No movie was ever made about Yogi Berra. How could there be? Who would believe a story about a man who was part of the D-Day invasion and then became one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, playing on a record 10 World Series winners? What screenwriter could capture that, as some have noted, a man with a 4th grade education who would become one of the most quoted people in American history? He was a Hall of Famer for what he did on the field, and became a national icon for what he said off the field.
Perhaps the closest film parallel was that Yogi was a smart, baseball version of Forrest Gump. His career intertwined with so many of baseball’s seminal moments. He played on the Yankee teams that won five consecutive World Series, a feat that has never been equaled. He was on the field in 1955 when the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series. Yogi caught Don Larsen’s World Series perfect game in 1956. In 1960 he was playing left field when Bill Mazeroski’s World Series winning home run sailed over his head. A year later his teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris launched the home run chase that captivated a nation. In 1963, he was one of the victims when Sandy Koufax struck out 15 Yankees in game one of the World Series. Six years later he was a coach on the Miracle Mets, who beat the Orioles in one of the greatest upsets in Series history. He was also a coach on the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees teams that won the Series in ’77 and ’78. Yogi always seemed to be where the action was. In 1999, the Yankees had a Yogi Berra Day and David Cone threw a perfect game.
Also like Gump, Yogi could be very funny without trying to be. His famous sayings didn’t seem right on the surface, but made sense the more you thought about them. How many times in a ballgame or a political campaign, when the odds seem grim, do you hear someone say “It ain’t over til it’s over?” I have told my wife that “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” When I am concerned about attendance at a party or an event, I remember that “If people don’t want to come, how are you going to stop them?”
Growing up as a Yankee fan immersed in baseball history, Yogi was a living link to what made the game great. It had always pained me that Yogi would not set foot in Yankee Stadium, still stung from the way he was dismissed as the Yankee manager in 1985. Thankfully, Yogi and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner reconciled in 1999, and Yogi returned to the Stadium. Joe DiMaggio died that year, and Yogi, from then on, was the embodiment of the Yankees’ glorious history.
Several years ago, Yogi spoke at the Smithsonian. Somehow, I did not find out about it until that day. My then-supervisor bought a ticket but had a last minute conflict. Knowing how much the Yankees and Yogi meant to me, she suggested I go in her place. I had some other commitment that night and stupidly demurred. She made up for my poor judgement and stuck the ticket in my hand. Now I cannot believe I almost turned down that opportunity.
Of course Yogi was great that night. He spoke briefly, but mostly answered audience questions. Someone was planning to ask him about Jackie Robinson stealing home in the ‘55 Series. Yogi had always maintained that the umpire blew the call. He was an excellent defensive catcher, so it was a matter of pride. So when the questioner began with “In the 1955 World Series...” Yogi, before the man could finish, stated “He was out!” The crowd roared. I asked Yogi who was the better ballplayer, DiMaggio or Mantle. Yogi, who had played with both of them, said it was a tough choice but that he would go with DiMaggio because he never saw him make a mistake. He added that Mantle might have been better were it not for all of his injuries.
What struck me that night was how Yogi seemed so happy and content. The Yankee Mount Rushmore – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, all had an undercurrent of sadness in their lives. Ruth and Gehrig died very young, Gehrig before age 40. Mantle suffered from alcoholism and, for all his baseball glory, always felt that he failed to realize his potential. He freely admitted that he struggled as a father and a husband. DiMaggio lived a long life, but had a series of divorces and strained family relations. By many accounts, he never fully recovered from Marilyn Monroe’s death.
By contrast, Yogi was married to his wife Carmen for 65 years, until her death last year. He died at age 90 with loving children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I’m sure, like all of us, he had his regrets, but they never defined him. He seemed to draw joy from his many accomplishments, baseball in general, and life’s other blessings. How fitting, as he gave joy to so many other people.
Part of me would love to see Hollywood tackle Yogi Berra’s story, but I don’t think it could truly do him justice. His real life was more than enough. To paraphrase the man one more time, thank you Yogi, for making this column necessary.
October 1, 2015
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