Four years after his death on his wife’s birthday, an America without baseball legend Yogi Berra still doesn’t seem like America anymore.
You think of the damnedest things whenever baseball is forced to shut down for any reason, whether for war, labor unrest, or the coronavirus. I awoke this morning with my usual dire need of copious coffee and with Yogi Berra on the brain.
American literature has a considerable baseball wing, of course. If your literary inclinations stop at Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, its baseball wing might be called Berra and everybody else. The Hall of Fame catcher may be the most frequently-quoted baseball figure in that volume. Even ahead of Sparky Anderson, Branch Rickey, and Casey Stengel.
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Suppose you had the chance to mention it to Berra? Yogi might have replied, “I wish I could say them when I wanted to because I would have made a fortune by now.” Right along the line of his quip when a visitor to the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center asked him for a Yogiism on the spot: “Ma’am, if I could do that, I’d be famous.”
It’s a little over four years since he went to his reward eighteen months after his beloved wife died. It still feels as though something good, something decent is missing from America because Yogi doesn’t walk among us anymore. The Elysian Fields’s gain was our loss.
Some might say it’s silly to mourn a man who lived 90 years. But among baseball’s actual or alleged immortals it always seemed as though Berra really was immortal in more than one way. Even those to whom baseball was as relevant as life on Atlantis took comfort knowing Yogi was still around.
As accomplished as he really was in baseball, maybe that comfort came from Berra being one of America’s most famous men and blissfully unaware of it as often as not. No man in baseball history ever wore his fame so comfortably and unpretentiously.
He’s the arguable greatest all-around catcher ever to have played the game (Hall of Famer Johnny Bench remains his extremely close second), a Hall of Famer against whom everyone else playing the position must be measured. Yet his best biographer Allen Barra could still write that he was “blissful(ly) unaware of his own celebrity.”
“Talking baseball with Yogi Berra,” too-short-lived commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once said, “is like talking to Homer about the gods.”
See and raise: the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who once had an arranged breakfast date with Berra, came away from it marveling, “I think he had a good grasp of basic economic principles, apparently better than some of the better-educated people in the [New York Yankees] 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.”
Leave it to Yogi to see and raise that. During their breakfast talk, he told Friedman about his once-fabled meeting with Ernest Hemingway, during his playing days, and asking that Nobel laureate—whose full-time journalism days were long behind him—which newspaper he worked for. Friedman stopped laughing long enough to mention that one of his favorite novels was, quote, Hemingway’sThe 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 Yogi when he said that he hadn’t said half of ninety percent of what he said. Or, however, he said it. (He actually did say that “ninety percent of this game is mental and the other half is physical.”)
Breaking bread with Nobel laureates was quite the jump for a son of an Italian immigrant brickyard worker, a son who once admitted that the way he liked school the most was “Closed!” Before he could sink deepest into the baseball career his father approved only upon the persuasions of the family priest, though, Berra found himself a Navy seaman and gunner aboard a tiny rocket boat—on D-Day.
“You ever try shooting a machine gun on a 36-footer?” Yogi once remembered. “You could shoot yourself.” Called landing craft support small (LCSS) boats, they were thin-skinned craft that might not always have protected you if you were careless. “It was scary but really something to see,” he remembered long after the war.
"I was only eighteen, and I didn’t think anything could kill me. I didn’t know enough to be scared. I had my head up over the side of the boat all the time, looking around like it was the Fourth of July in Forest Park and after the fireworks we were going to go over and get some hot dogs and Cokes."
The craft was so thin that one enemy shell, especially one hitting any of the boats’ rockets, would have made not the Fourth of July but them into duck soup. Yogi’s peekings over the edges to see the show ended when his lieutenant advised him to put his head down if he had plans to keep it.
He earned a Distinguished Unit Citation, two battle stars, a European Theater of Operations ribbon, and a Good Conduct Medal. But he didn’t dare put in for another medal he’d earned: the Purple Heart. (He was nicked by a bullet before he fired and cut down fleeing Nazis at Marseilles.) He feared that its real meaning would give his already edgy mother a purple heart attack.
Berra even became the subject of a serious, scholarly legal monograph, Santa Clara University law professor Gerald F. Uelman’s The Jurisprudence of Yogi Berra in 1997. Uelman left no Yogiism unanalyzed for legal significance, including and especially the one I like to call Berra’s Law regarding baseball and a few other matters of life and death: “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."
That was about the man who once signed an anniversary card to his wife with, “Love, Yogi Berra.” Carmen Berra never let him live that one down, either: “I was actually glad he thought to sign it that way,” she loved to say, as she did to Bill Madden for Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee. “I wouldn’t have wanted to confuse him with all the other Yogis I know.”
Asked once what he considered his greatest accomplishment, Yogi pointed toward Carmen as she walked out of the room of their sumptuous New Jersey home and didn’t miss: “Getting her to marry me. Who’d have thought?” Among the cruel needling he took in his younger playing days over his squat, homely looks was a shot from Detroit Tigers pitcher Dizzy Trout: “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 Berra as much admiration as did his baseball intelligence and his willingness, as Stengel biographer Robert Creamer put it, to listen and learn, both as a player and as a two-time pennant-winning manager for the 1964 Yankees and the 1973 New York Mets. “It don’t matter if you’re ugly in this racket,” he rejoined once. “All you have to do is hit the ball, and I never saw anybody hit one with his face.”
Even Yogi’s sense of humor had its limits. TBS learned the hard way during Sex in the City‘s popularity height in the Aughts. A promotional sign aboard a bus asked the definition of “Yogasm,” in multiple-choice form, with one of the choices being, “Sex with Yogi Berra.” The usually genial Berra, who was nothing if not a purely monogamous family man whose oldest son called him “the most approachable guy in the neighborhood,” sued.
TBS, the network that aired the show originally, settled for an undisclosed amount. Even the most approachable guy in the neighborhood had his limits. Some may have thought the very idea of Yogi as a sex symbol even in the breach was, shall we say, the most unheard-of thing they never heard of. 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.
When New York sportswriting veteran Harvey Araton wrote of the sweet friendship between Berra and former Yankees pitching star Ron Guidry (in Driving Mr. Yogi)developed as they became spring training instructors together, he noted an Old-Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium. The scoreboard listed those in the Yankee orbit who’d gone to their rewards that year. Yogi turned to Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford, whom he’d caught so often, so long, so well, and said, “Boy, I hope I never see my name up there.”
On another occasion, Mrs. Berra 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.” (The couple is interred together in East Hanover, New Jersey.)
It surprised and saddened American when it saw Yogi’s name up there, even knowing that when one half of a great love story passes—and Yogi and Carmen Berra were a great love story until she died six weeks after their 65th wedding anniversary—the other isn’t long for this island earth. Berra finally came to that fork in the road and took it.
September 26 was two things special in his life. He made his major league debut on that date in 1946, going 2-for-4 including a home run against the Philadelphia Athletics. The date was also his wife’s birthday. Granddaughter Lindsay Berra, herself a fine sports journalist, explained his death on that date simply: “Grandpa wanted to spend her birthday with her.”
We hated like hell to see Mr. Yogi go just yet, even at 90. But we were pretty sure 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. They needn’t have worried. Hers, and ours, is still one of a kind.
Correction: I am informed very reliably that the What’s My Line incident, described by Joe Trimble in a 1965 biography, never happened. Berra did appear on the panel show . . . in 1961, not 1964. But, alas, no Carmen. Thus I have amended the anecdote out of the foregoing essay.