Yogi at 90, and more than his “isms”

Yogi Berra in 2014, during a ceremony honouring his Navy service during the D-Day invasion on its anniversary.

Yogi Berra in 2014, during a ceremony honouring his Navy service during the D-Day invasion on its anniversary.

There are those who walk among us in their twilight and inspire us to think that, warts and all, our world still remains a lovely place to be simply because such people still walk among us. In a time when sports seems to yield up more dubious and disreputable characters among its active players, we are comforted to know that some of our past athletic subjects prove better people than they did players, however great they were as the latter.

Regarding baseball, Stan Musial’s passing a few years ago provoked mourning that such a man was no longer with us. So did Ernie Banks’s earlier this year; so did Tony Gwynn’s last year; so did Harmon Killebrew’s a few years ago. People of various generations take comfort that we still have among us Monte Irvin, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and Brooks Robinson, to name a few still living who’ve proven better men than they were Hall of Fame performers.

Sometimes the admirability of those men as men overshadows their admirability as ballplayers, sometimes not. Gibson’s image as an intimidating knight on the mound tends to overshadow his fundamental togetherness as a man; Aaron’s intelligence and diligence doesn’t stand a chance against what he achieved in 1974, an achievement that in turn planted our eyes squarely upon the epitome of consistent greatness he was in uniform.

When you see such men achieve both, it’s something to behold and to respect. Koufax has had that. He’s remembered as a singular pitcher and a decent sort of Renaissance man since stepping off the mound, so much so that people who know him intimately go out of their way to protect the privacy of a man who’d rather be one of the neighbourhood than an icon.

Robinson was a great third baseman whose character inspired a comment to Thomas Boswell from a Baltimore fan, on the day the Orioles honoured him with a “Day” at a time he faced financial ruin, thanks to the generosity that helped sink a sporting goods business he began: “Around here they don’t name candy bars for Brooks, they name their children after him.” According to Boswell, they also sent Robinson thousands of dollars to help him back from debt, which the soon to be retiring third baseman declined, bent on repaying it himself.

For Yogi Berra, who turned 90 today, it’s too simple to fall back upon the fabled malaprops he did or didn’t or could have said, though the temptation is overwhelming. (My own personal favourite: asked whether a streaker across the outfield was male or female, Berra replied, “I don’t know. They had a bag over their head.”)

Yogi (lower right) in boyhood; his father, Pietro, seated in the middle; his mother, Paulina, standing second from right.

Yogi (lower right) in boyhood; his father, Pietro, seated in the middle; his mother, Paulina, standing second from right.

It’s also too simple to fall back upon the fundamental decency that has accompanied Lawrence Peter Berra (Anglicised from “Lorenzo Pietro”) from his hardscrabble boyhood in the St. Louis Italian neighbourhood known as The Hill to his days today, widowed since early 2014, living in an assisted-living facility after his longtime Montclair, NJ home had to be sold not long after his wife, Carmen, died. (The selling price, for which the new owners paid every dime: $888,888—a tribute to his uniform number.)

Berra’s become such an iconic character that it’s easy to forget what he was as a player. As visible as they are as human beings, you hear sooner about the greatness that Irvin, Aaron, Howard, Koufax, Gibson, and Robinson showed on the field than you do about Berra. Except for a surrealistic few turns as a pinch hitter with the 1965 Mets, Berra played his last major league game amid the 1963 World Series. Fifty-three years later, you hear more about Berra the character than Berra the player.

It’s a shame, then, that Allen Barra—a longtime baseball analyst for several publications who hangs his hat lately at The Daily Beast—didn’t open as many eyes as he should have when he published Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries in 2004.

The back cover showed blurbs of praise for his previous book, Clearing the Bases, and, at the bottom, a baseball traveling in flames . . . with Yogi Berra’s face showing in the ball. That should have been a hint for what the second chapter discussed. Its title said it all: “The Greatest Team Sports Player of the Twentieth Century; or, Half This Chapter is 90 Percent Mental”—an amusing twist on a fabled Yogiism. (Ninety percent of this game is mental and the other half is physical.)

My own jaw dropped after reading that chapter. Until then I’d thought of Berra merely as one of the two best catchers (with Johnny Bench) who ever played the game. I hadn’t thought about the prospects that a) Berra actually was a better hitter and run producer than Bench (those big home run seasons Bench had probably enhanced his image); and, b) Berra actually was better behind the plate. (Bench’s facility with the one-handed catch and the wilder running game he played against probably enhances his image there, too.)

Barra merely began by lining up their cumulative batting statistics, for their entire careers, even the games in which neither man caught, since both Berra and Bench played over 200 games at other positions. His reasoning: In an argument about team players, switching positions is significant enough, and both men did play serviceably at other positions. Now, it took Berra 38 fewer total games to drive in 54 more runs, score 83 more, strike out 864 fewer times, ground into 55 fewer double plays, and hit for a higher lifetime average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

A quick moment with Ted Williams at Yankee Stadium.

A quick moment with Ted Williams at Yankee Stadium.

Among defensive catchers, Berra led his league in putouts eight times, assists five, defensive double plays six, and fielding percentage twice. Bench led his in putouts twice, assists once, defensive double plays once, and fielding percentage once.

Where the real team play factor comes in for a catcher, perhaps, ties to handling pitching staffs. Bear in mind that neither Berra nor Bench handled genuinely great pitchers, aside from (for Berra) Whitey Ford and (for Bench, and just after the man had hung up the seasons that really made his rep) Tom Seaver. Barra invited his readers to look a lot more closely.

He discovered and recorded that—if you removed Ford from the equation—every Yankee pitcher who threw to Yogi Berra behind the plate had better statistics with Berra behind the plate than they did either with any other Yankee catcher or pitching for any other team. Including the one pitcher from Berra’s early seasons not named Whitey Ford who was often believe to be a should have been Hall of Famer, Allie Reynolds.

He didn’t address the same factor directly with Bench, but I did so on my own. Until Seaver was traded to the Reds in the once-infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” dealing from the Mets, Bench got to work with Reds pitchers who often looked like they were heading for greatness but who suffered one or another issue with arms or shoulders.

Perhaps the best of that lot were Jim Maloney in the late 1960s and Don Gullett in the 1970s. That notwithstanding, far fewer of the Reds pitchers (not counting Seaver, of course, who’d been Hall of Fame great long before he arrived in Cincinnati) who threw to Bench looked measurably different when they threw to other catchers, on the Reds or anywhere else, than did all those non-Ford Yankee pitchers who threw to Berra. Bench was as great as advertised, and it leaves no blemish upon him to say Berra was just that much better.

Barra, in fact, had a chance to buttonhole Whitey Ford at an Old-Timers’ Day in New York and asked how Ford got his nickname, the Chairman of the Board. Here’s what Ford said:

Whitey Ford.

Whitey Ford.

Everyone regarded me as a cocky kid when I came up, and that’s the way they continued to see me throughout my career. I acted that way because I figured it gave me an edge. I didn’t throw as fast as some guys and I didn’t have as big a curve as some, but I acted as if I was confident, and that’s the way people regarded me, especially the hitters, the ones I really wanted to impress. Well, I wasn’t confident, not really. It was Yogi who was confident, and Yogi that made me feel that way. With anyone else as my catcher, I wouldn’t have been the same pitcher.

Barra reminded his readers that Berra was the Yankees’ regular catcher for eleven seasons, during which time the Yankees won nine pennants, seven World Series, and had one second place finish in which they won 103 games, with Berra as their regular behind the plate. Overall, including his two shakier early seasons and his later days as a left fielder, pinch hitter, and backup catcher, he played in fourteen World Series and won ten rings.

Could or would Bench have proven that much better handling pitching staffs if he’d had the pitchers Berra had to work with? We’ll never know. But to those who would dismiss it as a happy accident of circumstance, they should first ponder what Barra pondered, how many men would have taken the opportunity given, run with it, made the best of it, and shone with it. And that, in Berra’s years as the regular Yankee catcher, the Yankees had the best pitching in the league but rarely if ever the best pitchers.

In most [of those] years the Yankees’ staffs consisted of one- or two-year wonders, faded veterans who discovered a little gas left in their tanks, and also-rans who had a good season or two squeezed out of them and then moved on to obscurity. All of them, no matter what their talent or background or fate, shared two things: World Series money and a catcher. Not Mickey Cochrane nor Bill Dickey nor Johnny Bench ever displayed anything like Yogi’s talent for handling a pitching staff. They might have, if they had been faced with the same circumstances and the same talent to work with. But they didn’t have the chance, Yogi did, and he won—seasonal games, pennants, World Series rings—more than any other catcher. In fact, more than any other baseball player of the century.

Admittedly, Berra might not have come to flourish as he did with a manager other than Casey Stengel when he was young, awkward, and barely a Yankee. Frank Graham, the longtime New York Journal-American sportswriter, isolated the point:

We're pretty sure Stengel was not telling Yogi, "Now, this here is the baseball . . ."

We’re pretty sure Stengel was not telling Yogi, “Now, this here is the baseball . . .”

Aware, as no one before him had been, that here was a truly sensitive young man who was hurt by many of the quips made about him, yet had the guts to smile through them, Casey acted as a buffer between Berra and those on his own club who poked fun at him. It wasn’t long before the slower thinkers on the Yankees gained a realisation of what Yogi meant to them. But it is simple justice to point out that Casey [realised it] first.

It’s wholly appropriate to wish Yogi a happy 90th and regale each other with your favourite Berra stores, whether they involve a play on the field, a turn at the plate (yes, Berra was a classic bad ball hitter who was also classically difficult if not nearly impossible to strike out), or a malaprop from the man.

You can even talk about the extremely few times—the devious machinations and double-switch that screwed him out of the Yankees’ managerial seat in 1964; the feud with George Steinbrenner over his managerial firing in the 1980s; the death of his wife last year (“Getting her to marry me. Who’d have thought?” he once told a reporter who’d asked what he thought was his greatest achievement)—when it really did suck to be Yogi Berra, if only for a blink’s worth.

Yogi and Carmen Berra (right) with World Series perfect game pitcher Don Larsen and his wife, Corinne.

Yogi and Carmen Berra (right) with World Series perfect game pitcher Don Larsen and his wife, Corinne.

(Shrewder than credited, as well as being blessed, Berra was at once a prudent investor of his monies but also once inspired his manager Casey Stengel—who called him “my assistant manager” with no irony intended—to say, “If he fell in a sewer, he’d come up with a gold watch.”)

But it would be wholly unjust not to throw in the too-infrequently mentioned point that, if you consider greatness to be as much a question of team play as individual achievements (and so far as that goes, three MVPs looks pretty nifty in the same case as those ten World Series rings), then Yogi Berra is just what Allen Barra deduced him to be: the greatest team player in any team sport of the 20th Century, if not beyond.

It’s not that Yogi himself will join that conversation. Knowing what I know of him, he’d rather talk about his grandchildren, his late wife, his teammates, and the sportsmanship and character teachings his Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center provides to children. And in that order.

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