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Captain Clutch: You Could Look it Up

Posted By Alex Belth On April 1, 2009 @ 12:11 pm In Arts and Culture,Book Excerpts,Bookish,Bronx Banter,Links: Biography,Sportswriting | Comments Disabled

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt

Everybody Loves Yogi

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One of the most anticipated baseball books of the spring is Allen Barra’s biography on Yogi Berra: Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee [1] (W.W. Norton).  Yogi is perhaps the most beloved Yankee of them all but he is also one of the most underrated great players of all time.   In his enthusiastic and provocative manner, Barra makes the case for the unadulterated greatness of Yogi.

Here is an exclusive excerpt.

yogi

By Allen Barra

He was the guy who made the Yankees seem almost human.

—Mickey Mantle

Sometime in the summer of 1941, two of the great legends of baseball narrowly missed making a connection that would have radically altered baseball. Some historians place the date in 1942, but the two men with reason to remember it best, Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola, say, and I have taken their word, it was ­1941.

Lawrence Peter Berra, a then somewhat stocky, ungainly looking ­sixteen-­year-­old Italian-American kid from the “Dago Hill” area of St. Louis, had attracted the attention of the best organization in the National League for a tryout in Sportsman’s Park. Jack Maguire, a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, told his boss, general manager Branch Rickey, that Berra had a powerful left-­handed swing, a great arm, and heaps of potential. Rickey wasn’t sure; he was more interested in another kid from the Hill, Joseph Henry Garagiola, a year younger than Berra. Garagiola was thought by Rickey to be faster, smoother, and more polished. Dee Walsh, another Cardinals scout, talked Rickey into signing Garagiola with a $500 bonus, but Rickey was skeptical about offering anything at all to ­Berra.

Rickey had been getting reports on both boys all summer, not just from his scouts but also from two of his outfielders, Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore, who occasionally showed up to give pointers at the WPA baseball school at Sherman’s Park. Rickey’s initial offer to young Berra was a contract—but no bonus. To a boy that age, a professional baseball contract, even without a bonus, was nothing to be scorned. But Lawrence, displaying the kind of stubborn integrity that would, in just a few years, stymie the most powerful organization in sports, balked. “In the first place,” he would tell sportswriter Ed Fitzgerald nearly two decades later, “I knew it was going to be tough enough to convince Mom and Pop that they ought to let me go away. But if Joey was getting $500 for it and I wasn’t getting anything, they would be sure to think it was a waste of time for me.”

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Hedging, Rickey offered $250. Branch Rickey was the most influential executive in baseball—by the end of the decade, it was estimated that nearly 37 percent of all big league players had been developed in one of his farm systems—and Larry’s brash reply took him aback: “No, I want the same as Joey’s getting.”2 Rickey did not mention to Berra how much a month he would be earning under the contract, and Berra never asked. “That didn’t matter to me. I would have taken anything. All I was interested in was that if Garagiola was getting $500, I wanted $500, too.” Yogi would later take pains to emphasize that he wasn’t jealous of his pal, but he was convinced, from years of sandlot and street games, that he was as good a ballplayer as Joe. Garagiola disagreed. “Yogi wasn’t better than me,” recalls Joe. “He was much better. There were a lot of good ballplayers on the Hill at that time, and ‘Lawdy’—as his friends called him, echoing his mother, who couldn’t pronounce ‘Larry’—was the best. You know how kids choose up sides with a bat, one hand on top of the other until you reach the end of the handle? When the last hand got to the top, the first thing said was ‘We want Lawdy.’ ”

Jack Maguire argued with his boss, but Rickey was intractable: Berra would never be more than a ­Triple-­A player. He was too clumsy and too slow, Rickey said, to be a genuine big league prospect. Maguire never understood Rickey’s decision. Berra’s coaches, and certainly his opponents, did not find him either slow or clumsy, though he often appeared to be both. Branch Rickey was, simply, the greatest judge of talent the baseball world had ever seen and, perhaps, with the possible exception of a man whose path would cross Yogi’s, the greatest front office man in the game. In his time, Rickey pegged Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and dozens of other great players as future stars; he had been a catcher himself and was capable of evaluating all body types. He understood that baseball was a game that benefited from all manner of physical tools. Yet, Rickey, against the advice of his own scout, would not put out the additional $250 to sign Larry Berra. It was the most colossally shortsighted blunder ever made by a baseball executive, surpassing even Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee’s dealing Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. Frazee, at least, got the incredible sum of $425,000 in cash and loans.

If, that is, Rickey’s decision was a blunder. In later years, a counterstory would circulate that Rickey was actually being shrewd: he knew he ­wouldn’t be with the Cardinals much longer, he was preparing to leave the St. Louis club for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his real intention was to “hide” Berra and sign him for Brooklyn. Joe Garagiola points out that just a couple of months after the tryout, after Rickey had moved to the Dodgers, he contacted Berra to offer him a contract. “Rickey tried to sign Yogi after he went to work for the Dodgers,” says Joe. “Why would he have kept a file on him if he hadn’t intended to sign him for Brooklyn?”

In 1961, when his autobiography was published, Yogi flat-out denied that Rickey had tried to “hide” him. “I’ve never believed that . . . From everything I’ve heard about him, he’s too big a man to do anything like that.”  In recent years, probably from hearing the opposite version so much, Yogi seems to have reversed his stance on Rickey’s intentions. In a 1999 interview with Bob Costas, he said that he believed Rickey had intended all along to keep him for the Dodgers. It’s easy to see why: this explanation offers a simple, logical reason for a decision that seems otherwise inexplicable.*

The problem is, there isn’t any evidence to support this interpretation. Rickey himself never mentioned it. In his 1965 book, The American Diamond: A Documentary of the Game of Baseball, Rickey devoted a brief entry to “Yogi and Campy”—Berra and Roy Campanella, the great Dodgers catcher whose extraordinary career parallels Yogi’s. “In the last decade,” wrote Rickey, “the two dominant catchers in baseball were Roy Campanella of Brooklyn and L.P. Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees. By 1955 they were at the top of their game, and each had earned the Most Valuable Player award in his respective league for the third time. Both men were clutch hitters with ­extra-­base power, both were powerfully built but deceptively fast, both were very smart behind the plate . . . both Campy and Yogi had splendid throwing arms . . . They have hit over 550 home runs between them, surpassing all catchers in history in this department . . . Baseball may never see two such talented men for a long time.”­

There isn’t a word about Rickey’s having passed up a chance to sign Yogi in St. Louis in 1941, or, in fact, of Rickey’s having contacted Yogi later when Rickey was with the Dodgers and Berra had signed with the Yankees. Such an omission was unusual for Rickey, who was an encyclopedia of facts and memories. Murray Polner, Rickey’s best biographer, ­doesn’t recall a mention of Berra in any of Rickey’s papers. “I tend to disbelieve the story of Rickey’s trying to ‘hide’ Yogi for the Dodgers,” says Polner. “Rickey was a notorious tight wad, but painfully honest. He wouldn’t have set up a prospect for the Dodgers while working for the Cardinals. He wouldn’t have paid Garagiola $500 of Cardinal money if he didn’t think Joe was major league caliber.”

And if Rickey was still doing his job for the Cardinals, he would have signed Yogi Berra for them if he thought Yogi was a genuine prospect. The only plausible explanation for Rickey’s later failure to mention his contact with Yogi would seem to be his ego: he simply did not want to admit that he missed signing one of the greatest players in the game’s history.

There is another possibility as to what happened with Rickey and Berra, but it rests on tenuous evidence. In a 1949 profile of Yogi in Collier’s magazine, a writer named Gordon Manning stated that in the September after the tryout, Rickey phoned Berra “and said he would contact him in a few days”—presumably when his contract with the Cardinals was up—“but Yogi, confused by the Great Man’s ­double-­talk, signed with the Yanks after scout Johnny Schulte had duplicated Joe’s bonus on a tip from Leo Browne.” Where would Manning have gotten this information? Surely not from Rickey. Either Berra mentioned it to him during their interview or Manning misunderstood something Yogi did say. If it’s true, then it would seem Rickey did try to “hide” Yogi from the Cardinals, but I have seen no mention of a September call from Rickey anywhere.

Many years later the phrase “Berra’s Luck” would make its way into articles about Yogi. Looking back on his career, it was amazing how many times something seemingly bad would turn out not merely well but better than Yogi or anyone could have anticipated. Rickey’s failure to sign Yogi is the first known example of Berra’s Luck. After the tryout in Sportsman’s Park, Larry was hurt and humiliated. He went home ­empty-­handed, while his pal, a lad younger than he was, went home to his parents not only with a contract but with $500, more in one lump sum than his family would otherwise have come across in decades.

If fate, like an angel in the films of Frank Capra—an Italian immigrant born about the same time as Yogi’s father—had tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Don’t let it bother you, you will go on to the winningest career in the history of American sports, your words will be quoted by movie stars and presidents, and you will be rich enough to take care of your parents and your whole family,” Larry Berra could not possibly have believed him.

One of the most popular staples of adventure comic books is parallel universes, where “What if?” stories show us what might have happened if, for instance, Batman’s parents had lived or if Superman’s Krypton had not exploded. The life of Yogi Berra, who enjoyed those comic books nearly as much as he enjoyed baseball, would have made for a fascinating series of “What if?” stories. If Branch Rickey had stayed in St. Louis or if he had just offered Yogi the $500, what might Berra’s career have been like? And how might the world as we know it be different? Given Berra’s natural talent and capacity for hard work, he would have been a Hall of Famer had he spent all or most of his career with the Cardinals—though, oddly enough, his career at catcher, his natural position, would have been slowed by the earlier maturity of Joe Garagiola. Rickey’s judgment was correct at least as to where the two youngsters stood in 1941; Joey was more developed as a backstop and would catch more games in his first two seasons as a Cardinal than Berra would in his first three seasons with the Yankees. Also, in New York Berra had the great Bill Dickey to bring him along, and Yogi’s progress would almost certainly have been even slower without the help of the fabled catcher. Still, there was no holding back a player of Berra’s talent. He would hit more home runs in his first four seasons than Garagiola would hit in his entire career.

After 1946, Garagiola’s rookie year, the Cardinals would not win another pennant until 1964, when they would face a Yankee team in the World Series managed by . . . Yogi Berra. Between 1947 and 1963, though, the Cardinals finished second five times and third four times. It’s likely that Berra would have made the difference in at least a couple of those pennant races. If the Cardinals had boasted Berra during that span, they might well have challenged the Dodgers for National League supremacy. Yogi, a St. Louis boy, would have been, along with Stan Musial, one of the two most popular players in the history of America’s greatest baseball town. St. Louis fans relished nicknames—they gave one to an entire team, the 1934 “Gashouse Gang” Cardinals, as well as nearly everyone on it: “Dizzy” and “Daffy” Dean, “Pepper” Martin, Yogi’s first great baseball idol “Ducky” Medwick, and Yogi’s early instructor “Country” Slaughter. In the 1940s, their greatest player would be Stan “The Man” Musial. “Yogi” would have been an instant favorite. Playing against the Dodgers in the National League, though, would have pitted Berra against the other great catcher of his time, Roy Campanella, so, had he been a Cardinal, Yogi wouldn’t have been an automatic selection to start the ­All-­Star game every year as he was for the Yankees. It also isn’t certain that he would have won three Most Valuable Player awards. However, it seems safe to say that Berra, had he played for the Cardinals those seventeen seasons, would have been one of his league’s best players, an obvious Hall of Famer, and that St. Louis would have won a couple more pennants. A statue of Yogi would probably be standing next to Stan the Man’s outside Busch Stadium.

The more intriguing “What if?” is: “What if Branch Rickey had signed Yogi for the Brooklyn Dodgers?” The possibility is so monumentally disruptive to the existing order that to even contemplate it leaves one dizzy; it’s like one of those science fiction stories where the protagonist changes something in the past then returns to the present to find everything altered. The Brooklyn Dodgers were the only other team of that era with the potential to challenge the Yankees for baseball supremacy. To many Americans, the Dodgers were America’s team; even in the Deep South (where their games were broadcast on the Armed Forces Network) they were often seen as small town underdogs whom millions rooted for against the cold, corporate, ­big-­city Yankees. The Dodgers of the late 1940s and 1950s, the Dodgers of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, and Gil Hodges, produced as many household names as the Yankees of the same period. Yogi would have been a spectacular fit—what the rest of the country called malapropisms would have been regarded in Brooklyn as heightened ­
awareness.

From the first year Berra played more than 80 games, 1947, through 1963, his last year as a player with baseball’s most dominant team, the Yankees won 1,649 games during the regular season and lost 989, a ­won-­lost percentage of .625. The Dodgers, over the same span, were the second best in baseball, 1,560–1,080 for .591, a difference of .034. Take away Yogi—who never finished lower than fourth in the MVP voting from 1950 to 1956—from the Yankees and replace him with anyone besides Campanella. It’s more than reasonable to assume that the Yankees would have won an average of three fewer games per season and that the Dodgers with Yogi would have averaged at least three more wins. If Yogi had been a Dodger then (and if my ­three-­wins-­per-­season average is correct), the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers of 1947–1963 would have been baseball’s most dominant team, with a record of 1,600 to 1,610 wins, while the Yankees (again holding to Yogi’s value of three wins per season) would have won fewer than 1,­600.

What about the World Series? The Yankees won fourteen pennants over those seventeen seasons, and the Dodgers won eight. Take Yogi out of pinstripes and put him in Dodger blue, and I would wager that at the least the difference would be split. Yogi’s presence could have been enormous in Brooklyn’s heartbreaking pennant races of 1950, when they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies Whiz Kids, and in 1951, when they lost to the New York Giants on Bobby Thomson’s last swing of the season. Those were just two of the five Dodgers’ ­second-­place finishes over those seventeen seasons. As a Dodger, Yogi could easily have turned World Series history on its head. Between 1947 and 1963, the Yankees and Dodgers faced each other in seven World Series, with the Yankees winning five. The Yankees’ edge in victories in those series is surprisingly small, just 23 wins to the Dodgers’ 20, though four of those Dodger victories came in 1963, a season in which Yogi played just 64 games, so perhaps 1963 should be left out of the equation. That leaves the Yankees with 23 World Series victories over the Dodgers between 1947 and 1956. How many of those games could Yogi have turned around? Well, if he had turned around as many for the Dodgers against the Yankees as he actually did for the Yankees against the Dodgers, the Dodgers, not the Yankees, would have been baseball’s dominant team over those seventeen seasons.*

And here’s a really scary thought: given Yogi’s amazing track record handling young pitchers, what might he have done with Sanford Koufax, who made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at the age of nineteen? In 1961, Koufax finally lived up to his incredible potential, with 18 wins and 269 strikeouts, breaking Christy Mathewson’s ­fifty ­eight year-­old National League record of 267. Prior to that, in six seasons, Koufax had been just 36–40 in 103 starts. Is it unreasonable to assume that Sandy would have fulfilled that potential a little sooner with Yogi catching? In 1958 Roy Campanella suffered a horrendous auto accident that paralyzed him and ended his career. (In any event, by 1957 he was ­thirty-­six and winding down, appearing in just 103 games and hitting only .242.) What if Yogi had had a shot at working with Koufax when he was ­twenty-­two ­or twenty-­three?*

In either scenario, on any team, Yogi’s greatness would have emerged. He would have become an American folk hero and icon no matter what team he played for, but if he had not been a Yankee, I would not have written this book. He would have wound up living in St. Louis or, God forbid, Hollywood, and I would not be living less than ten miles from the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center and would not have the privilege of regarding Yogi as a neighbor. And if Yogi had not been a Yankee, would he truly be the national hero he is today, particularly to ­non-­Yankee fans all over the country? It seems paradoxical, but Yogi Berra is known and loved by millions who hate the team he played for, the team that regularly beat their teams. Of what other former athlete could something similar be said? As Mickey Mantle said, “He was the guy who made the Yankees seem almost human.”

I don’t really remember if I was a Yankee fan in my youth—ours was a Willie Mays household that revolved around the daily checking of box scores to compare Mays’s productivity with Mickey Mantle’s. Like millions of people around the country, I never felt I had to root for the Yankees to love Yogi, and like everyone else, whatever my feelings about the Yankees—I distinctly remember rooting against them when they played Mays and the Giants in the 1962 World Series—I always loved Yogi. But, I asked myself as my daughter and I wandered through Yogi’s museum, do we really appreciate Yogi Berra?

Everyone loves Yogi—or as the title of a play based on his life which he was too shy to attend says, Nobody Don’t Like Yogi. But do we really take him—I know this sounds strange, but hear me out—seriously enough? Everybody acknowledges that Yogi was a truly great player, but has he ever really been given his due? When it came time to vote for the ­All-­Century team in 1999, Yogi finished second to Johnny Bench, 704,208 votes to 1,010,403. I don’t want to sound as if I’m knocking Johnny Bench, another of my favorite players, but Yogi Berra was unequivocally the greatest catcher in the history of baseball, as good a hitter as Bench and an even better defensive catcher, and as every Yankee fan knows, the biggest winner in baseball history in terms of pennants and World Series rings. He was the cornerstone of the most dominant baseball team of the twentieth century, the only team to win five consecutive World Series, the 1949–1953 Yankees. It’s entirely possible that Johnny Bench, given the chance to play with the same teammates as Yogi, would have collected just as many rings—maybe. But Yogi did win them. Yogi was the glue that held the Yankees together between the fading of Joe DiMaggio and the rise of Mickey Mantle.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the Bench versus Berra argument now—you’ll find a detailed comparison of their careers in Appendix A—but for now suffice it to say that Yogi is, by all objective measurements I can find, the greatest player at baseball’s most demanding position. There are, after all, only sixteen catchers in the Hall of Fame, and with good reason, considering the wear and tear catching takes on the human body and the skills one must possess to be just a competent catcher in the first place. Catchers’ equipment is commonly referred to as “the tools of ignorance,” and the man who coined the phrase should be horsewhipped: no other position demands such intelligence, instinct, and leadership skills, and at no other position are great players ­so underappreciated. (As Joe Garagiola told me, “Catchers are the fire hydrants at the Westminster dog show.”)
Moreover, Yogi was an extraordinary player in other ways, a smart base runner and, though no one would mistake him for DiMaggio in the outfield, competent enough to have played 74 games in the outfield as the Yankees broke him in to the catcher spot and then, in his ­mid-­thirties, to become the team’s semi-regular left fielder, thus getting his successor Elston Howard into the lineup and continuing to contribute to his team when his own primary skills were fading.* As a manager, he won two pennants, one in both leagues, taking both teams to the final game of the World Series. As a coach with the New York Mets and Houston Astros, he was involved in two of the most thrilling postseason series ever, the 1969 World Series and the 1986 National League Championship Series.

You can find all of that in the record book. Modern baseball analysts hotly debate the existence of such things as clutch hitting and other “intangibles,” with most denying them. But this reality was not doubted in Yogi Berra’s day. Branch Rickey, no mystic when it came to the analysis of baseball, called Yogi one of the greatest clutch hitters he had ever seen. Mantle said it best, recalling a tight situation in the World Series, “There was no one I would rather see batting in that situation than Yogi, unless it was me.”8 No one has yet succeeded in offering a satisfactory explanation as to what clutch hitting is, but nearly everyone Yogi played with or against insists that whatever definition you want to use, it applies to Yogi Berra. In the final analysis, the question of whether or not clutch hitting is real may not be as important as the fact that so many players believe that it is real. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no agnostics in dugouts in the late innings of close games. Yogi’s teammates wanted to be on his side in tough, tight situations, and the guys on the other team didn’t want to face him when they felt the game was on the line.

This leads to the question of intangibles. Webster’s New World College Dictionary says intangibles “cannot be easily defined, formulated or grasped.” Nothing drives analysts nuttier than fans who rate players by their supposed “intangibles,” which Bill James once called “a fan’s word for talents that don’t exist.” Twenty­five years of writing about sports has left me uncertain as to whether or not I believe intangibles actually exist; I rather feel like the Irish peasant woman who, when asked by the writer Sean O’Faolain if she believed in the fairies, replied indignantly, “I do not.” But, she cautioned, “They’re there.” Intangibles may be in the eye of the beholder, but it’s also possible that some things we lump under the heading of intangibles might simply be things we have not yet found a way to quantify—or which do exist but can’t be quantified. What they call “being good in the clubhouse” (meaning a player who fosters good vibes and inspires confidence), the capacity for capitalizing on opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, the faculty for passing on experience to younger players (as Yogi did to future Hall of Fame second baseman Craig Biggio, whom he steered away from the catching position while with Houston), and the handling of pitchers come under the heading of intangibles. Not for nothing did Casey Stengel, the most successful big league manager ever, refer to Yogi as, “Mister Berra, my assistant manager.”

Deny the existence of clutch hitting and the value of intangibles, and you are in conflict with those who saw Yogi Berra play. Define clutch hitting and intangibles any way you like; whatever definition you put on them, the men who played with and against Yogi Berra thought he possessed them. As a player, manager, and coach, Yogi played on more winning teams and was involved in more legendary games and more famous plays than any player in the history of the game. In fact, far, far more than anyone else. He is so much ahead of whoever is in second that I cannot at the moment imagine who that might be. He helped put World Series rings on the hands of pitchers whose names are now forgotten by all except the most rabid Yankee fans, pitchers such as Frank “Spec” Shea, Joe Ostrowski, Tom Ferrick, and a score of others. And if you don’t believe Don Larsen should be included in their number, you can ask him.

His life and career are a virtual cutaway view of the game of baseball in the twentieth century.

And yet, the question persists. Do we take Yogi Berra seriously enough? And the answer, I think, is no. Joe Garagiola gives a surprising reply to the question “What’s the first word that springs to mind when you think of Yogi?” “Underrated,” says the man who has known him since childhood. And Garagiola is right, as is ESPN’s Jayson Stark in his book, The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History. Stark regards Berra as not merely the most underrated catcher of all time but the most underrated player. And Stark is correct in pointing out that Yogi occupies a peculiar niche: unlike other underrated players, Berra has not been forgotten: there has simply been a wrong turn taken somewhere in regards to what he should be remembered ­for.

That Garagiola should call Yogi underrated is, of course, ironic, since it was Joe who helped create the mindset that caused him to be underrated. Through decades of telling Yogi stories, many real and some apocryphal, to audiences of millions during Joe’s days at NBC, he undermined the perception of Berra as a great player and competitor and replaced it with the image of an amiable clown who was lucky enough to have been around when the Almighty handed out roster spots on winning teams. I don’t imply that that was Joe’s intention, but the stories, repeated endlessly on television and paraphrased in newspapers and magazines and then in subways, in offices, and in bars, created a ­pseudo-­Yogi that took on a life of its own, a caricature of the real man.* This wasn’t all Joe’s doing by any means; Yogi Bear, the cartoon creation with whom the original Yogi was none too pleased, made his debut three years before Garagiola began telling Berra stories on NBC’s national baseball broadcasts. (And who’d have guessed back in the early 1960s when Yogi Bear was the most famous cartoon character on TV that ­forty-­five years later the first Yogi would once again be more familiar to audiences than the animated bear he inspired?)

It must be admitted, too, that Yogi himself has done his share to perpetuate the pseudo-Yogi. The Aflac commercial, currently among the most popular on television, is a case in point. If you haven’t seen it, which means you’ve been in solitary confinement on the moon for the last couple of years, it presents Yogi in a barbershop (presumably one near his home in Montclair) dispensing ­pseudo-­Yogiisms such as “If you get hurt and miss work, it won’t hurt to miss work” and “They give you cash, which is just as good as money.” The commercial is funny, but the lines don’t sound like Yogi.

On the day I write this, June 4, 2006, in a column headed “As Yogi Berra Never Said,” the syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick writes, “In 1953, the New York Yankees won their fifth World Series in a row. Their popular catcher, Yogi Berra, took it in stride. ‘It’s déjà vu all over again,’ he said. The trouble is, he never said it. It’s also probable that he never said of a particular restaurant, ‘It’s so crowded nobody goes there any more.’ And if Berra was the first to remark, ‘The future ain’t what it used to be’ the evidence is hard to come by.”

Actually, Yogi did say (or at least reliable witnesses swear he did say) “It’s déjà vu all over again.” But nobody remembers it being after the 1953 Series: they remember he said it after Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit ­back-­to-­back home runs in 1961. Yogi most certainly did say, in regard to dining at a particular restaurant, probably Toots Shor’s, “Nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded.” However, he never said he was the first to say it, and to my knowledge no one, least of all Yogi, has ever claimed that he said “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

If Yogiisms have become a light industry, then the debunking of Yogiisms practically qualifies as one. Kilpatrick is far from the first to set up a straw Yogiism just to knock it down.

Generally speaking, there is a significant difference between the genuine Yogiisms and the pseudo Yogiisms, and it is this: the things Yogi said that he actually said usually make sense in fewer words than most anyone else would use. “When you come to the fork in the road, take it” refers to the quickest way to get to his house (it’s the same distance whether you keep to the right or left). That “You can’t think and hit at the same time” will be confirmed for you by any great hitter. Yogi never said that being able to think wouldn’t help you to hit—quite the contrary. As he phrased it in a Q&A session at the 1998 Montclair Booktober Fest, “You do your thinking before you get up to bat. We used to spend a lot of time before the games talking about certain pitchers, what they threw, and what was the best way to hit them in certain situations. We did a lot of talking and a lot of thinking about hitting. We just didn’t stand there thinking when we were up to bat.” Another man with a great eye, French photographer Henri ­Cartier-­Bresson, said as much about his profession: “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph.” No one laughed at him.

“Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel” just seems like plain good sense to me. “It ain’t over till it’s over” was supposed to have been coined by Yogi during the Mets’ 1973 pennant race, and he turned out to be right: it wasn’t over until it was over. (Yogi, for his part, thought that Rocky Bridges might have said it first; in any event, he insisted he always tried to say “It isn’t over until it’s over.”)

“Ninety percent of this game is half mental”? Who knows better what the percentage is? And, as anyone can tell you who has ever tried (including Bear Bryant, who was no one’s idea of an amiable clown but who was always quoting his favorite Yogiism), you can observe a lot just by watching. And so on. True Yogi fans, of course, make a distinction between real Yogiisms—distilled bits of wisdom which, like good country songs and old John Wayne movies, get to the truth in a hurry—and the famous malapropisms, such as when he told the fans at Yogi Berra Day in St. Louis, “I want to thank everyone for making this day necessary.” And who can say for certain that the St. Louis fans didn’t make the day necessary?

The commercials are merely Yogi’s most recent jujitsu on the media, who long ago created a semi-fictional persona described by Yogi himself as “a kind of ­comic-­strip character, like Li’l Abner or Joe Palooka.”9 They’ve been doing it to Yogi for nearly sixty years now, and for nearly sixty years Yogi, instead of doing what almost anyone else would have done, nursing resentment and allowing bitterness to fester, has had the last laugh by turning the pseudo Yogi into a cash cow. No one, of course, has more of a right to benefit from any image of Yogi than Yogi himself. But though it has helped make him the most famous living former athlete, one of the most quoted Americans of the last two centuries, and, in the words of the New York Daily News’ Bill Madden, “the most recognizable figure in America,”10 it may have cost him something as well. Namely the full measure of respect that should be accorded a man of Yogi’s accomplishments. An exhibit at Yogi’s museum traces the evolution of an American legend in such pop cultural artifacts—let’s call them Yogiana—as baseball cards, comic strips, milk cartons, soft drink bottles, and figurines, as well as books, including his 1961 autobiography, Yogi; his 1966 instruction manual, Yogi Berra’s Baseball Guidebook; reflections on his ten championship series, Ten Rings, ­co-­written with Dave Kaplan; and published in 2008, You Can Observe a Lot by Watching: What I’ve Learned About Teamwork from the Yankees and Life (also ­co-­written with Kaplan).

What there isn’t in that glass case is a copy of a comprehensive biography of Yogi,* which, if you think about it, is absolutely amazing and a fact that has slipped under the radar of Yogi’s enormous fandom. Surely he is the greatest ballplayer never to have had a serious biography—a gap in baseball history that I hope to fill with this book. In fact, for all of his fame and the endless stories affirming or debunking Yogiisms, there has been little written about Yogi and his enormous role as the most valuable player of the greatest of all baseball dynasties. He is excluded (by his own wishes) from most oral histories of the Yankees in that period, and thus his role has been kept to a minimum in most narratives of the Yankees from World War II on. He is, of course, prominent in most of his teammates’ memoirs, including those of Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, and Mickey Mantle, as well as those of his manager and mentor, Casey Stengel, and, of course, Joe Garagiola.

Partly this is because Yogi, contrary to his public image, is a painfully shy and deeply private man who is extremely uncomfortable in formal interviews. But those who encounter him in informal situations can attest that he is surprisingly quick and engaging. At the Montclair Book Center in 1998, he was autographing copies of The Yogi Book: “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!, when I showed him a copy of his autobiography, Yogi, which he had signed for me ­thirty-­seven years earlier. “Do you remember signing this for me at the Menlo Park shopping center in 1961?” I asked. “Yeah,” he replied with a grin. “How ’ya been doin’?”

Baseball historian Dom Forker, working on a history of the 1955–1964 Yankees, received this reply from Carmen Berra some seventeen years ago: “If you know Yogi, as I’m certain you do, you know he hates to give interviews. He doesn’t like to talk about himself. Do you want to hear about our six grandkids?” (This was in 1990; it’s eleven grandkids now.) “That told me as much about Yogi as any interview,” says Forker. “He just wanted to talk about his grandchildren. Charlie Keller, his teammate for years on the Yankees, told me ‘Yogi Berra won’t talk about himself. You’re going to need all the help you can get.’ Charlie was right.”

How shy is Yogi Berra? In 1998, after the team from Tom’s River, New Jersey, won the Little League World Series, they paid a visit to the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair. Berra, in the middle of a congratulatory address to the boys, began to tear up. Yogi’s reticence to play the public figure has often caught sportswriters nurtured on the ­pseudo-­Yogi by surprise, leading them to the conclusion that Yogi was some sort of media creation. Jack Mann, later a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, came to New York in the mid-1950s and met Berra while writing for the New York Herald Tribune. He was told he would be wowed with Yogi quotes, but he never got anything in the locker room worth using. By 1967, when he chronicled the fall of the Yankee empire for a book, he concluded that “Yogi Berra wasn’t really a character…He wasn’t even especially interesting. If there had not been a Yogi Berra, it would have been necessary for those attempting to write cute copy about the Yankees to invent him, and they did.”11 Mann was on the verge of an insight, but he was so focused on debunking the popular notion that he missed the real point: the Yogi Berra that everyone read about in the papers every day and heard about on television was an invention. The real Yogi was no cliché, and he was nobody’s invention but his own.

*Though Yogi himself might have offered the simplest and best explanation for Rickey’s puzzling decision in his 1961 book: “I think it’s just that it was getting harder to get players as the war went along, and he remembered me and figured it would be worth a few hundred dollars to see if I could help him. Anyway, it didn’t make any difference.” (Berra and Fitzgerald, Yogi, p. 64)

*Perhaps the most intriguing question about the ­Yogi-­as-­a-­Dodger scenario is: Who would have been the Dodgers’ catcher—Yogi or Campy? There are some who would regard the question of which of the two great catchers to start as a problem. I think having Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella on the same team and wondering where to play them is a problem all managers would like to face. For one thing, both Berra and Campanella were capable of playing other positions—Campy played all his major league games at catcher, but in the Negro Leagues he was a capable first baseman, third baseman, and outfielder—and in addition to having both their bats in the lineup on most days, the Dodgers could have had the option of using one to relieve the other in, say, second games of doubleheaders. Imagine having Yogi Berra or Roy Campanella as your backup catcher! Campanella lost quite a few games to injury, and in those situations they could have pulled Berra out of, say, left field and put him behind the plate.

If they played together, Berra would have been the starting catcher because he reached the major leagues sooner than Campanella. It’s true that Yogi’s skills behind the plate were honed considerably by Bill Dickey, but if Yogi had been on the Dodgers, Branch Rickey would certainly have seen to it that Berra had ­first-­rate ­coaching.

*To my knowledge, the only writer to have considered the possibility of Yogi as a Brooklyn Dodger was Gordon Manning. in Collier’s: “What a daffy Dodger Yogi would have made!” Manning wrote that Berra didn’t care for the idea: “ ‘Brooklyn,’ he says with obvious distaste. ‘What a place. Anytime we play at Ebbets Field in a spring exhibition or somethin’ I always gotta leave the house two hours early. I know I’m going to take the wrong subway, so I gotta allow time for gettin’ lost.’ ”

*Carlton Fisk played 31 games in the outfield for the Chicago White Sox at age thirty-nine—he had made eight previous outfield appearances in his career before that—but not many other catchers have been able to make the move so late in their ­career.

*Berra himself has always been a bit ambivalent about Garagiola’s version of Yogi. “It was good for him to say all he has said about me over the years,” he recalled for Tom Horton in his 1989 memoir, Yogi: It Ain’t Over, “and it had been good for me, too. At least it was not bad. That’s the way I would like to say it. It wasn’t bad . . . We were childhood friends and still are and will always be. Joe is not the only one who used me as a stooge, if that is a good word (I am not sure it is, but I’m going to use it anyway). He was the most well known. A writer friend suggested I use ‘foil’ in place of ‘stooge.’ It didn’t work for me.” (p. 59)

*At the time I wrote this, I had not yet seen Carlos DeVito’s 2008 biography, Yogi: The Life and Times of an American Original.

 

Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee [2], published by W.W. Norton [3], is on sale now.


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URL to article: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2009/04/01/captain-clutch-you-could-look-it-up/

URLs in this post:

[1] Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee: http://www.amazon.com/Yogi-Berra-Eternal-Allen-Barra/dp/0393062333

[2] Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?r=1&ISBN=9780393062335&ourl=Yogi%2DBerra%2FAllen%2DBarra

[3] W.W. Norton: http://www.wwnorton.com/

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