Who was the most quoted American of the last half century? A president, a poet or a TV celebrity – or could the distinction belong to a diminutive fellow with protruding ears, a big hooked nose and a funny name, who also happened to be one of the greatest baseball players in the history of the game?
In the later stages of his life Larry "Yogi" Berra was above all renowned for his "Yogi-isms" – oddly garbled pronouncements, half-paradox, half-malapropism, pearls of distorted wisdom that entered the language. But Berra achieved his first immortality as catcher for the New York Yankees during that postwar golden age when New York ruled baseball, and baseball (together with boxing) ruled American sport.
During his playing years with the Yankees, between 1946 and 1963, Berra was 15 times an All-Star, was voted the American League's most valuable player three times, and won 10 World Series rings, more than any other player in history. But even these statistics tell only part of the story.
At the plate, he was not only one of the very toughest outs, a left-handed hitter who smashed 358 home runs. He was also an exceptional performer in the most physically demanding role in baseball, a catcher with a cannon of an arm (he threw right-handed), who worked brilliantly with pitchers in plotting defensive strategy.
Indeed, the greatest moment of his career, by his own admission, came on a day when he didn't get a single hit – on 8 October 1956 when Yankees pitcher Don Larsen threw the only perfect game in World Series history, against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The picture of Berra leaping into Larsen's arms after the final out remains an indelible image of US sport. By some statistical measures, he was the greatest catcher ever; in 1999, the fans agreed, voting Berra into Major League Baseball's All-Century team.
Lawrence Peter Berra, one of five children of immigrants from Milan, was born in the Italian Hill district of St Louis, rudely known in those days as "Dago Hill". He was barely a teenager when he acquired his nickname, when he and some friends saw a film featuring a Hindu holy man, or yogi, and they likened his patient mien and cross-legged stance to Berra waiting to bat in a baseball game. The name stuck, and a year or two after he signed up for the Yankees, he was "Yogi" to one and all. Many believe the moniker was inspired by the cartoon character, Yogi Bear, who made his first appearance in the Huckleberry Hound show in 1959. But not so. The bear was named after Berra.
The young boy was sports crazy, not just for baseball, but for football, or soccer, as well, a game popular in the Italian community. At school, however, he did not distinguish himself. "I broke up the English a little bit. I didn't mean to do it, but it just came out that way." By 1942 he had come to the notice of the local St Louis Cardinals. But the Cards promised a signing bonus of only $250. The Yankees offered $500, and Berra was bound for New York – the city he would never leave.
First came the small matter of the Second World War. Berra enlisted for the US Navy in 1944, and was a gunner's mate during the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach, before serving in North Africa and Italy. Only in 1946 could he return to the Yankees and baseball.
From the outset he made an impact. He marked his major league debut that September with a home run, and for the next 15 years was part of a Yankee dynasty that matched, and perhaps surpassed, the legendary 1920s and 1930s team of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. There were great names – like Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford, and of course Joe di Maggio – but none, not even "the Mick", were quite taken to their hearts by fans quite like Berra.
He was a terrific ballplayer but success never went to his head. He was accessible, he was funny, and he never let life get him down. Casey Stengel, the Yankees manager during those halycon years, felt the same way. "I never play a game without my man," Stengel once said of Berra.
Between 1949 and 1953 the Yankees won five consecutive World Series, a feat unmatched to this day; the '50s were New York's supreme baseball years: if the Yankees weren't winning the Series, it seemed, the Giants or the Dodgers were. By 1959, Berra was being sent to Italy as a goodwill ambassador, on a trip that included a night at La Scala. "I enjoyed it," he remarked afterwards, "even the music."
By 1963, however, the years were catching up, and Berra turned his vast experience to managing (for which catchers, with their panoramic vision of the game, are especially suited). He put in a year with the Yankees, only to be sacked despite steering an ageing team to the 1964 Series, which they ultimately lost in seven games to the Cardinals.
He then moved across town to the Mets, first as coach and then manager, between 1972 and 1975. It was there he produced the most celebrated Yogi-ism of all. "It ain't over till it's over," he insisted when the Mets were seemingly hopelessly adrift in the middle of the 1973 season. The team recovered to win the National League East by a single game, on the very last day of the season, and a prophet was born.
In 1976 he returned to the Yankees, again first as coach and then in 1984 as manager, once more for a single season. Just 16 games into the year, the Yankees' domineering owner George Steinbrenner sacked Berra, having publicly promised he would have the job all season.
Doubling the insult, Steinbrenner sent a minion to convey the news, rather than delivering it in person. Berra was hurt and outraged, and did not set foot in Yankee Stadium again until 1999, when the club made up by honouring him with a special Yogi Berra Day, in which the first pitch was thrown out by Don Larsen.
In truth, even the Yankees could not afford to continue the feud with their most famous living player, by then a listed national monument. The older, weathered Berra, with his syntax as mangled as ever, was even more droll than before. He was pitchman in a series of TV commercials, and wrote half a dozen books, including I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said, published in 1998 and attempting with limited success to set the record straight about those legendary utterances.
"That place is so crowded, no one goes there anymore," Yogi once said of a popular St Louis night spot. "The future ain't what it used to be," is another Yogi-ism, as is "if you come to a fork in the road, take it" (reputedly delivered as a direction to the Berra home), and his considered advice to "always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours." True, scholars in such matters dispute whether Berra actually said "It's déjà vu all over again" – surely French was not in his repertoire? But one thing the Yogi-isms had in common: they might sound like gobbledegook, but you knew exactly what he meant.
And until the end, their author was typically modest and self-deprecating about his ability to coin bon mots. "They just come out," he said in a 2005 interview. "I wish I knew though, because I could make a million. But, I don't do it on purpose, that's the bad part about it. My wife tells me, 'Say it right.'"
Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, baseball player and manager: born St Louis, Missouri 12 May 1925; married 1949 Carmen Short (three sons); played for New York Yankees 1946-63; managed New York Mets 1972-75, New York Yankees 1964, 1984-85; died 22 September 2015.Reuse content