More Déjà Vu All Over Again for Yogi Berra - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
More Déjà Vu All Over Again for Yogi Berra

Today Lawrence Peter Berra turns 90.

But everyone knows him as Yogi.

Born in an Italian neighborhood of St. Louis known as “The Hill” where he grew up across the street from fellow catcher turned broadcaster Joe Garagiola, he would become a New York sports icon and an American original.

Before he was an American original, he was an American hero who was part of the Allied forces during the D-Day Invasion serving on a small boat that launched rockets at the Nazis. In his 2002 book What Time Is It? You Mean Now? Berra wrote, “We got shot at, but we were never hit. I remember saying to myself that I was only nineteen, I’m too young to die. That’s how you had to think.”

Berra would get out alive and make his big league debut with the New York Yankees in 1946. He had the unenviable task of replacing Bill Dickey behind the plate. It would take a while, but Berra would become an everyday player in 1948 making the first of 18 consecutive AL All-Star appearances. To this day, he remains the greatest catcher in American League history. If not for Johnny Bench, he would be the greatest catcher in Major League history. He didn’t look it, but Berra was every bit as great as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Berra would match Mantle’s three AL MVPs and would earn 10 World Series rings, one for every finger. No other player in MLB history can make this claim.

What I find most amazing about Yogi is that he was nearly impossible to strike out. In a career that lasted nearly two decades, Berra only fanned 414 times. He would never strike out more than 40 times in a single season. In 1950, Berra came to the plate 656 times and struck out 12 times. Berra would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 in his second year of eligibility. How Yogi didn’t get inducted the first year he was eligible boggles the mind except to say that despite his accomplishments some baseball writers viewed him as a clown.

Given all the years he spent in the Yankees clubhouse with Casey Stengel there’s no doubt a certain amount of “Stengelese” rubbed off on him, which made people underestimate him as they had underestimated Stengel. Berra did manage the Yankees to an AL pennant in 1964 before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. The Yankees rewarded Berra by firing him and hiring Cardinals manager Johnny Keane. The Yankees would finish in sixth place in 1965, 25 games behind the Minnesota Twins.

Berra would finish his playing career the following year with the lowly crosstown Mets but remain with the Mets’ organization for a decade. Berra would earn another World Series ring in 1969 as the first base coach of The Amazin’ Mets. Three years later, Berra would be pressed into service as manager with the sudden death of Gil Hodges during spring training.

In 1973, the Mets went 83-79. Despite this modest record, it was good enough to win the NL East by 1 1/2 games over the St. Louis Cardinals. The Mets would upset the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS featuring a pier six brawl between Pete Rose and diminutive Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson. The World Series would go seven games, but the Oakland A’s would prevail and win their second of three consecutive World Series. So Berra became the only manager to take a team to the World Series in both leagues, but come out on the short end. 

After being dismissed from the Mets, Berra would rejoin the Yankees in 1976. Guess what? The Yankees went to the World Series for the first time since 1964, the year Berra managed the team. Although they would be swept by the Reds, they would win back to back World Series in 1977 and 1978 and win an AL pennant in 1981. Berra would succeed Billy Martin as Yankees manager in 1984, but would be unceremoniously fired in early 1985 and replaced by – you guessed it – Billy Martin.

This would cause a rift between Berra and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner that would last nearly 15 years. The rift would be dealt with in a one-man play called Nobody Don’t Like Yogi starring legendary actor Ben Gazzara. I had the opportunity to see this play in Boston at the Wilbur Theater. The play was set right before the 1999 Old Timers Game at Yankee Stadium where Berra would make his first appearance in the House That Ruth Built since 1985. Much of the rift centered around Berra’s son Dale, who’d joined the Yankees that season. Steinbrenner evidently made a remark about Dale’s cocaine use and this is what caused the rift. Not having the courage to fire Berra himself, Steinbrenner sent Yankee general manager Clyde King to deliver the bad news. It would take 15 years, but Steinbrenner blinked and made the pilgrimage to Berra’s home in Montclair, New Jersey, and apologized to him. When Berra finally returned to Yankee Stadium he stood alongside Don Larsen; the man whose arms he leapt into after catching his perfect game in the 1956 World Series. That afternoon Berra and Larsen would watch David Cone throw a perfect game.

I’ll leave you with some of my favorite Yogisms, many of which have become imbedded into the lexicon of American culture.

“It gets late early.”

“It’s so crowded nobody goes there anymore.”

“Half of this game is 90% mental.”

“I really didn’t say everything I said.”

“We made too many wrong mistakes.”

“Thank you for making this day necessary.”

“The future ain’t what it used to be.”

“It’s déjà vu all over again.”

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Happy 90th birthday, Yogi. I’d offer you a slice of pie à la mode, but I know you’d rather have ice cream.

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