“It ain’t over till it’s over.”
– Yogi Berra, 1925-2015
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Let’s get this disclaimer out of the way. I ain’t no Yankee fan, but who could not love baseball and not also love Yogi.
I have nothing original to say about the squat, barrel chested catcher, the Hall of Famer, the guy behind the dish who won ten World Championships with – OK, the Yankees – the best bad ball hitter in the history of the great game, a guy who managed champions in both leagues, the maestro of mangled syntax. It’s all been said.
After reading and listening to all the appropriate tributes for the late Lawrence Peter Berra, laughing out loud again at the “Yogi-isms” – my favorite, which might well be appropriated by Donald Trump, “I didn’t say all the things I said” – and again quietly reflecting on his abilities as a ballplayer, human being and D-Day veteran, I’m left only with this: Yogi was the real deal.
No chiseled, cheating hunk like A-Rod, no arrogant bat flipper like Harper, no trash talking, no umpire baiting – well maybe a little umpire baiting – and no apparent ego. What comes through time and again in the stories about Berra is that the little backstop was a great guy. A genuine guy. A warm and funny guy. A teammate, the term ballplayers and office co-workers use when they describe someone they really like and value. Yogi was a great teammate. That about says it all.
The best and most enduring photo of Berra, when Yogi leapt into the arms of perfect game World Series pitcher Don Larsen in 1956, should have focused on the other guy in the picture – the only guy still and ever to pitch a perfect freaking game in the World Series. But the eye automatically goes to Yogi.
He, of course, called and caught the Larsen perfect game and gets some of the credit for that remarkable performance, but it was Yogi’s exuberance, his sheer joy in the moment of that historic moment that makes the picture so wonderful.
In a game that is too often dominated by talented individuals you wouldn’t invite over for dinner, Yogi was the guy we would have all invited to a Sunday barbecue. You suspect Yogi would have brought a six-pack.
When Berra had his famous feud with George Steinbrenner you didn’t need a psychology degree to know that Yogi was right and that it was The Boss who was being the jerk. Now we know, big surprise, which Yankee received the outpouring of affection, the tears and the laughs when the last line-up was handed in.
The catcher’s position is the unique position on the diamond. The catcher is involved in almost every play. The entire game unfolds in front of the catcher. The catcher has the greatest opportunity to screw up and get banged up. It’s not an accident that the catcher’s protective gear was long ago dubbed “the tools of ignorance.” But there is nothing dim or dull about a truly good receiver and Berra was one of a handful of the games truly great catchers. The record speaks for Yogi’s place among the elites even if he might not have made the case so smoothly himself. Berra was simply a great, great catcher and a superb hitter.
You gotta love this from a hitter, and Berra was a hitter with both power and average, who was once asked if he was in a slump. “I’m not in a slump,” Yogi says, “I’m just not hitting…”
Yogi’s passing is sad in many, many ways. He had of course a full life of 90 long years, but I’m sure he would have enjoyed one more post season, particularly with the pinstripers in contention. But the real sadness, at least for my generation, is that Yogi’s passing marks another fading away of that generation of post-war ballplayers who now mostly flicker back to us in black and white, suited up in their baggy flannels and properly worn socks.
Whether it was or not, it seems like a more innocent time. Guys wore hats, the snap brim type, to ballparks and doubleheaders were played on Sunday. Washington was in the American League and Texas wasn’t in either league. Players weren’t perpetually fastening and unfastening their batting gloves because no one wore a batting glove. The facial hair consisted of day old beards what would inevitably face a razor once the last out was recorded. And a 5’7” catcher could be the biggest man on the field.
Yogi was right about many things, some of which he even said, but he was wrong about it being over when it’s over. Some things and some people are so special that they just go on and on. Yogi isn’t gone. They’ll be taking about him, quoting him, laughing along with him, smiling at him in Don Larsen’s embrace for as long as little boys toss around the horsehide.
Real deals like Yogi Berra get remembered even for things they didn’t say.