Yogi may not have been a thing of beauty. (Name five sports stars who looked less like an athlete than the Yankees’ short, stocky, jug-eared catcher — OK, name one.) But for many Americans he will remain a joy forever.
I started Wednesday morning with the news of Yogi Berra’s death the preceding night. It wasn’t a surprise. After all, Yogi was 90. More like a jolt. And an occasion for genuine sadness. We live in perilous and disjointed times. And now we have to make our way through them without Yogi. God help us.
It’s always difficult judging if a public figure one hasn’t met is really as he/she appears to be. But I would bet all I have in the credit union that Yogi was indeed the simple, unassuming, warm and approachable guy that he always appeared to be when you saw him on TV. This genuineness and lack of self-importance account for much of the considerable affection so many Americans held him in. Along, of course, with the delightful Yogi-isms (the authenticity of many of which is rightly suspect — if only Miller Lite was as good as those commercials where Yogi whoops it up in his garbled way).
Yogi’s claim to our attention begins with his outstanding career as one of the best defensive catchers and most feared clutch-hitters Major League Baseball has ever produced. Without this there would be no mind-twisting Yogi-isms, no delightful commercials. No much-loved national treasure whose place in American hearts has lasted far longer than his storied career and promises to endure.
And what a career. In 18 seasons as a player with the Yankees 1946–1963, Yogi batted .285, hit 358 home-runs, and drove in 1,430. For Yankees fans, during their team’s salad days in the fifties, there was no one they would rather see come to the plate with runners on base and the game on the line than Yogi. (More even, my guess is, than a guy whose initials are MM.) Yogi always seemed to be getting the key hit when it was needed. This partly explains his three Most Valuable Player Awards, and the fact that in his time with the Yankees the Bronx Bombers won 10 world championships. One more championship and he would have needed to grow another finger for all the rings. After his playing days, he managed both the Yankees and the New York Mets to World Series.
Of course guys with names like Mantle, Ford, Rizzuto, Skowron, Bauer, Howard, et al. had something to do with all those championships. But imagine the fifties pin-stripes without the defensive rock and offensive force that was Yogi Berra. Still a solid team. But maybe not 10 championships.
For all his success, Yogi was hardly Mr. Discipline at the plate. He was a notorious bad-ball hitter. He would swing at anything that resembled a baseball. His defense of this was, “If I can hit it, it ain’t a bad ball.” Can’t argue with that. In a recent interview with Tim McCarver, Yogi was asked why he swung at so many pitches out of the zone. “I say hit the ball,” Yogi said. “That’s what it’s there for.” There you are. Yogi could be logical.
And for all his hacking at bad pitches, Yogi very seldom struck out. In a career that included more than 8,300 trips to the plate, he struck out only 414 times. Perhaps his most astonishing years in this regard was 1950 when he had 597 at bats, hit .322 with 28 homes runs, and struck out only 12 times. (12!!) Given enough extra innings to get the ABs, there are contemporary players who could strike out 12 times in a double-header.
There was no reason early on to expect that Lawrence Peter Berra, born in 1925 to Italian immigrants in the St. Louis neighborhood then called “Dago Hill” (now sanitized to “the Hill”), would become a national figure. Uninterested in school, Yogi dropped out after the eighth grade and held various jobs until signing a minor league contract with the Yankees in 1943. His signing bonus was a cool 500 bucks. This doubtless impressed Yogi’s dad, Pietro Berra, a bricklayer who had no interest in baseball and couldn’t understand why his son didn’t pursue a real job. This would become clear to him later.
Yogi’s first professional team was the Norfolk Tars of the Class B Piedmont League. But soon the business of a world war would interrupt Yogi’s baseball career. Appropriately enough, for a guy playing ball in Norfolk, Yogi wound up in the Navy. On D-Day, 19 year-old, gunner’s mate Berra was on a rocket boat just a few hundred yards off of Omaha Beach, providing support for invading infantry units. So we can add patriot and defender of the country to Yogi’s considerable résumé. Back to baseball at war’s end, Yogi was called up to the Yankees for seven games at the end of the 1946 season. The rest, as they say…
After playing and managing days, Yogi stayed in the public eye, mostly through a series of amusing commercials for such products as Miller Lite, Aflac, Yoo-hoo, and NP-27 foot spray. You can enjoy some of these here.
By the time these commercial were made, Yogi’s reputation for coming up with aphorisms and pronouncements that were nonsensical, but sometimes on point, had been established. It’s not clear how many of these Yogi-isms are his creation and how many sprung from the Yankees PR department or the sports media. Berra even published a 1998 book entitled The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.
Yogi was a good teammate, the guys who played with him say. But he was not that talkative. And was hardly a stand-up comic. But the Yogi-isms that have come down to us are so good only a grump would care who came up with them first. Some of the more popular of them are:
Baseball is ninety percent mental, and the other half is physical.
Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore; it’s too crowded.
It’s déjà vu all over again.
You can observe a lot by just watching.
Little League baseball is a good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.
If the people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them.
The future ain’t what it used to be [probably one of Yogi’s most sagacious].
If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
This last, when elaborated on by Yogi actually makes sense. For decades, before Yogi lost his wife of 65 years, Carmen, in 2014 and had to move into an assisted living facility, the Berra home was on a circle in suburban New Jersey. So when you came to the fork in the road, if you turned right or left, you got to Yogi’s house.
Another of my favorites, which may or may not be apocryphal, came when Yogi was a pitch-man for the chocolate soft-drink Yoo-hoo. A woman is reported to have asked Yogi if Yoo-hoo was hyphenated. Yogi said, “No, it’s not even carbonated.”
One of Yogi’s best known sayings is, “It’s not over till it’s over.” Sadly, for this great American, his family, and his many fans, it’s over for Yogi in this world. But if there is a baseball game every day in Heaven, as I believe there is, I’m sure that yesterday God heard for the first time, “Batting fourth and catching, number 8, Yogi Berra.”
RIP Yogi. We’ll miss you, Paisan. Thanks for coming our way.