coaching staff to sit around. So he sent the coaches, including Yogi Berra, to scout and mentor the Yankees’ minor league teams.

Berra was dispatched to Nashville, Tennessee, where the Yankees’ Double-A team was managed by Maine native Stump Merrill.

“He said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ ” Merrill recalled.

“I said, ‘You’re Yogi Berra, you do whatever you like.’ ”

But Berra, the Hall of Fame catcher, had no intentions of taking it easy that summer.

“He made all the bus trips,” Merrill said. “Those long trips, from Nashville to Jacksonville (Florida), he’d stay up in the back, talking to the kids.

“Can’t think of a lot of Hall of Famers who would do that.”

Merrill reminisced about Berra on Wednesday, a day after the baseball legend died at the age of 90. Berra, a member of 10 World Series champions with the Yankees, was known as much for his affable personality and baffling sayings as for his talents on the field.

“We lost a great one,” Merrill, 71, said from his home in Harpswell.

Merrill got his first taste of the big leagues because of Berra. Going into his second straight season as Yankees manager in 1985, Berra asked Merrill to be his first base coach.

“I have been and continue to be indebted to him,” said Merrill, who remained friends with Berra for next three decades.

The two first met during spring training in the late 1970s when Merrill became a minor league manager in the Yankees system, and Berra was a Yankees coach.

The two became close when Berra showed up in Nashville in 1981 during the two-month players’ strike. From the time he arrived, Berra insisted on working.

“He said, ‘I want something to do,’ ” Merrill remembered, slipping into a spot-on impression of Berra’s deep, almost-mumbling tone.

“I said, ‘Then go hit some rollers to that kid at first base.’ He did and came back, saying, ‘That (No.) 23 is going to be a helluva ballplayer someday.’ ”

The first baseman was future All-Star and American League MVP Don Mattingly.

SHORT STINT AS YANKEES MANAGER

Berra remained a Yankees coach until Steinbrenner hired him as manager in 1984, replacing Billy Martin. The team finished third that year. As Berra prepared for the next season, he reached out to Merrill to serve as the Yankees’ first base coach.

“It was short-lived,” Merrill said.

Steinbrenner reportedly assured Berra that he would manage the whole season. But after a 6-10 start, Steinbrenner fired him.

“It’s one of the few mistakes George made that he admitted to,” Merrill said.

“Yogi handled it as only he could handle it. It was unbelievable.

“We were in Chicago. On Saturday night, we went to dinner and one of the coaches leaned over and said, ‘I hope this isn’t the last supper.’

“They fired (Berra) after the game Sunday. We were flying from Chicago to Texas. On the bus to the airport, Yogi came on the bus and thanked the players for all they had done. He said he would be rooting for them the rest of the season.

“He was a class act all the way.”

Berra was not the only one to lose his job. Martin replaced Berra and wanted his own choice for first base coach. Merrill was sent back to the minors, as the manager of Triple-A Columbus.

Merrill stayed with the Yankee organization, eventually rising to become New York’s manager in 1990-91. But Berra held a grudge, refusing to have anything to do with the team.

In 1999, Steinbrenner visited Berra to make amends.

“Yogi was man enough to patch up his differences with George,” Merrill said. “When you think of the Yankees, you can’t help but think of Yogi.”

FRIENDSHIP, MEMORIES, ‘YOGI-ISMS’

Merrill hasn’t managed in the minor leagues since 2004, but he continues to take part in spring training with the Yankees. One of his unofficial duties was to take care of Berra.

“They put my room next to his. I’d take him back and forth (to the baseball complex). We became closer as the years went by,” Merrill said.

And Berra could still come up with a “Yogi-ism” – speaking in such a contradictory or obvious way to draw a chuckle.

“Goose (Gossage, a former Yankees reliever who now works with the pitchers) stood up in the clubhouse and said something like ‘Well, I got to do what I got to do,’ ” Merrill recalled.

“Yogi looked over and said, ‘Only if you have to.’ ”

Berra missed the past three spring trainings because of his health. Merrill cherishes the time he spent with Berra – and he has plenty of memories and photos to show for it.

But there is one recent picture he meant to share with Berra. It’s a photo of Merrill’s black Labrador puppy chewing a catcher’s mitt.

The puppy’s name: Yogi.

 

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