Missing Mr. Yogi

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Yogi Berra, hitting the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, 1947.

“Talking baseball with Yogi Berra,” A. Bartlett Giamatti once said, “is like talking to Homer about the gods.” See and raise: Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist and free market champion, was once arranged to have breakfast with Berra. They hit it off, apparently. Berra biographer Allen Barra related him admitting Friedman “is not a baseball fan, and I am not as much a money fan as most people think I am.”

According to Barra, Berra said Friedman told him he’d have gotten a good grade if he’d been in Friedman’s class. “It’s probably true,” Friedman said before his 2006 death. “I think he had a good grasp of basic economic principles, apparently better than some of the better educated people in the Yankee front office that he used to negotiate salaries with. One thing he said that I have always remembered is, ‘A nickel isn’t worth a dime anymore.’ He was right.”

Berra even caught Friedman in the kind of malaprop for which the Hall of Fame catcher was intergalactically famous: they talked a little literature at their breakfast, and Berra—who never minded when the joke was on him—mentioned having met Ernest Hemingway during his playing days and asking what paper he worked for. Friedman stopped laughing long enough to say one of his two favourite Hemingway novels was, quote, The Fisherman and the Sea.

“He meant The Old Man and the Sea,” Berra would say. “Do you suppose anyone called him on it? No. Suppose I had said the same thing.” Small wonder that nobody really believed him when he said he hadn’t said half of ninety percent of what he said. Or, however he said it.

It’s been three years since he went to his reward eighteen months after his beloved wife did. But it still feels as though something is missing from America because Yogi Berra doesn’t walk among us anymore. You might call it something on the silly side to mourn a man who lived 90 years, but it always seemed as though among baseball’s actual or alleged immortals Berra really was immortal, in more ways than one. Even people to whom baseball was about as relevant as life on Atlantis felt a quiet comfort that someone like him happened to be around.

Maybe it was because as accomplished as he really was in the game—he’s the arguable greatest all-around catcher who ever played major league baseball (Johnny Bench is his very close second); he was genuinely respected for his game knowledge and loved as a teammate, coach, and manager; he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer against whom everyone to play his position to follow would be judged; he played on more pennant winners and World Series champions than any player, ever—Berra was one of America’s most famous men while remaining as often as not “blissful(ly) unaware of his own celebrity,” as Barra phrased it.

After friends and family built and opened the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in his longtime Montclair, New Jersey neighbourhood (“Every museum I ever went to as a kid was named after somebody who was dead,” he cracked), a woman from his native St. Louis visited and was surprised to see him there. “Mr. Berra, could you make up a Yogiism for me?” she asked, referring to the malaprops that were more famous than Berra’s staggering ability to hit out-of-the-zone pitches. “Ma’am,” he replied, “if I could do that, I’d be famous.”

He may be the baseball figure most frequently found in the pages of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, but if you asked him about it he was liable to reply something like, “I wish I could say them when I wanted to because I would have made a fortune by now.”

Berra was a tough customer talking contract with the Yankees every winter and prudent with his money as it was. Savvy enough to spot opportunity’s earliest knock, he and his wife, Carmen, earned a fortune through their association with the old Yoo-Hoo chocolate soft drink, first by his endorsements, then earning a vice presidency when he lured other investors to the company, and finally by holding considerable stock the couple unloaded only when the company changed hands and flavour too often for their taste.

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Yogi in the Navy.

This son of an immigrant Italian brickyardsman who once admitted that in his boyhood the only way he liked school was “closed!” survived D-Day; he was a Navy seaman and gunner who was one of six aboard a 36-foot rocket boat on the waters of Normandy as the invasion began and stayed two weeks. (“You ever try shooting a machine gun on a 36-footer? You could shoot yourself.”) Before his Navy service was over, Berra actually qualified for a Purple Heart—but refused to accept it because he didn’t want to give his mother a heart attack.

(Decades later, when the Mets first hired Berra as a full-time coach and part-time catcher/pinch-hitter, they also had as a pitcher-coach Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart himself for service that included the Battle of the Bulge. Asked whether they’d make baseball’s oldest battery, the prankish Spahn shrugged. “We’d be the ugliest by far,” he cracked.)

His unawareness of his own celebrity was real nevertheless. “It’s not that hard to get inside his inner circle,” his oldest son, Larry, once said. “Basically, he loves everybody as long as you’re trustworthy and loyal.” If they’re not, look out. When George Steinbrenner fired him through an intermediary as the Yankees’ manager in 1985, after having promised he’d have the job for the full season, Berra famously refused to return to Yankee Stadium or to any Yankee function as long as Steinbrenner owned the team.

It took a Thanksgiving-sized helping of crow, not to mention the insistence of Mrs. Berra and their youngest son, Dale, for Steinbrenner to patch it up. It happened in time for Berra to bring his grandchildren to the Stadium on Yogi Berra Day. Before the game, Berra took a ceremonial first pitch from Don Larsen, whose perfect game in the 1956 World Series Berra caught. Then, after catcher Joe Girardi asked Berra to bless his glove, Yankee pitcher David Cone pitched his own perfect game against the Montreal Expos in an interleague game.

Girardi was far from the only one who believed good fortune came to those within Berra’s reach. “He could fall in a sewer,” his longtime Yankee manager Casey Stengel once said, “and come up with a gold watch.”

It must have shocked those who remembered the squat, plain, awkward-looking kid in his first spring training to discover he’d become the subject of a serious 1997 monograph, The Jurisprudence of Yogi Berra, published by Santa Clara University School of Law professor Gerald F. Uelmen. No Berraism went unanalysed for its legal significance, including and especially what I usually call Berra’s Law: it ain’t over until it’s over:

Much of the stability and certainty of our legal system rely upon the essence of this Berraism and are in fact contained in the Constitution of the United States. Where would our entire system of jurisprudence be without the concept of appellate review? Indeed, if “it was over when it was over” at the trial or legislative level, much of the work of the Supreme Court would cease to exist, and then so much for our system of checks and balances.

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The Berras, 1950s. Asked his greatest achievement, Yogi didn’t miss: “Getting her to marry me. Who’d have thought?”

That about the man who once signed an anniversary card with, “Love, Yogi Berra.” Mrs. Berra never let him live that one down, either: “I was actually glad he thought to sign it that way,” she loved to say. “I wouldn’t have wanted to confuse him with all the other Yogis I know.”

As a manager he won two pennants the hard way, with the 1964 Yankees (who needed a stretch drive surge to take the pennant, after being bedeviled earlier in the season by a lack of bullpen consistency until late-season acquisition Pedro Ramos delivered several key saves) and the 1973 Mets (dead last in the National League East to start September; division and pennant winners to finish the season before losing a seven-game World Series to the Athletics). The latter may have been his managerial masterpiece.

Between and after, until he retired as the Astros’ bench coach in 1989, Berra enhanced a reputation he began earning in his latter Yankee playing seasons, for helping younger players without thinking twice. His personal popularity didn’t hurt at the turnstiles, but team administrators also savoured the prospect of their players and even their managers picking his brain while enjoying his company.

“Yogi was always with the catchers, going through the drills, blocking balls, watching us, laughing with us,” remembered longtime Yankee catcher Jorge Posada. “It was amazing. You could tell how much he was enjoying it. I mean, we’re thinking, this is Yogi Berra. We should be honoured to be in his presence. But the way he acted, it almost was like it was the other way around.”

It’s rare to find people who achieve greatness in the public eye and remain decent people in and out of it. Decent, if imperfect. But even people with renowned senses of humour sometimes find those senses compromised.

Berra took some of baseball’s most merciless ribbing over his looks, the plain face atop a body that looked six parts wrestler and half a dozen parts simian. (Tigers pitcher Dizzy Trout, learning of his marriage to the stunning-looking Carmen in 1949, cracked, “Hey, Yogi, I hear ya got married. How does your wife like living in a tree?”) Having the guts to smile through the insults won him as much admiration as his baseball ability and knowledge. (“All you have to do is hit the ball, and I never saw anybody hit one with his face,” he once said.)

He was not amused, though, when animators Hanna-Barbera created Yogi Bear in the 1950s, after a neighbourhood kid hailed him by calling him Yogi Bear. The name nagged him enough to make him wonder whether H-B chose it mockingly. He pondered litigation for defamation of character until he was advised that it wouldn’t hold. Especially since Yogi the bear sounded more like The Honeymooners‘ halfwit sewer worker Ed Norton and behaved more like scheming Sgt. Bilko, two characters for whom Yogi the Berra would never be mistaken.

That was nothing compared to the Yogasm flap five decades later. That’s when TBS ran billboards promoting their syndication of the execrable Sex in the City, the billboards asking the definition of “Yogasm,” with one of the multiple choice answers being “Sex with Yogi Berra.” Berra sued for $10 million because he feared the ads compromised his clean living reputation. (He also hadn’t given the network permission to use his name.)

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Berra with Sandy Koufax, at the announcement of their election to the Hall of Fame in 1972.

Some may have thought the very thought of Yogi as a sex symbol even in the breach was, shall we say, the most unheard-of thing they never heard of. The network ended up settling with Berra for an undisclosed amount. Even the most approachable guy in the neighbourhood had his limits. Unless his ever-loving, ever-needling wife couldn’t resist during their pillow talk, and we’ll never know (appropriately), thou shalt not take the name of the Berra thy Yogi in vain.

Harvey Araton, writing of the sweet friendship between Berra and former Yankee pitching star Ron Guidry as spring training coaches in Driving Mr. Yogi, remembered an Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium, during which the scoreboard listed those in the Yankee orbit who’d passed on that year. Guidry and the Yankees’ Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford were made melancholy by the roll, but Berra standing next to Ford turned to him and said, “Boy, I hope I never see my name up there.”

Mrs. Berra once asked her husband, “Yogi, you were born in St. Louis, we live in New Jersey, and you played ball in New York. If you go before I go, where do you want me to have you buried?” Her husband replied, “Surprise me.” It seemed to surprise as well as sadden America when it saw his name up there, even knowing that when one half of a great love story passes the other isn’t long for this island earth. He finally came to that fork in the road and took it. On his wife’s birthday. Said his granddaughter, Lindsay, herself a sportswriter, “Grandpa wanted spend her birthday with her.”

A lot of us wish Mr. Yogi didn’t have to just yet. But we were sure that Mrs Berra was ready to show him around, advising one and all that they wouldn’t want to confuse him with all the other Yogis they knew. No worries there, this Yogi was one of a kind.

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