Yogi Berra: much more than baseball's accidental comedian

Yogi Berra, who passed away Tuesday, was known for his many colorful quotes. But he was a man of many hidden surprises, both on the field and off.

Mike Segar/Reuters/File
Former New York Yankee Yogi Berra stands at home plate before the final regular season baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York in this 2008 file photo. Mr. Berra, a Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees and one of baseball's most iconic players, passed away Tuesday.

Few would dispute the fact Yogi Berra, who passed away Tuesday in New Jersey, was beloved. He was such a cartoon character that Yankee fans often called the former catcher America’s Teddy Bear. And over the years, he probably spouted more aphorisms than Will Rogers.

But as his playing days have receded further into the memory, the skills that first made him famous – the skill of putting bat to baseball and guiding pitchers through nine long innings – has gradually been eclipsed by the lovable persona and the legendary mouth.

Remembering Yogi Berra, however, requires an understanding of both men. Of the man who finished his education in 8th grade to help feed a family whose combined income was barely above the poverty level. And of the man who was perhaps the most dangerous lifetime .285 hitter in baseball history – who played in 75 World Series games and had a base hit in an astounding 71 of them.

Mr. Berra’s hydrant-like profile never suggested the multiple talents hidden inside his mind and body, but over the years he was almost as valuable to the New York Yankees as Joe DiMaggio. By the towering measures of Yankee baseball and New York City cultural memory, there could hardly be a greater compliment. 

The quotes are well known. They have spilled out of the world of sports jargon into the broader American culture. Still a favorite among people everywhere is his: “It ain’t over til it’s over.” Separated from their delivery, his words usually made sense. “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” should have had him on retainer.

But of late, his off-the-field image has at times beclouded his sustained excellence on it. As a player, coach, and manager, Berra was under contract to the Yankees for 20 years, during which they won 16 American League pennants. When New York (mostly because of injuries) lost the 1964 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, Berra was fired as manager. Twelve years would elapse before the Yankees saw the inside of a World Series again. Before that, Berra had the New York Mets in the 1973 World Series, one of only a handful of managers to win pennants in both leagues.

Because the shape of Berra’s 5 ft., 8 in. body resembled an oil drum, and because his legs were stumpy, it was often hard for anyone seeing Berra for the first time to believe his imposing statistics as a hitter. But six times during his career, he drove in more than 100 runs; 11 times he hit more than 20 homers; and three times he was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player.

“You know something?” Berra said several years ago, when I bumped into Berra during spring training, “I never knew why I could hit. I never paid no attention to the width of home plate and I never had no personal strike zone. It didn’t make no difference to me if the ball was in the dirt or up around my ears someplace. If I saw it good, I swung at it.”

Reminded that Casey Stengel often referred to Berra as his assistant manager when the “Old Professor” piloted the Yankees, Berra grinned and said: “Yeah, I know. I think Stengel liked me and trusted me because I never told him no lies. I used to tell him when our pitchers had lost their stuff and needed to be replaced, and he replaced ’em.”

Even though Berra was often invited during the off season to a seat at the head table of many church-sponsored banquets, his remarks seldom took up more than a few minutes. Usually, unless kids were involved, he wouldn’t go at all. One time, when he was scheduled to speak at a father/son banquet where every kid in the room was given a bat and ball, he happened to notice a small group of kids sitting by themselves in the rear of the hall.

What caught Berra’s eye was the fact that, except for a couple of adults, the kids were by themselves and had not been given either a bat or a ball. When Berra asked his sponsors who the boys were, the man in charge replied that they were from a nearby orphanage. Because no bats or balls had been set aside for them, Berra refused to go back to the head table. Instead, he spent the rest of the evening chatting with the kids and signing autographs for them on anything that wasn’t nailed down.

Even as a manager, Berra’s penchant for embracing and working with younger players differed from the standard operating procedures of most clubs.

“Most teams prefer to sign college kids, figuring they won’t change as much and that they’re further advanced than high school kids,” Berra explained. “But most college kids are usually 21 or 22 when they graduate. They’re also very impatient. If they don’t make the big leagues in two or three years, they quit on you.”

“Me, I’ll take the kid fresh out of high school. Chances are he’ll hold still for four or five years of minor league ball. Too many kids get rushed into the majors, so anything you can do to keep them learning their trade in the minors is good. You gotta let them grow into the job.”

Berra, pleased that so many of his funny sayings have been given a place in Bartlett’s Quotations, nevertheless was quick to acknowledge that too many have been the invention of sportswriters who needed some humor to spice up one of their rainy-day stories.

Former big leaguer and baseball broadcaster “Joe Garagiola and me grew up together on Goat Hill in St. Louis, so you have to figure that Joe is going to tell the truth about me, right?” Berra asked. “Well, some of the things Joe tells about me are true, but a lot of them never happened.”

“What got this whole thing started was when Bobby Brown and I were roommates on the Yankees, and Brown was studying to become a doctor. I used to read comic books in my spare time, and Brown used to read medical books. Well, one night I came back to the room late, and Bobby was just finishing one of his books and I asked him how the story came out.”

“Bobby would never admit it, but the next day he shared what I said with some of the writers, and they thought it was funny and word kind of got around.”

“Years later I got the idea that maybe it would be nice if I pasted all those sayings of mine in a scrapbook, only when I started looking, I couldn’t remember which were mine and which weren’t. But it ain’t too bad because my sayings keep showing up in newspapers, and I keep reading ‘em.”

“You know, some of them are pretty funny.”

Phil Elderkin was sports editor of The Christian Science Monitor from 1971 to 1975 and a longtime sports columnist.

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