Based on the cover, Driving Mr. Yogi looks like a book about Major League Baseball. It can be read narrowly as a baseball book, to be sure. Actually, though, the baseball imagery is camouflage. “Driving Mr. Yogi” is, foremost, a book about friendship across generations. Perhaps almost as importantly, it is a book about celebrity. Baseball is more the background than it is the subject matter.
Even readers willfully ignorant about Major League Baseball probably know the name Yogi (born with the name Lawrence in St. Louis, Missouri) Berra, now in his late 80s. The former catcher for the New York Yankees, then Major League manager and coach, appears in television commercials, has lent his name to consumer products, has written books (helped by a professional wordsmith), and is quoted over and over as the dispenser of folk wisdom. Some of those quotations are actually accurate. (Sometimes it seems that every insightful quotation about American life has been attributed to Yogi Berra, Mark Twain, or Abraham Lincoln. One of Berra’s books, not so incidentally, carries the title “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.”)
Ron Guidry’s name is well known to serious baseball fans, but perhaps is meaningless to others. A generation younger than Berra, Guidry was an accomplished pitcher and later coach for the New York Yankees. Guidry knew Berra and received baseball guidance from Berra while an active player. “Driving Mr. Yogi,” however, is mostly about the years 1999 to the present, when the elderly Berra began spending a few weeks in Florida at the Yankees baseball complex during the later winter and early spring, as the team prepared for the opening of the season in April.
Somewhat enfeebled physically, Berra needed chauffering and other attentiveness during his Florida visits, which he usually undertook without his devoted wife Carmen. Because of Berra’s legendary baseball insights and his likeability as a human being, Guidry offered to pick him up at the Tampa airport, get him settled in a hotel, escort him to dinner, drive him to the Yankees baseball complex, and above all, make sure everything happened on time. It turns out Berra is fanatic about everybody being on time, including himself.
Guidry purchased a baseball cap engraved with the words “Driving Mr. Yogi.” Insisting that Berra is not a father figure (Guidry’s father being very much alive), the laid-back Louisiana Cajun former pitcher developed an unusual friendship with the former catcher. Berra, the driven suburban New Jersey-ite transplanted from the Italian-American section of St. Louis, likewise insisted he did not view Guidry as a substitute son – Yogi and Carmen reared three sons of their own, including one skilled enough to play Major League Baseball.
Around Major League Baseball, the Berra-Guidry relationship became well recognized. But it was mostly off the radar until a year ago, when New York Times sports reporter Harvey Araton published a 1,500-word newspaper feature about the two men.
“I knew I had stumbled onto something quite rare and guessed – correctly as it turned out – that there was much more to the story,” Araton said in the Acknowledgments section of the book.
Although Berra is an icon and although it seems everybody feels affection for him, he actually comes across in the book as high maintenance. Some of that maintenance is related to his age and his failing health. But his lifelong obsession with punctuality, his extreme need for daily routine (eating at the same few restaurants, for example), and his relentlessly competitive nature (on the golf course, for instance) seem like at least minor character flaws, even if Araton does not intend that result.
Guidry, on the other hand, comes across as not only kind, but also extraordinarily well adjusted in his personal and professional roles.
One of the outstanding qualities they clearly share is a common touch with common people. A former Major League pitcher named Goose Gossage is quoted by Araton like this: “The one thing Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry have most in common and is obvious to everyone is that they are so unaffected by fame that you have to wonder if they even know that they were great players.”
Major League Baseball players are often portrayed, more or less accurately, as boors or boring human beings. Berra and Guidry have, blessedly, escaped that stereotype.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the author of eight nonfiction books.