Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask
By Jon Pessah
Little Brown, 577 pages, $30
There are lots of books out there about Yogi Berra. But this is no argument against the latest entry by veteran sportswriter Jon Pessah. There can never be too many books about this American treasure. And this latest tour de Yogi is a very fine book indeed. It illuminates the long and successful life of a great ballplayer, and, by all the available evidence, a very fine man. A man who received countless honors throughout his life and deserved them all.
Yogi is one of the world’s one-name people. When you say Yogi, even people not partial to or savvy about baseball know who you’re talking about. Part of his sky-high name recognition, the envy of many politicians, is due to Yogi-isms, nonsensical and amusing quotes, some of which Yogi actually said and others that sportswriters or Yogi’s lifelong pal Joe Garagiola made up. (One we may be sure is authentic and true is “I didn’t say half the things I said.”)
Younger viewers may know Yogi more from those television commercials where he confuses the Aflac duck or promotes Miller Lite beer than for anything he did on the baseball field. More, uh, seasoned baseball fans, including me, remember watching the best defensive catcher of his day and a feared clutch hitter named Berra help make the New York Yankees baseball’s force of nature from the late ’40s to the mid-’60s.
Before we parse Yogi’s greatness as a catcher and a hitter, let’s deal with the question of whether he was the dumb and bumbling nature boy he has so often been portrayed as. No, he wasn’t. Serious and fair-minded writers who have looked closely at his career and life know this and have made it clear. He was certainly uneducated in school-room years. He dropped out after the eighth grade because school attendance was cutting into his baseball playing time, and there wasn’t anything going on in the classroom that interested him. He surely mangled the English language and was more than a fair hand at malapropisms. But he usually made his meaning clear enough without being articulate. And anyone with even a passing understanding of baseball knows that good Major League catchers are not dumb. The mental demands of the position don’t allow this.
In his first years with the Yankees, Yogi had to work hard with his tutor, Yankee Hall of Fame catcher from the ’30s, Bill Dickey, to refine his game behind the plate. But after an unpromising start, he became one of the game’s best. Casey Stengel, not famously friendly with or complimentary of his ball players, liked Berra and called him “my assistant manager.” So much for dumb.
Yogi was not only the Yankee’s defensive rock but a feared power hitter who always seemed to come through in the clutch. When Yogi’s career began the Yankee’s principal star was Joe DiMaggio. Later Yogi shared a lineup with Mickey Mantle. But there’s little doubt in my mind that with Yankee runners on and the game on the line, many American League opposing pitchers would rather deal with these two than to see Yogi coming to the plate. In recognition of the contributions Yogi made to the dominating Yankee teams of the Casey Stengel years, the game’s sportswriters voted Yogi the league’s Most Valuable Player three times.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story of a player like Yogi, but a .285 lifetime batting average, 358 home runs, and 1,430 runs batted in, especially during a period when good hitting catchers were rare, is quite an achievement. His talent at and behind the plate helped the Yankees win 14 American League pennants and 10 World Series during Yogi’s career. No surprise he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. All the more remarkable for a stocky, five-foot eight-inch guy who looked as much like a champion athlete as Dick Cheney looks like a supermodel.
Pessah’s book is long, 508 pages of text. But potential readers should not let this put them off. There’s no padding in Yogi as there is in so many long biographies. Nothing in it I thought should have been left out. And Pessah’s accessible writing style eases the reader through the long trip.
The trip begins when Lorenzo Pietro (Lawrence Peter in English) Berra is born on Dago Hill, a poor but proud neighborhood of mostly Italian-Americans in St. Louis, on May 12, 1925. (In these PC times, the name of the neighborhood is shortened to “The Hill.”) Young Berra was called Lawdie because his relations had trouble pronouncing Lawrence. The nickname Yogi was to come later thanks to American Legion ball teammate Bobby Hoffman, who later became a utility infielder for the New York Giants. Hoffman had recently seen a movie that featured Indian yogis who sat cross-legged as Yogi did waiting his turn to hit. So Hoffman began to call Berra Yogi, and the name stuck. (Fortunate — “Yogi” belongs in the nickname Hall of Fame. Short, memorable, charming. Just like Yogi himself.)
It didn’t take young Lawdie long to discover sports, principal among them baseball, which soon became the center of his life. He quickly decided what he wanted to be when he grew up — a Major League baseball player. But his father, Pietro, a brickyard worker and native of Malvaglio, Italy, took a lot of convincing. “Men don’t make a living playing a game,” Berra Senior put it. Not surprising as most of his mates and relations were factory workers. But the $500 bonus the Yankees offered Lawdie to sign with them in 1942, major bucks in those days, especially for a family in the Berras’ circumstances, helped change Berra the Elder’s view of the Grand Old Game.
Yogi played only one season in the low minors before World War II interrupted his (and millions of other people’s) career. He enlisted in the Navy in 1943 and was serving on a rocket boat near the shore on D-Day in Europe. Yogi was so near to the action that he was nicked by a Nazi bullet, for which wound he was awarded the Purple Heart. So add patriot and warrior to Yogi’s long and distinguished résumé.
It didn’t take Yogi long after the war to make the big club, being called up late in 1946. Pessah takes us through each year of Yogi’s distinguished playing career, as well as his more hit-and-miss tenures as manager of both the Yankees and New York Mets. His years as coach with the Yankees, Mets, and finally the Houston Astros fit his easygoing personality much better than managing.
Pessah takes readers through Yogi’s long post-baseball life, mostly successful and happy, thanks in large part to Yogi’s 65-year marriage to Carmen, the best catch Yogi ever made. Yogi’s pleasing persona made him much in demand as a product endorser, even long after his playing days were over. This made his later years financially comfortable. There was sadness as well, having to do with Berra’s son Dale’s misadventures with drugs. And of course there was the unpleasant chore of dealing with George Steinbrenner, perhaps the most irascible, impulsive, overbearing, and buttinsky owner in the history of baseball.
Yogi died in September 2015 at the age of 90, just weeks before he was to be presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Yogi’s was a life well lived. This life is well presented by Jon Pessah. And for baseball fans in this baseball-free spring (and very likely summer), better reading could hardly be found.
Please don’t be offended that I’ve not included a list of Yogi-isms in my review. These are delightful and available online. Those who understand the humble, friendly, loyal, and cheerful man Yogi Berra was will, when enjoying these, be laughing with him, not at him.