A Montclair Evening with Yankee Great Ron Guidry by

Raphael Badagliacca

The Writing Factory, LLC

Three things came together on an evening in October emblematic of the Montclair experience.

First, the Place: Tierney’s Tavern, the town’s oldest watering hole, serving Montclair and surrounding villages since the 1920’s. It began its commercial life as a prohibition era “candy” store across the street from its current Valley Road location. Overflowing with friends at all hours, Tierney’s serves food from 10AM till 10PM, including the famous Buddy Burger, said by fans to be the best in the East, plus it serves spirits, of course, of every imaginable kind until 1AM. History is everywhere in Montclair. Much of the town’s present traces its coming of age to the era of railroad speculation, including the reason for its secession from Bloomfield. When you next visit Tierney’s, take a look at the sharp angle of its building cut to conform to one of several proposed railway routes at the time.

Next, the Event which took place upstairs, where the spirit of another shared history filled a private room, summoned up by one of its legendary stars. Ron Guidry was here to introduce his signature Champion Gin in support of a Montclair institution and an even greater legend than himself, he would agree – the Yogi Berra Museum and Leaning Center. His decision to turn this event into a fundraiser was one more expression of his deep affection, respect and long friendship with Montclair’s most famous resident. Fans of great sports teams and great players preserve moments like priceless paintings in the museums of their minds. He would take the ball on this night, jog our memories, fill in gaps, pitch us colorful detail.

After he had posed for photos with anyone who wanted one, Eve Schaenen, Executive Director of the Museum, took the floor to thank Ron, the executives from Champion Gin and everyone in the room for their contribution to the museum’s ongoing efforts to advance education and excellence in all things – in the spirit of Yogi.

It’s no accident that the museum is located on the campus of a university – Montclair State – or that it is both a Museum and a Learning Center. As many as 10,000 students every year experience through the lens of baseball standards-aligned STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, math) at the Center, designed to enhance regular curricula. A physics lesson comes alive when a pitched ball demonstrates the kinetic transfer of energy. The museum houses astonishing sports memorabilia associated with Yogi’s long career as player, coach and manager, as well as from other baseball eras and other sports.

Every Montclair resident should know that Yogi was a neighborly part of the community. That the museum is dedicated to spreading the kind of generosity Yogi showed his teammates, and everyone, really, throughout his life. That it teaches every day the lessons he lived by example: believe in yourself, make the most of the skills you have, treat everyone as an equal. With only an 8th grade education, he rose to the world stage, conquered the country’s largest city and left an unforgettable mark, not to mention how often every day, some leader somewhere enlists the wisdom in his words to make a point. Yet somehow everyone agrees he remained the humblest of human beings.

Third, Ron Guidry the storyteller: In Homeric fashion, the hero of the night stood before the assembled, and like those classical figures of the past retold familiar events so they were seen in a new light and came alive. There was lots of laughter in between his answers and sounds of approval from all corners of the room.

About his daily advice from Yogi and the famous 18 strikeout night: Every day of my career, I’d ask Yogi questions about pitching. Just to recount one story I think you’ll like. Everybody remembers June 17, right? A lot of people have told me they were there. Go ahead. It’s the day I struck out 18 batters. That night I came to the ball park, I said you know I’m pitching tonight. It’s the only time I saw him get upset. He says, ‘Jesus Christ, you’re 10 and 0. What more can I help you?’ After the game, his locker was next to mine, I’ve got to show you what he did. Guidry spreads his arms wide, imitating Yogi, as if to say, ‘What else could I possibly do?’ It’s always fun when I get to work with the museum and think about him because he’s never far away. And I know how much he meant to all of you in the area.

About the hardest hitter he ever faced and the pine tar incident:
Who was the hardest hitter I faced? George Brett, a .335 lifetime hitter. Oh, the pine tar incident. I knew that would come up. I thought somebody was gonna die. When we saw George come running out of this dugout I was sitting next to Catfish, “I said ‘Cat, somebody’s dead.’ Billy knew about the pine tar. He was gonna make the protest when it meant something. And he did.

About becoming a starting pitcher:
I was not supposed to be a starter. I came up as a closer. I got stuck in the rotation because of injuries.

About Thurman Munson:
Thurman was my catcher. He said if you see this, you give me the best one you got. And if you see this, you give me the best one you got. I only had two pitches – a fastball and a slider.

You know, I had seen pitchers like Nolan Ryan shake off the catcher. So, one night I tried that and Thurman called time and came out to the mound. ‘What are you doing? You think you’re smarter than me?’ He chewed me out! That made me so angry I wanted to break his hand. Try and catch these! But that was the only time. He was good at getting the best you have from everyone. He understood that the way to get the best out of me was to challenge me.

I got a better one than that. One night, Thurman called a pitch I did not have. So, I called time. When he came out to the mound he said, ‘I got you mixed up with someone else.’

About playing 162 games:
We enjoyed the game. We had fun. You can’t play 162 games if you’re not having fun. And we did.

About Louisiana Lightning:
How did I get the name Louisiana Lightning? Rizzuto. Every time I pitched at the Stadium, I noticed out in right field in the mezzanine above the dugout a family would unfold this big poster with the state of Louisiana and right through the middle of the state they had a lightning bolt and at the top the word “Louisiana” and at the bottom the word “Lightning.” On the night of June 17, when I struck out the 18, Rizzuto is jumping and hollering after every strike out and somewhere in his commentary he says “Louisiana Lightning” and it stuck. But I’ve gotta tell you, even though it’s a catchy name, it is not my nickname. My nickname is Gator. That’s what my teammates gave me.

About how the game is played today:
How do I feel about how the game is played today? It’s a different game. As a pitcher, you see guys get on base. You don’t see anybody advancing them. They’re all trying to hit the ball out of the park. I have a question. If your best pitcher is standing on the mound and their best pitcher is standing on the mound, how many runs do you think it’s gonna take for one of them to win? A guy leads off with a double. Your team’s job is to get him to third, and set up what we call a cheap run, because there are lots of ways to score a guy from third with less than two outs. But if you’re just gonna try to hit the ball out of the ballpark, that’s a different scenario. My teammates would ask me how many runs I needed to win the game. And then they’d go out and get two runs. Now, I didn’t give up many runs. If I got two or three runs, I felt I was living in high cotton. But the game’s not play like that anymore.

About the one-game playoff in 1978:
What was the atmosphere for that extra game in Boston in ‘78? It started with the old man and me meeting in the parking lot. The aura around him was not too good. We had lost in Cleveland which meant we ended the season in a tie. And then we lost the coin toss which meant we had to play the game in Fenway, which put him in a bad mood. But we weren’t too worried about that, because we had just taken four from them in Boston. I said, “We just beat them four games in a row, and I’m pitching. I’m not worried.”

The way that the schedule is today, there are more games in each city. Back then, we played the same team 7 games at home and 7 on the road. In June, they killed us. But in September we were a different team. We were healthy. Everyone was playing well. Just to give you a sense, I still have the clipping from the Boston Globe. I beat Dennis Eckersley 7-0 on a Saturday and the Sunday papers read: “Boston is still in first place, but they’re chasing the Yankees.” You could see the players in the outfield, leaning against the wall, looking demoralized.

There was everything in that game. If you’re a connoisseur of the game, you had to say that game was as good as any ever played. There was good pitching on both sides. Timely hitting. Great defense. The play that Lou made in right field, that’s the play of the game. It’s a game that Reggie Jackson said a blind man would have paid to go.

About Yogi and Cajun cooking:
I used to bring frogs’ legs to Spring training and everyone tried them and liked them, except Yogi. Until one day, he tried one and then he couldn’t get enough of them. None of us could. It’d be a frenzy of eating. You could lose a hand. Yogi would call me in November. It’s Yogi on the phone. ‘You binging the frogs’ legs?’ Spring training is not until February.

The questions and the evening went on. The clearest thing that came out of it to the enjoyment of all was how completely Yogi’s spirit of generosity had been passed to Ron, and how ready he was to pass it on to others. In other writing, Gator had been called Yogi’s fourth son. It reminded us how baseball passes from generation to generation in stories like the ones he told so well.

The sponsors from Championz Gin then said a few words about how they had chosen Ron Guidry to be the first champion to grace their spirits and everyone left with a bottle of gin signed by the ace of the pitching staff.