Although we rarely comment about sports, even on those all-too-frequent occasions when it spills over into the political news, we do try to take note of matters of importance to the broader American culture. The death of New York Yankee legend Yogi Berra, therefore, demands respectful mention.
Berra was, by consensus of expert opinion, one of the very best to ever play America’s pastime, and by objective measure he was he one of the most successful athletes in the entire history of American professional team sports. By all accounts he was also a man of high moral character, who bravely served his country in war and was devoted to his wife from their courtship until her death and played the game by the strictest standards of sportsmanship and spent 70 years in the public eye without a hint of any scandal. Somehow, though, he is best remembered as a funny-looking guy who said things funny. Add it all up, and he was one of those all-too-infrequent characters who enriched the American scene by pure American individualism.
You wouldn’t have known it by looking at his short, squat, graceless body, but a glance at Berra’s numbers makes clear that he could play some serious ball. You can look it up, as they like to say in baseball. He was a three-time Most Valuable Player, finished in the top four in MVP voting four other times, was an 18-time All-Star, smacked 358 homers and batted in 1,430 runs, and as a catcher he earned a reputation as the best friend a pitcher ever had, among many other notable individual accomplishments. What his teams accomplished with him behind the plate was even more impressive, as The New York Yankees played in 14 World Series, won ten of them, and were almost always in contention. Those teams were loaded with such all-time talents as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, to be sure, but there were seven seasons when Berra led the team in RBI and never a time when even his more heralded teammates didn’t acknowledge that he was the most essential Yankee. All those World Series appearances allowed Berra to set seemingly unbreakable “Fall Classic” records for games played and at-bats and hits and RBI and doubles, not to mention the perfect game he caught from journeyman pitcher Don Larsen, and he trails only Mantle and Babe Ruth for most home runs hit in October. In American professional sports history, the ten championships he won are surpassed only by the 11 that Bill Russell won with the Boston Celtics in the National Basketball Association and Henri Richard won with the Montreal Canadiens in the National Hockey League, and both of those guys also played on teams laden with all-time talent.
The New York Yankees’ many years of dominance, which had begun even before Berra arrived, with his mentor Bill Dickey manning the plate, made the team so hated everywhere outside the five boroughs that they became better known as The Damn Yankees. Berra, though, was such a appealing fellow that even a Boston Red Sox fan found it hard to work up a mild dislike for him. It helped that he wasn’t a handsome hunk who was always being photographed at a swank nightclub with a couple of hotties hanging on his arms, like DiMaggio or Mantle, but was instead going home to his beloved and equally plain wife in a simple place in New Jersey that he described as “nothing but rooms.” He didn’t like to talk about his years in the Navy, which included hazardous duty just a hundred yards off Omaha Beach on D-Day, but the stories got out and enhanced the good guy reputation he so earnestly earned on the field. Teammates and opponents alike vouched for the quality of the man, and so far as we know no one ever disputed it over the many decades he spent in baseball as a coach, manager, and goodwill ambassador of the game.
Despite all that, the first thing people think of when Berra’s name is invoked are all the “Yogi-isms,” and the inadvertently comic character they created. A “Yogi-ism” is something that Berra would blurt out which makes no sense at all if parsed according to the rules of the English language, but makes perfect and often profound sense if you hear them the way he meant to say it. The brilliantly redundant “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” and “It’s deja vu all over again” are now part of the popular lexicon, and his observations that “baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical” and “in baseball you don’t know nothing” are probably the most oft-cited explanations of the seemingly complicated game. Another record that Berra holds is the most citations in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations of any athlete, and we note that he also has more than any living president. Some of Berra’s gems are less well-known, but prove to us that Berra truly was a sort of Yogi. His advice that “You should always go to other people’s funerals, or they won’t go to yours,” and that “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else,” and “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be,” and “You can observe a lot by watching,” or that line about “When you reach a fork in the road, take it,” which is by now a staple of college commencement speeches, all strike us as more eloquently deep than anything Shakespeare could think of for Polonius to tell Laertes. Berra always insisted such philosophical malapropisms simply fell out of his funny-looking face, and he titled his autobiography “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said,” but they’ll probably be what ensures his place in American mythology next to Mike Fink and Huck Finn and Mr. Dooley and all those other quotable fictional characters.
Berra became such a myth that one must take care to sadly note the passing of the man, and of the better era of baseball and America from whence he came. A more careful observer of the current sporting scene notes that the San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey is widely regarded as the best catcher of this day, and that he needs to triple his numbers to approach Berra’s achievements. Nor do we note anyone in professional sports who can boast of Berra’s military record or exemplary personal life or stellar reputation as one of the good guys, and if there were someone who could he probably would boast of it, which Berra never did. Baseball still offers such stellar wits as Bob Uecker and John Kruk, and something about the way the game forces even its greatest players to constantly confront failure ensures that it will always have the best sense of humor, but it just doesn’t seem to fall right out of their funny-looking faces with the same profundity.
Yogi Berra was the kind of guy who went to other people’s funerals, so we’re sure that they’ll all go to his, and he lived 90 years in a world that wouldn’t have been more perfect even if it had been perfect, and he won ten World Series, and in this imperfect world he got to lose four of them, and he was always in contention, and he spent the rest of his life in the game he loved and most of it with the woman he loved, and he wasn’t the sort to complain, so we’ll take comfort in that. When his wife once asked if he’d like to be buried in St Louis, where he grew up in an Italian slum, or New York City, where he became a legend, or New Jersey, where he quietly lived most of his life in that house full of nothing but rooms, Berra reportedly told her, “Surprise me.” Wherever that short, squat, graceless, and yet three-times most valuable body ends up, we hope and pray that his spirit is at long last safe at home. And we hold out faint hope that we’ll see the likes of him again.
— Bud Norman