Canzano: My old friend Ernie has a story for you
From Pelé to Mickey Mantle, Billy Graham, and Joe DiMaggio...
I woke thinking about my old friend this morning. Ernie Yazzolino was a former Navy parachute rigger who served in World War II. Once in a while, we used to get a hot dog at Otto’s Sausage Kitchen and talk.
“I offered a full money-back refund if your parachute didn't open,” he’d joke.
Ernie died seven years ago this month.
He was 91.
I sure miss the guy. I’ll bet his family does, too. We met because he picked up the telephone most mornings and left me a voicemail about whatever I’d written about. I called him back one day and our conversation lasted more than a decade.
Yazzolino would walk every morning along Eastmoreland Golf Course, collecting lost golf balls. Then, he’d return home and water his tomato plants. He also liked to bowl and mentor kids. But his favorite thing was to tell stories.
“Are you listening to me?!?!” he’d cry out. “Are ya?!”
Yazzolino told me a wild story once about Mickey Mantle. I later verified it. The Hall of Fame ballplayer was on a book tour and visited Portland. Yazzolino was working the door of the event. Local media covered it and a prominent female television news reporter was dispatched to conduct an interview with the slugger.
Mantle smelled of alcohol and appeared intoxicated. When the reporter walked in, Mantle spotted her, walked up, lifted her skirt, and peeked beneath it.
Quipped Mantle: “Any little leaguers under there?”
Yazzolino stopped being a fan of Mantle on the spot. He was also fed up with the Trail Blazers on most days. And he didn’t like the rising price of gasoline, dishonest politicians, and soda pop.
He volunteered for years at Sellwood Middle School. He founded what became known as the “Drug-Free Youth Basketball League.” He organized it and refereed games. The retiree even donated $10,000 from his own pocket when the parks department didn’t have the funding for the league one year.
“Don’t drink soda pop! It will kill ya!” Ernie would shout, chasing after the kids in the gym. “You'll not only lose all your teeth, it’s awful for you!”
He was right about a lot of things, wasn’t he?
Ernie Yazzolino served in the Navy for three years, three months and 23 days. I know this because he told me often. It was a formative time in his young life. He’d later get married, have children and make a life for himself. But the military service was a tent pole in Yazzolino’s story.
I was close with my own Italian grandfather. When I was working at the San Jose Mercury News covering the NFL and Major League Baseball, I’d stop off and get lunch with him. He’d tell me stories about seeing Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth play in person. His favorite players were Paul and Lloyd Waner, who played for the Pirates. Over a hamburger, I’d listen and my grandfather would dazzle me.
He died in 2004 at the age of 94.
Yazzolino assumed a small bit of the empty space.
He’d worked as a ticket taker for decades at old Multnomah Stadium, Memorial Coliseum, Civic Stadium, PGE Park and what was then called the Rose Garden Arena.
“I saw Pelé play once,” he said. “And I saw Willie Mays, and I’m tellin’ ya, you shouldah seen Joe DiMaggio run in the outfield in the Pacific Coast League.
“It was like watching a ballet.”
When we met, Ernie would often bring visual aids. He’d pass over an old black-and-white photograph of himself and his fellow servicemen in their military uniforms or a frayed PCL roster, and then launch into one of his tales.
When Rev. Billy Graham came to Portland as part of his evangelical crusade in September of 1992, Yazzolino told me he was there, working the gates at Civic Stadium. My wife, then just 15 years old, attended the event with her mother. They arrived late and sat in the overflow section down on the football field at Lincoln High School.
It was a formative event for a lot of people in the area.
“That Billy Graham,” Ernie said, “was quite the man.”
Ernie was a good man, too. He served our nation, brought kids into the world, and worked an honest job. He loved his community, invested in children and left the world better than he found it.
Monday is Memorial Day. It’s a day dedicated to honoring military personnel who gave their lives while serving our nation. More than a million men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice. Ernie served alongside some of them.
I think about the old Navy parachute rigger often. Whenever I play golf, especially. Because he gave me a massive plastic bag filled with hundreds of golf balls he’d found on his walks. I am still busy re-losing them.
We invited him to our home once at Christmas time. He arrived in a heavy jacket, baseball cap and a pair of shorts in late December. Why shorts? Because Ernie always wore them. I don’t know if he owned a pair of pants. I can still remember the chair he sat in and how he told stories and made everyone roar and laugh.
I can still hear it.
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