Yogi’s gone, alas. He departed this world on Wednesday September 23 at the ripe old age of 90. That means, for those who can’t do the math, that he was born in 1925.
I actually remember when he came up, or more precisely, I don’t ever remember a Yankee game without him. That’s because I think it was in the mid-Forties when I started following the Yankees, which is when Yogi finally entered the lineup as the regular catcher—replacing Bill Dickey, the greatest catcher (before Yogi) ever to play the game. It was Dickey who coached Berra in the finer points of catching, one reason Berra became so great.
But in truth, I don’t remember much about his expertise as a catcher. What I remember was his ability to hit in the clutch. If there were men on base and the Yankees needed a run, Yogi almost always delivered. How he did it wasn’t apparent either. His swing didn’t have the fluid grace of a DiMaggio, or the obvious power of a Mantle. But he was strong, especially in the arms and wrists, and could muscle a ball into the outfield no matter how far out of the ‘sweet spot’ it was. And it often was: Berra was always known as a “bad ball” hitter, swinging away at anything that took his fancy, and managing to connect more often than not. Usually his hits were screaming line drives, he almost never struck out, and often enough he hit for the distance, usually when a home run was needed to win.
The stats back this up: MVP in 1951, 1954, 1955; the most RBIs, 1430, of any catcher; fifteen consecutive All Star selections (1948-1962); 10 World Series championships with Series records for most games (75), at-bats (259), hits (71), doubles (10) and catcher putouts (457). As to his most famous game as a catcher, he was behind the plate calling Don Larsen’s pitches when Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history. The photo of him leaping into Larsen’s arms has become an icon of the sport.
After this glittering career, he became a manager and excelled at that too, being one of a very few to lead both American (Yankees) and National (Mets) League teams to the World Series. His managing career added to his World Series records, extending his reign to no less than 21 World Series—as player, coach or manager—the most in history. After all that, he was a shoo-in to the Hall of Fame in 1972.
But stats only begin to tell the story of Lawrence Peter Berra. The son of Italian immigrants to St. Louis where he grew up in the same neighborhood (known as ‘the Hill’) as fellow catcher Joe Garagiola, Berra became one of the most recognized figures in the world—with even a cartoon character, Yogi Bear, named after him. The name Yogi is supposed to have come from a baseball friend, Bobby Hofman, who said Berra resembled a Hindu holy man when he sat around with arms and legs folded waiting to bat. It fit so well it stuck. Yogi’s way with language made the name seem prophetic. Everyone on the planet now seems to know “It ain’t over till it’s over;” or “”It’s déjà vu all over again.” But what’s more remarkable is that these apparent malapropisms (Yogi quit school after 8th grade) turn out to be deeply perceptive: the “ain’t over” comment was prophetic for the NY Mets who, virtually out of the pennant race when Yogi said it in July 1973, sprinted to win on the last day of the season. It really wasn’t over.
Perhaps it is this, besides the greatness of his hitting, that should stick in our minds: the sharpness of Yogi’s baseball mind. Craig Biggio, a catcher for the Houston Astros says: “He’s the smartest baseball man I’ve ever been around.” Phil Garner, another Astro (Yogi worked as a coach for the Astros to end his career) added: “When it comes to baseball, he has a computer-like mind.” Not bad for a jug-eared kid from a poor immigrant family in a working-class neighborhood of St. Louis—for whom, sadly, it’s finally over.
Except, of course, for those Yogi-isms. Here are some of my favorites:
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.
I can’t concentrate when I’m thinking.
On why he no longer went to Ruggeri’s, a St. Louis restaurant:
Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.
And my favorite, describing a fancy house he’d just purchased:
What a house; nothin’ but rooms.