Yogi Berra’s Winning Words and Deeds

From a Wall Street Journal story by Kyle Smith headlined “‘It Ain’t Over’ Review: Yogi Berra’s Winning Words and Deeds”:

Somewhere between the sensibilities of Buddha and Mrs. Malaprop lies the quintessential Yogi Berra-ism. So appealing was the Hall of Fame catcher’s mode of expression that he joined that special category of Americans (along with Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain) who are both quoted reverentially and credited with many aphorisms they did not actually make. Hence the waggish title of a fond and genial documentary: “It Ain’t Over.”

The allusion is to something Berra didn’t say, at least until everyone said he said it. “You’re not out of it until it’s mathematical,” is, according to the film, what Berra actually said, when he was managing the New York Mets at a dark moment during the 1973 baseball season. The Mets, at the time counted out of the pennant race, eventually won it. Writers scrambled to find an appropriately prophetic prediction from their skipper. Over time the phrase evolved into the much more succinct “It ain’t over till it’s over.” As Berra put it in the subtitle of one of his books, “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.”

The movie about his life and legend, written and directed by Sean Mullin, has two purposes and succeeds delightfully at both. One is to make some sense of the famously self-nullifying sayings. “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” later received as a mystical riddle in the same category as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” was simply a literal direction.

Berra’s house was on a circular driveway, so either route to the destination was equally valid. As for “No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” the remark makes sense if you listen for the unstated implication that he was talking about his friends turning away from a restaurant as others rushed in to take their places.

The film’s other purpose is to re-establish Berra’s standing in baseball history. Many famed players appear in interviews (fellow catcher-managers Joe Torre and Joe Girardi; teammate Tony Kubek, New York Yankees stalwarts Derek Jeter, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry and Don Mattingly), but perhaps the most forceful witness is Berra’s granddaughter Lindsay, who makes the case that Berra has not been given his due as a player, much less as a veteran. (Berra, a native of St. Louis whose boyhood friend Joe Garagiola also made it to the big leagues, had already signed with the Yankees when he enlisted in the Navy and participated in the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach on a rocket boat. Though he was wounded in action, he never made much of the experience.)

Berra’s life as an unintentional quipster threatens to eclipse his accomplishments on the field. But what a player! Shaped like a fire hydrant and assigned a set of features that suggested a movie star, but only if that star was Ernest Borgnine, Lawrence Peter Berra was nevertheless as much a baseball god as his more evidently Apollonian teammates Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

Nicknamed Yogi as a boy because he used to await his turn at bat by sitting on the field with his arms and legs crossed, he went on to win three MVP awards and a record 10 World Series rings playing for the Yankees (plus three more as a coach). In one of many extraordinary years, 1950, he struck out 12 times in 656 plate appearances while batting .322 with 28 home runs and 124 runs batted in and missing only three games.

Berra, who died in 2015 at age 90, also receives his due as a husband and father. His son Dale, whose promising career with the Pittsburgh Pirates was derailed by drug abuse, credits his dad with helping him clean up his act, and his wife of 65 years, Carmen, who died at 85 in 2014, appears in archival footage describing him with wry tenderness.

Friends in St. Louis used to complain that young Yogi was bankrupting them by repeatedly insisting on lunch at the same posh restaurant, but he was on a surprisingly successful mission to capture the attention of Carmen, then a beautiful waitress there. Who could resist such a friendly soul? His welcoming nature also helped ease the transition of the pioneering black athletes he welcomed to the big leagues, Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby.

As the film makes clear, Robinson was also the cause of Berra’s chief career grievance: that daring theft of home plate executed by the former, at the expense of the latter, in the 1955 World Series. The Yankees took the game, the Dodgers the series, but forever after Berra grumbled that Robinson should have been called out. Apart from a much later feud with George Steinbrenner, a man whose foolishness could drive Tigger into psychotherapy, it was practically the only cloud in a sunshiny career.

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