Yogi Berra

Eternal Yankee

By Allen Barra

W.W. Norton. 480 pp. $27.95

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Reviewed by Bill Lyon


With his stocky, runty torso and his boardinghouse-reach arms and his stubby, ungainly legs, he looked like he had been assembled from leftover parts, or as one writer of the day put it: "A body only an anthropologist could love."

But Lawrence Peter Berra played the most difficult and demanding position in all of sports, and played it so uncommonly well that there are people who consider him the greatest at his position of all time, and make a compelling, statistic-buttressed argument in his behalf.

One of those people is Allen Barra - one vowel removed from, and no relation to, his subject - a prolific and decorated writer of books, columns, and magazine articles, a baseball maven, and an unabashed champion of Berra, who is one of those people instantly recognized by one name. In this case:

Yogi.

The Grand Master of the Malaprop.

Surely the most quoted athlete of all time, cited so frequently that it requires some diligent digging to unearth exactly what he said and what he might have said. Or as Yogi himself might observe: "If I didn't say it, I should have."

Barra on Berra, neatly timed for Opening Day, makes for an impressive tome. It is an exhaustively researched, meticulously prepared, and lovingly presented biography of a man whom the author proclaims to be "America's most popular former athlete." (I would counter with Muhammad Ali, but that's a matter of opinion.)

It will require more willpower than I possess not to sneak ahead and turn immediately to Appendix B, Page 396, for a sampling of Yogiisms. Herewith, indulge:

When you come to the fork in the road, take it.

You know, a nickel isn't worth a dime any more. (To the economist Milton Friedman.)

What paper do you write for? (Upon being introduced to Ernest Hemingway.)

Thank you for making this day necessary. (To the fans, on Yogi Berra Day.)

There are only 16 catchers in the Hall of Fame. There is a reason, and that is the harsh and unrelenting demands of the position. You can always tell the catcher - he's the one whose fingers point in different directions.

Or as Yogi's best pal, Joe Garagiola, himself a catcher, observed: "Catchers are the fire hydrants at the Westminster dog show."

Yogi played 2,120 games in the major leagues. There was the occasional foray into left field, but his enduring worth was behind the plate. He averaged .285, belted 358 home runs, drove in 1,430, and scored 1,174. Impressive numbers, all, especially from the man who said: "You can't hit and think at the same time."

He was, in fact, a notorious bad-ball hitter, and pitchers would tease him with an offering in the dirt, but he could snap those powerful wrists and slash another hit. Despite that reputation as a free swinger, in 7,555 at-bats, he struck out only 414 times. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame on richly earned merit.

His reputation grew as that of the amiable clown, but Barra notes that this sometimes overshadowed Yogi's leadership and his other overlooked and underappreciated contributions.

Many years after pitching the first and only perfect World Series game in history, in 1956, Don Larsen said: "Half the credit should go to Yogi. It was his perfect game as much as mine. I never shook him off once. I had total confidence in him."

So did his other New York Yankees teammates. And why not? He was a key contributor to a dynasty that won an unmatched five straight World Series championships. In all, Yogi amassed 10 World Series rings, a tidy total of one for every finger. And thumb. Few professional athletes can match that.

Or, as Casey Stengel, who knew his way around a non sequitur, once said: "Mister Berra is a rather strange fellow of very remarkable abilities." (Takes one to know one.)

And when Yogi's playing days were done, he turned to managing and managed to win two league championships - with the Yankees in 1964, then the Mets in 1973.

"Half this game," he famously explained, "is 90 percent mental."

And when his teams lost: "We made too many wrong mistakes."

Or: "We were overwhelming underdogs."

Yogi was born of Italian immigrants who settled in St. Louis. He was an eighth-grade dropout, but in only a few years became a rousing financial success. After the Yankees won the 1947 World Series, each player's share came to $5,830, a princely sum in those days, and exactly $830 more than Yogi's pay for the entire regular season.

Rather than cash his check immediately, he took it home and proudly showed his stunned parents. A greatly pleased Yogi said: "I think they realized that baseball was not a bum's game."

Years later, Yogi was being interviewed on radio, part of a campaign to promote his memoirs, Yogi: It Ain't Over. He struggled so obviously that during a commercial break the interviewer asked: "Yogi, have you actually read this?"

Yogi blithely replied: "Why should I? I was there."

And he still is, showing up from time to time in public, shy at heart, without affectation, certainly not a limelight-seeker, and still warmly embraced by the fans, lending credence to Barra's claim that Yogi, the Eternal Yankee, remains the most popular Yank of them all.

If there is an appointment to be kept and you're running in circles, you can always find comfort in Yogi's observation: "We may be lost but we're making good time."

And how better to end this review than to turn to Yogi: "It ain't over till it's over, but when it's over, it's over."

And so it is.

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer sports columnist.