Catching up with George Yankowski
After wrapping up an interview with George Yankowski, the 87-year old just had to pause and say "You know, I've really had a wonderful life."
Looking back at all the fascinating people he has met, all the places he's been, all the remarkable accomplishments he achieved, and all the folks who have admired, loved, and respected him throughout his lifetime, the 1939 Watertown High graduate and 1993 Raider Hall of Famer inductee could not have been more accurate.
It all started in the playgrounds of Watertown, specifically West Junior Park, where Yankowski learned the game of baseball. He knew by the time he reached junior high that he could hit better than others and by the time he reached Watertown High his talents really soared.
In his junior year Yankowski, who hit a whopping .508 and was called 'the cream of the catching crop' by the Boston Post while being named an all-scholastic, led the Raiders to a very impressive 20-4 season. Watertown High went all the way to the Eastern Mass final before bowing to Norwood at Fenway Park. That 1939 season is still considered by many Raider alumni as the greatest baseball season in Watertown history.
In his senior season, Yankowski was just as impressive as he again was easily named an all-scholastic. Yankowski, a three time class president at Watertown High, was also very good at basketball but baseball was where he exhibited extremely rare talent. That was soon noticed by major league scouts in Yankowski's college days at Northeastern.
After helping the Huskies to the 1942 Intercollegiate championship, the 19-year old catcher was signed by the immortal Connie Mack and the Philadelphia A's. In no time he proved to them he belonged in the majors and on August 17, 1942 Yankowski, still a teenager, made his major league debut in Shibe Park.
"I still remember the amazing thrill that went through me when I first walked on the field as a major leaguer," Yankowski recalled. "You know, no matter how old I get I still remember how great that was."
Yankowski appeared in only six games in that '42 season but one of those games was played at Fenway Park where the Red Sox were also showing off a young player named Ted Williams. In that September game Yankowski had a clutch double off the wall to drive in two runs while Williams also thrilled the local crowd with a game winning homer in the bottom of the eighth.
"I remember one at bat when Ted came to the plate,"Yankowski said. "Bob Savage was on the mound for us and he threw an 95-mile per hour pitch right over the plate belt high and the umpire (Hall of Famer Bill McGowan, who incidentally would get suspended 10 games in 1948 for throwing a baseball and ball-strike indicator at members of the Washington Senators) called it a ball. I argued the call and McGowan didn't like the fact that a 19-year old had the audacity to argue a pitch. McGowan started ranting and raving at me while brushing off the plate when Williams said to the ump 'hey, leave the kid alone will you'!
"The next pitch is again right over the middle of the plate but McGowan screamed in my ear 'Ball Two what do you think of that'! Savage then took a step toward the plate to argue the call too but McGowan warned him if he took another step he would be thrown out of the game. At the end of the inning I told Mr. Mack what happened and he just smiled.
"But I always will remember Ted sticking up for me. I tell you being behind the plate and seeing guys like Joe Dimaggio, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial (Yankowski played in an exhibition game against the Cardinal legend) still brings chills."
However, on July 24, 1943 Yankowski encountered the greatest name in baseball history. In the Mayor's charity game at Fenway Park Yankowski was a member of the military service all-star team which was taking on the Boston Braves in an exhibition game. Yankowski's honorary manager for that game was none other than 48-year old George Herman "Babe" Ruth. Interestingly enough that was the last day Ruth, who passed away in 1948, ever wore a baseball uniform.
"Babe was also coaching first base in that game," Yankowski said. "When I got up one time I hit a ball off the Fenway wall. I thought when I hit it it was just a routine fly ball to left so I didn't run my hardest. It ended up being a single but I'm glad it was because while I was at first Babe put his arm around me and said 'nice going kid'. That was a thrill of a lifetime. I have had many great memories in baseball but it is hard to top that one."
For the record the service team won the game 9-8 and it was Yankowski's hit that provided the winning run. Williams was also a member of the service team and homered while Ruth, urged on by the crowd, had a pinch-hit plate appearance and struck out.
"I have to laugh when I realize I played in a game on the same team with the two best hitters of all time and I'm the one that got the winning hit," Yankowski said. "What a memory that day was."
Yankowski enlisted in the Army while at Northeastern in October 1942 and left for Fort Devens in April 1943. While serving his country during World War II, Yankowski experienced moments like joining the Army Air Corp where he became an Avaition cadet, being shipped over seas by way of Queen Elisabeth I, fighting in Metz, France ("we went in Boxcars packed like sardines"), and then moving north to Luxenberg, Germany and taking part in the Battle of the Bulge, which was the single biggest and bloodiest battle American forces experienced in World War II in which 19,000 men were killed.
"Fighting was obviously hard enough but I also remember it also being the coldest winter on record" Yankowski said. "We slept outside in 20 below degree weather."
Yankowski came home from the war in June 1945 and after a three month battle with hepatitis in October of that year, got officically discharged in January 1946.
"Playing baseball was something special but the thing I am most proud of is serving our country," Yankowski said.
Returning to the A's in February 1946, Yankowski asked Mack, now in his 80's and still serving as part-owner of the team as well, for a $200 a year raise which was promised to him by Mack's son. However Mack denied his request.
"I remember Mack telling me 'You are just like all the other greedy ball players. All you are interested in is money.'
So Yankowski asked for his release and went back to Northeastern (later became a member of the Huskies Hall of Fame as well) and also played ball for Fall River in the professional league. Soon after that it was the Chicago White Sox organization who came calling where he played in their minor league organization for a few years before returning to the majors after a seven year absence in 1949. Yankowski played twelve games with Chicago but in July of that season was optioned to Memphis Tennesee. He would retire from baseball at the end of the year.
Yankowski then began a career in teaching at Watertown High. While earning a masters degree at Boston University to go along with a degree from Northeastern, Yankowski taught business classes and would later become a guidance counselor while also serving a 15-year stint as one of the finest head baseball coaches in Red Raider history.
"I just loved coaching," Yankowski said. "I really enjoyed the attitude of the players. They were young, eager, strong and willing to work hard. I had some really good teams and some really good players."
One was former Boston Red Sox third base coach and current Sox consultant Dick Berardino, who played outfielder and occasionally pitched for the Raiders between 1952-1955. Berardino still loves to look back to his high school days playing for his coach.
"He had a great way of making everyone feel comfortable," Berardino said of Yankowski's managerial personality. "He wasn't a yeller or a screamer but he was very knowledgeable about the game. He was really nice to play for. He wanted to win but at the same time he displayed a witty personality. The one thing we all remember about him was that he made us laugh. He was an amazing story teller. We couldn't wait to hear him tell one of his stories."
Yankowski always wanted to make an impression on players because his high school coach did the same for him. Dan Sullivan, who coached Hall of Famers like Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett while at Deane Academy, will never be forgotten by Yankowski.
"One day he rushed me to the dentist after I got some teeth knocked out during a game," Yankowski said "He told the dentist to do a good job because I reminded him of Mickey Cochrane. Wow, when I heard that I was thrilled."
Berardino also remembers hearing that dentist story from Yankowski and elaborated further.
"What Yank didn't tell you is that coach Sullivan didn't take him to the dentist until after the game was over," Berardino said with a laugh. "He told us coach Sullivan wanted him to finish the game first. He had four teeth in his locker during the last four innings of that game. Boy I tell you if a coach did that today they would be fired on the spot."
It was also Sullivan who decided what position Yankowski would play.
"I brought my first baseman's glove to the first day of practice but coach Sullivan looked at me and threw a catcher's mitt at me and said. 'here your a catcher.'
Not lost in all of his adventures, Yankowski married high school sweet-heart Geraline Molito in 1942 and had six kids, (five girls and one boy) two of which are also in the Watertown Hall of Fame. His son George Jr. and daughter Lisa are also part of Raider immortality.
"Of all the things I have gone through in my life I was still nervous with excitement at my Hall of fame dinner," Yankowski, who was also a one time member of the Watertown Hall of Fame board, said. "I could hardly stand up but somehow I made it through."
Yankowski re-married (first wife passed away in 1983) in 1999. His wife of ten years is the former Mary Urquhart, who taught special education in Watertown for 46 years. They will celebrate their tenth wedding aniversary on June 27.
"She's my eyes, my ears, and my everything," Yankowski said of his wife.
Today, Yankowski, who retired from ADP in Waltham in 2008 after working there since 1984, enjoys traveling around the world. He has been on 46 cruises and is fortunate enough to be a member of Major League Baseball Alumni where he gets to travel further and attend fundraisers and golf tournaments.
"The remarkable thing about George's life today is that he still gets fan mail every single week," his wife Mary said. "There are lots of people around who still want his autograph. That's pretty amazing for a guy who only played eighteen major league games."
Yankowski is also a member of the historic society and is also proud to have had his name in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown with all the other WW II players. His name is also mentioned in a plaque at Chicago's Commiskey Park. But it is in Watertown where his name is held and forever will be held in the highest regard.
Nine questions with George Yankowski
What Watertown public school teacher/coach influenced you the most?
A. Dan Sullivan. My high school baseball coach.
Who was your favorite athlete growing up?
A. Babe Ruth.
What is your favorite Watertown non-sports memory
A. Being at the Union Market bank in 1932 and watching President Roosevelt go by.
What was the last book you read
"Generations" By Tom Brokaw.
What is your all-time favorite movie?
Shane. I love all cowboy movies though.
What is your all-time favorite song?
A. I love anything by Pavarotti (Luciano) Boccelli, (Andrea) and Eddy Arnold.
What is your favorite vacation spot?
What is your favorite food?
A. Filet Mignon.
What person would you most liked to have met?
A. George Washington.