By ANTOINETTE MARTIN
For Montclair Local
“It ain’t over till it’s over.” — Yogi Berra
The late great Number 8 will be gone three years on Sept. 22, but it really isn’t over at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center at Montclair State University. In fact, his demise led to something more like a bright, shiny new season.
Berra’s presence remains keenly alive in the small gem of a museum that opened next to the Jackals’ stadium in 1998. The debate over whether Jackie Robinson was safe at the plate when Berra tagged him in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series rages on in this place as fervently as it did all the 60 or so years Yogi spent as a Montclair resident, arguing the case with pretty much anyone he met on the street.
There is way more than déjà vu going on at the museum these days, though. A bevy of new partnerships — with schools, veterans, the university, the Yankees, the Jackals, senior groups and more — and dynamic new exhibits, such as the PITCH machine allowing anyone to pitch to Yogi on a screen and have their arm speed measured by radar (even if seated in a wheelchair). PITCH has pumped up the excitement level bigtime.
“The PITCH installation is a perfect example of how we are engaging new audiences,” said Executive Director Eve Schaenen, who arrived in early 2016. “It’s immersive, interactive and incredibly fun. It also allows us to fulfill our educational mission. With PITCH, we can teach young people about physics, statistics and new technologies through hands-on experiential learning.”
Schaenen said PITCH also helps promote the values that are key to Yogi’s legacy: “perseverance, confidence and sportsmanship,” as various “Yogi-isms” are spouted in response to a pitch.
The day Yogi died Board Chairman Mark Markowitz said he wept all the way from his home in Belmar to the museum in Montclair, thinking to himself, “There will never ever be another one like him, an incredible star athlete and the last great human being. We got to keep it going.”
“It Ain’t Over” became a rallying slogan for the museum, as it pivoted to new leadership with Schaenen following longtime director Dave Kaplan. The slogan also applies to the game of baseball, says Markowitz. While popularity has waned, particularly in urban areas, when young people come in to the museum not knowing much about baseball or who Berra “is” — Markowitz still uses the present tense — they usually leave fired up.
Some of the inviting tactics the museum employs to hook kids in to learning include:
• Having them use “Yogi-isms” to create raps and slam poetry. (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” “Half the game is 90 percent mental.”)
• Using Berra’s experience as a World War II veteran who was present at D-Day to discuss history.
• Letting them hold his heavy wooden bat, and consider why he used it (“That’s the one they gave me”) to consider the behavior of athletic stars today.
• Learning how to calculate a batting average.
But, of course, the PITCH game is the coolest, said Schaenen. “There is not a soul who doesn’t want to try that.”
The numbers of those who enter the museum is now up significantly, too, according to Schaenen, with new programs permitting all MSU students and all veterans to enter for free. The usual museum hours of noon-5 p.m. have been expanded on Jackals game nights to permit those who buy a “dual ticket” to visit.
There is free entry for all on the annual Yogi Appreciation Day, Sept. 29, 2018.
Berra rose from barefoot sand-lot ball to become one of the greatest catchers and clutch hitters in the history of baseball. He anchored the New York Yankees dynasty from the late 1940s to the early ’60s, becoming a 15-time All-Star, winner of 10 world championships (the most in baseball history) and three-time Most Valuable Player. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.
It doesn’t matter who you are. Anyone from the “Goose” to a grandpa, Mom to a toddler, can step up to try throwing heat at the new PITCH interactive installation at Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, next to the NJ Jackals’ stadium at Montclair State University.
PITCH opened June 14, and is included in the price of Museum admission (free for MSU students and veterans) or with a “combination” Jackals ticket.
PITCH lets visitors face off against a video wall featuring an animated batter and catcher whose faces to each thrown ball (they are soft, and rubber.) The umpire’s call as to whether a pitch hits the strike zone instantly flashes on the screen. So does the radar-verified speed of every pitch. In the first week of PITCH, former Yankee (Richard Michael) “Goose” Gossage himself did actually turn up at the museum to get in a little “side session.” Other visitors included everyone from Little Leaguers to seniors from a nursing home who threw from their wheelchairs, said YB Museum executive director Eve Schaenen.
Museum hours are noon to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays, 8 Yogi Berra Drive, Little Falls. 973-655-2378, yogiberramuseum.org.