Yogi: The Life and Times of an American Original

A warts-and-all biography of one of baseball’s living legends.

Yogi: The Life and Times of an American Original By Carlo DeVito Triumph Books 412 pp., $25.95

Yogi. Few names have ever needed less introduction. We all know the iconic Yankee catcher and his priceless sayings. Is it even possible to utter “déjà vu” today without adding “all over again”?

Yet America’s saturation with Yogi Berra didn’t deter Carlo DeVito from writing a 412-page biography, Yogi: The Life and Times of an American Original. It’s a good thing, too, because while this may be a mediocre telling of a life story, it’s a valuable reminder of how easily public figures can be held captive by caricatures created by journalists.

DeVito’s work is the literary equivalent of photorealism: It’s heavy on details and light on meaning. But the warts-and-all treatment largely succeeds in separating fiction from fact. That’s not an easy feat: As Yogi himself put it, “I really didn’t say everything I said.”
DeVito’s portrayal is a sympathetic one, though the figure that emerges may end up leaving baseball fans, especially Yankee fans (like me), with a somewhat diminished appreciation for one of the game’s most beloved players.
Yogi’s rise from humble beginnings in St. Louis to become one of baseball’s greatest catchers and elder statesmen is indisputable. He hit 358 home runs, was a 15-time All Star, earned three MVP Awards, and appeared in 21 World Series as a player, coach, and manager, winning 10 rings and setting many records along the way. For all his verbal blunders and bad-ball hits, he was one of the smartest men in baseball. His expert observation brought out the best in the pitchers he caught – Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 is Exhibit A.
But Yogi’s road to the mountaintop isn’t exactly exemplary. He clearly loved baseball, but his work ethic and habits left something to be desired. He didn’t uphold the highest professional standards. His management style was too laissez-faire. And his impressively shrewd promotional work (for businesses and for himself) was extreme, even by today’s PR standards.
The recurring theme in Yogi’s story is stubbornness, mostly about money. Yogi’s pride was fierce, and a salary slight from Yankees management early in his career turned into a lifelong chip on his shoulder. The flip side of stubbornness, of course, is doggedness, and Yogi was a tenacious competitor. He’s the guy you wanted on your side, whether in a World Series game, or attacking German defenses, as he did as a soldier on D-Day.

This isn’t a biography with the penetrating insight of David McCullough. Nor is it a sports story with the crackling prose of John Feinstein. But for the abundance of its anecdotes, and for its effort to see the man behind the myth, it’s a pleasant trip down memory lane and a worthy tribute to a living legend.

Josh Burek is the Monitor’s Opinion editor.

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