Yogi Berra died on Tuesday night, Sept. 22, at the age of 90, but his legacy as a baseball legend lives on. In honor of his life, here is the following story, “Yogi,” by Roy Blount Jr., which originally ran in the April 2, 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Yoga consists in the stopping of spontaneous activities of the mind-stuff. —YOGI PANTANJALI
How can you think and hit at the same time? —YOGI BERRA
Is the new manager of the New York Yankees a true yogi?
That may seem an odd question. Lawrence Peter Berra is the most widely known Yogi in the world, or at least in those parts of the world where baseball is played. (When the Yankees appeared in Tokyo in 1955, "the biggest ovation, including screams from bobby-soxers, went to Yogi Berra," according to the Associated Press.) He loves to sit around reflecting in his undershorts. He almost never loses his cool, except in ritual observances with umpires, during which he has been seen to levitate several inches. And he's being counted on to bring peace and unity—yoga is Sanskrit for union—to baseball's most rancorous team.
Yet, yogis don't tend to appear in a form that is 5'7½" tall and weighs 190 pounds. Jimmy Cannon, the late sportswriter, said Berra was built like a bull penguin. When Larry MacPhail, the Yankee president from 1945 to 1947, first saw Berra, he was reminded of "the bottom man on an unemployed acrobatic team."
Whereas yoga springs from Hinduism, Berra is a Roman Catholic who tries to attend Mass every Sunday and who once visited the Pope. Yogi told of his meeting with Pope John XXIII in a now-famous interview:
Reporter: "I understand you had an audience with the Pope."
Yogi: "No, but I saw him."
Reporter: "Did you get to talk to him?"
Yogi: "I sure did. We had a nice little chat."
Reporter: "What did he say?"
Yogi: "You know, he must read the papers a lot, because he said, 'Hello, Yogi.' "
Reporter: "And what did you say?"
Yogi: "I said, 'Hello, Pope.' "
Yoga is an Eastern study, and Berra is Midwestern Italian. Once, at a dinner held so Japanese journalists could get together with American baseball stars, a Tokyo newspaper editor was ceremoniously reeling off a list of Japanese delicacies that he was sure his American guests would enjoy. "Don't you have any bread?" Berra interrupted.
Berra's parents were born in Italy. (On his passport, Yogi is Lorenzo Pietro.) He was born in St. Louis, and his sayings are in the American grain. For instance, after visiting the Louvre and being asked whether he liked the paintings there, Berra said, "Yeah, if you like paintings." Another time, after attending a performance of Tosca in Milan, he said, "It was pretty good. Even the music was nice." These remarks are less in the tradition of the Bhagavad-Gita than in that of Mark Twain, who observed that the music of Richard Wagner was "better than it sounds." Berra is also supposed to have said, after someone mentioned that a Jewish lord mayor had been elected in Dublin, "Yeah. Only in America can a thing like this happen."
Berra hasn't followed the traditional regimen of a person who gives his life over to yoga. He has never attempted to assume the Lotus, the Plough, the Fish or the touching-the-top-of-your-head-with-the-soles-of-your-feet position. In his playing days, it's true, he so mastered the Bat Swing and the Crouch that he's now in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And this spring, in the Yankees' new flexibility program, he stretched, bent and folded himself pretty well for a man of 58. But when he's asked whether he knows the body toning postures of yoga, he says, "Nahhh. A couple of people wrote me, 'What exercises do you give?' thinking I was a, you know.... Ahhh, I don't do no exercises."
In traditional yoga, the practice of meditation is of central importance. But Berra says, "Guys talk about doing this meditating when they go up to the plate. If I'd done that I'd've been worse. I went up there thinking about something else."
And yet there's something inscrutable about a man who said, when he saw the late Steve McQueen in a movie on television, "He must have made that before he died." There's something mystic about a man who said, "You got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there." And there's something wise about a man who said, "Slump? I ain't in no slump. I just ain't hitting."
Although yoga is "a definite science," the Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda has written, "There are a number of great men, living today in American or European or other non-Hindu bodies, who, though they may never have heard the words yogi or swami, are yet true exemplars of those terms. Through their disinterested service to mankind, or through their mastery over passions and thoughts...or through their great powers of concentration, they are, in a sense, yogis; they have set themselves the goal of yoga—self-control."
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By dispelling that ignorance of the true self he has realized the Changeless Total Universal Self as his own true form, and through this realization ignorance has been destroyed. —THE VEDANTASARA a 15th-century Brahmanical text
I'd be pretty dumb if all of a sudden I started being something I'm not. —YOGI BERRA
The dynastic Yankees of the 1940s, '50s and '60s knew exactly who they were. They weren't a projection of their owner's ego. "In those days, to be a Yankee, in New York," says Berra, who was the Yankees' best or at least, after Mickey Mantle, next-best immortal of the '50s, "you were treated like a god." Yankees were united by aplomb and esprit de corps. Yoga, wrote Jung, is a "method of fusing body and mind together so that they form a unity which is scarcely to be questioned. This unity creates a psychological disposition which makes possible intuitions that transcend consciousness."
Levitate your consciousness to total nothingness. —YOGI BHAJAN
In baseball, you don't know nothing. —YOGI BERRA
Anyone who has followed the Yankees over the last 20 years—since 1964, when Berra was fired as manager although New York won a pennant in its first season under him—knows that the franchise has a karma problem: a festering buildup of the consequences of past actions.
"The Yankees made the biggest mistake in their whole career, firing Yogi," says Berra's old teammate Whitey Ford. It took them 12 years to win another pennant, and although they have won four in the last eight seasons, those years have been an Era of Ill Feeling.
"I don't want to play for George Steinbrenner," said star reliever Goose Gossage last December, before he forsook the Yankees for the Padres. Steinbrenner, New York's principal owner since 1973, has fired 11 managers and alienated player after player. It's about as uplifting to go over his wrangles with Billy Martin, whom he fired for the third time after last season, as it is to replay the Watergate tapes. Bad karma accrues when your manager calls your owner a liar or punches out a marshmallow salesman, both of which Martin did. Also when your owner gets into a fight either in an elevator, as Steinbrenner claimed, or with an elevator, as skeptics suggested.
Just this spring training the Yankees' captain, Graig Nettles, decried Steinbrenner's "big mouth" and demanded to be traded. Dave Winfield, New York's best player, who has had various run-ins with Steinbrenner that still rankle on both sides, predicted that 1984 will see more of the same: "Afternoon soaps will have nothing on us. I think people are tired of that. They want to see baseball."
Ah. Yogi is baseball all over. Says his wife, Carmen, "Everything except baseball seems small to him." That "everything" would seem to include himself. There's not much I in Yogi, whom people often call Yog. Perhaps the true meaning of "In baseball, you don't know nothing" is that baseball is a game that humbles those who presume to be authoritative, as Martin and Steinbrenner have done. "Yogi is perfect for this club right now," said pitcher Dave LaRoche in camp this spring. "Billy always wanted to be the center of attention. Yogi is satisfied to be a wallflower type."
The iron filings of karma are attracted only where a magnet of the personal ego still exists. —YOGI PARAMAHANSA YOGANANDA
A good ball club. —YOGI BERRA when asked what makes a good manager
Since 1960, the Yankees and their fellow New Yorkers, the Mets, have won 11 pennants. Yogi, who served with the Mets as coach from 1965 through 71 and as manager from '72 through part of '75, is the only person who has been a player or a coach or a manager on every one of those pennant-winning teams. When he was fired by the Yankees after losing to St. Louis in the '64 World Series and also when he was fired by the Mets in '75 although his '73 team had won a pennant, Yogi's critics said he had lost control of his players. But a yogi doesn't try to control others. "Every individual," says the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, "is responsible for his own development in any field." Were the Maharishi a baseball fan, he would add "and at the plate." A yogi attempts to control himself.
Too nice a guy, Yogi's detractors have said of him. But "gentleness of mind is an attribute of a yogi, whose heart melts at all suffering," said theYogi B.K.S. Iyengar. Robert Burnes, a St. Louis baseball writer, once went with Berra to a church father-and-son banquet. Every son received a bat and a ball and came up to have Yogi autograph them. At a corner table were some kids from a local orphanage. They sat there with no balls or bats. "Aren't they getting anything?" Yogi asked. An organizer of the banquet told him that a couple of balls were being sent to the home for the orphans' use. "We think it's enough of a thrill for them just to be here," the man added.
Yogi got up from the head table, went to the orphans' table, sat down and began autographing whatever the orphans had. Someone at the head table finally said, "Yogi, we'd like you to come back up here and say a few words."
"Go on with the program," Yogi snapped. "I'm busy. I'm talking to some friends." And he stayed with the orphans the rest of the evening. As he and Burnes left, Yogi said, "I'll never forget that as long as I live."
When Yogi was promoted to manager this winter—he'd rejoined the Yankees as a coach in '76—Boston sports talk show host Eddie Andelman said that what the Yankees were actually getting was a "designated schmoo." Yogi's shape and good nature may resemble a schmoo's, but he may be more than that. He may be the man of the hour.
The time is now and now is the time. —YOGI BHAJAN
You mean right now? —YOGI BERRA when someone asked him what time it was
To speak of the history of the Steinbrenner Yankees is difficult, because who wants to wade through all that again? To speak of Berra's history is difficult because so much of what's said about him—no one, including Yogi, seems to know how much—is legend.
Berra has little inclination to dwell upon the past. "I'm sure glad I don't live in them days," he once said, after watching a bloody movie called The Vikings. Or he may have said that. He's said to have said it. Trying to establish which of Yogi's famous sayings he actually said is an interesting, but hopeless, endeavor.
Sometimes diligent research pays off. For instance, there's the story about what Yogi told a young Met hitter who had adopted Frank Robinson's batting stance but still wasn't hitting. "If you can't imitate him," Yogi is supposed to have advised, "don't copy him."
But on Jan. 11, 1964, right after Berra had been named Yankee manager and a year before he got to the Mets, a long tape-recorded telephone colloquy between Berra, Casey Stengel and reporter Robert Lipsyte appeared, in transcript, in The New York Times. In it Stengel says to Yogi, "If you can't imitate anybody, don't copy him. That's the best advice I can give a new manager." Conceivably, Berra later passed that adage on to a Met, but because Berra spent several minutes one morning this spring chuckling over the kind of things Stengel used to say and wishing he could remember even a few of them specifically, that seems unlikely.
Why not just ask Berra himself whether he said various things he's supposed to have said? Well, I did that. It confused matters. For instance, if I hadn't consulted Yogi, I'd be able to report that I had pinned down the origin of "Nobody ever goes there anymore; it's too crowded" once and for all. I'd always been told that Yogi said that about a place called Charlie's in Minneapolis. On the other hand, I read somewhere that back in the late '40s Dorothy Parker had said it about Chasen's in Beverly Hills. Then I read that John McNulty had written it in a short story. And sure enough, in the Feb. 20, 1943 issue of The New Yorker, in a McNulty story entitled “Some Nights When Nothing Happens Are the Best Nights in This Place,” there occurs this passage:
"...a speakeasy, you could control who comes in and it was more homelike and more often not crowded the way this saloon is now. Johnny, one of the hack-men outside, put the whole thing in a nutshell one night when they were talking about a certain hangout and Johnny said, 'Nobody goes there any more. It's too crowded.' "
Because in 1943 Yogi was 18 and playing in Norfolk, Va., we can assume that neither McNulty nor some New York cabdriver stole the line fromYogi.
However. Before I tracked that short story down I discussed Berraisms with Yogi and Carmen. We were relaxing over vodka on the rocks in their nicely appointed parlor in Montclair, N.J. After their three boys grew up, the Berras sold the enormous Tudor house about which Yogi once said proudly, "It's nothing but rooms," and moved into a smaller but still substantial gray-shingled house a few blocks away. It's a home filled with fine antiques, with dropping-by children and grandchildren and with Berraisms, which, however, the Berras don't preserve as carefully as they do furniture.
"The kids are always telling me, 'There you go, you said another one,' " Yogi said with a chuckle.
"He said one the other day," said Carmen. "I thought, 'That's a classic. I've got to write that one down.' But I forgot."
"How about the one I said, 'If I didn't wake up, I'd still be sleeping,' " said Yogi. "I was almost late someplace," he explained. "Another one...," he added, and he said something else that I didn't quite catch.
"No, that one wasn't funny," said Carmen.
"Oh," said Yogi affably.
"How about the one about the restaurant being so crowded nobody ever goes there?" I asked. "You didn't really say that, did you?"
Yogi smiled. "Yeah! I said that one," he assured me.
"You did?" I said. "About Charlie's in Minneapolis?"
"Nahhh, it was about Ruggeri's in St. Louis. When I was headwaiter there." That would have been in 1948.
"No," said Carmen, "you said that in New York."
"St. Louis," Yogi said firmly.
So there you are.
"My favorite Yogi story," says Yankee first baseman Roy Smalley, "is about the time he went to a reception at Gracie Mansion [the residence of New York's mayor]. It was a hot day and everybody was sweating, and Yogi strolled in late wearing a lime-green suit. Mayor Lindsay's wife, Mary, saw Yogi and said, 'You certainly look cool,' and he said, 'Thanks. You don't look so hot yourself.' If that isn't true, I don't want to know it isn't."
Nor do I. I feel bound to report, however, that there's at least one other version of the story. Same dialogue, only between Yogi and someone it would be hard for witnesses to confuse with Mary Lindsay: umpire Hank Soar.
Bill Veeck once maintained that "Yogi is a completely manufactured product. He is a case study of this country's unlimited ability to gull itself and be gulled.... You say 'Yogi' at a banquet, and everybody automatically laughs, something Joe Garagiola discovered to his profit many years ago."
What Berra says about his sayings, in general, is "I always say I said half of them, and Joe said the other half." This is apt but untrue. Certainly Garagiola, who grew up with Berra in St. Louis on what was known then as Dago Hill and who is working on a book about those days, has done as much for Berra's legend as the Beatles did for the Maharishi's. For one thing, as Berra says, "Joe can remember stories better than I can. I can't remember them." It follows that Yogi isn't the best authority for what he actually said. (And nobody else is, either.) Sometimes he will say, "I could've probably said that." Sometimes he will say he never said things that you wish he wouldn't deny saying. For instance, he claims he never said, "How can you think and hit at the same time?" It's a cold-blooded historian indeed who's willing to take Berra's word for that.
It may even be that Berra did think and hit at the same time. "Any hitter as good as Yogi was had to have an idea up there," says Yankee coach Mickey Vernon, who played against him for years. But when you ask Berra if it's true that he always hit high pitches well, he says, "They told me I did. I didn't know. If I could see it good, I'd hit it. Some of them I'd swing at, and some of them I wouldn't because I didn't see them good." Berra's old teammate Phil Rizzuto claims, "I've seen him hit them on the bounce; I've seen him leave his feet to hit them."
There's no doubt that Berra thought about other people's hitting. Ted Williams says Berra would notice subtle shifts of an opposing batter's feet that no other catcher would notice. "Berra knows how to pitch to everybody in the league except himself," said Stengel. But then, nobody knew how to pitch to Berra. "He could pull anything inside," says Vernon. "They'd try to throw him two pitches inside and hope he'd pull them foul, and then they'd go outside on him. And he'd take that to the opposite field."
Yankee player-coach Lou Piniella, who says, "When I'm feeling good I'm a player, when I'm feeling bad I'm a coach," studies hitting mechanics meticulously with the aid of videotape. He insists that thinking and hitting are thoroughly compatible. However, he concedes that "the paramount thing is to see the damn baseball." And New York outfielder Steve Kemp says, "Baseball is a game that if you think too much, it'll eat you up."
Let us remind ourselves that if Berra did say what he says he didn't say about thinking and hitting, he didn't say you can't think and hit at the same time. He just raised the eternal question "How can you?" And even if he didn't say it, he deserves to be credited with saying it because he's such a great example of the athlete who doesn't distract himself. Berra was so attuned to his Batting Self that he didn't consciously have to focus his mind on hitting. Asked if he ever studied his swing on videotape, he cringes. "I don't like seeing myself on television," he says. "I don't like it."
Concentration is the narrowing of the field of attention, the fixing of the mental eye upon a chosen object. —ERNEST WOOD Seven Schools of Yoga
You only got one guy to concentrate on. He throws the ball. —YOGI BERRA
Many putative Berraisms are clearly bogus. Jim Piersall, a player of Berra's era, tells banquet audiences that someone once asked Berra, "Why don't you get your kids an encyclopedia?" Yogi answered, "Listen here, buddy, when I went to school, I walked. So can they." In the New York Mirror in 1959 Dan Parker wrote that someone once said to Yogi, "Why, you're a fatalist," and Yogi answered, "You mean I save postage stamps? Not me."
There were plenty of firsthand witnesses, however, to Berra's famous remark on the occasion of Yogi Berra Night at Sportsman's Park in 1947: "I want to thank all those who made this night necessary." Isn't that a perfect expression of the ambivalence of one who sincerely feels honored but hates playing the role of honoree? A poetic slip.
Some Berraisms transcend logic because they are simpler than logic. "I'm wearing these gloves for my hands," he said one cold spring-training day.
Others express something too subtle for logic. There was the time when some sportswriters urged Berra to go with them to a dirty movie. "Nahhh," he said, "I don't want to see no dirty movie. I'm going to see Airport."
"Come on, Yog, come with us. Let's go see the dirty movie."
"Nahhh. I'm not interested."
"Come on. You can see Airport anytime. Let's go see this dirty picture."
"Well," said Yogi, "who's in it?"
Isn't that a trenchant comment on pornography? Dirty movies don't have anyone in them.
There are many stories about Yogi on radio shows. He's supposed to have laid down this ground rule once: "If you ask me anything I don't know, I'm not going to answer." Would that everyone on radio followed that policy.
But my radio favorite is the one about the interviewer who told Berra before the broadcast, "We're going to do free association. I'm going to throw out a few names, and you just say the first thing that pops into your mind."
"O.K.," said Berra.
They went on the air. "I'm here tonight with Yogi Berra," said the host, "and we're going to play free association. I'm going to mention a name, andYogi's just going to say the first thing that comes to mind. O.K., Yogi?"
"All right, here we go then. Mickey Mantle."
"What about him?" said Berra.
Self-control entails avoiding statements that cause unnecessary to-do. Berra is very careful about that. Ask him how he's going to differ from Martin as manager, and he says, "I don't get into that."
But self-control isn't the same as self-editing. Two years ago in Florida, Vernon played with Yogi in a scramble golf tournament (in which all players in a group tee off but thereafter play only the best of the balls). Berra hit a nice drive up the middle. Vernon followed with an almost identical shot. Vernon's drive was a bit better. But Berra lingered next to the ball he'd hit so well. "If I was playing alone," he said wistfully, "I'd play mine."
Most people would have stopped themselves before they said that. They would have had the same feeling, but they would have reflected, "I'm not playing alone, though, so...." Then they would have sorted out all the contradictions in their feelings and said either nothing or something less memorable than what Berra said. Berra reacts more quickly and on two planes of possibility at once.
The posture must be steady and pleasant. —YOGI PATANJALI
Berra thinks home plate is his room. —CASEY STENGEL
Berra, who was awkward behind the plate at the beginning of his career, worked hard under the guidance of guru Bill Dickey—"Bill is learning me all his experiences"—and he became an extraordinarily heads-up catcher. Between pitches he was full of chatty hospitality, but while he was distracting the hitter, he wasn't missing a trick himself. Indeed, Berra is computer-fast at adding up gin scores. "He would be a brilliant nuclear physicist," says Garagiola, "if he enjoyed that kind of thing."
And when Berra saw a bunt or a steal of home coming, he would spring forward before the pitch had reached the batter. "If anybody'd swung," he says, "they'd've creamed me." But no one ever did. Berra was especially effective on squeeze bunts. Twice in his career he grabbed the bunt, tagged the batter before he could get away and then dived back to tag the runner coming in from third. That ties him with several other catchers for the lifetime record for unassisted double plays. "I just touched everybody I could," Berra explained after one of them.
On another occasion, Billy Hunter of the Orioles missed a two-strike squeeze bunt attempt on a pitch that was in the dirt. Berra trapped the ball, slapped a sweeping tag on Hunter, who was entitled to run because the third strike had hit the ground, and wheeled to put the ball on Clint Courtney sliding in. Alas, the umpire ruled that Berra had missed Hunter. Otherwise, Berra would hold the catcher's single-handed d.p. record single-handedly. "Hunter was out, too," says Yogi today. "Out as the side of a barn."
The preceding Berraism is one that I just made up. I guess it won't do. It's Berraesque in that it entails a kind of refreshment of the concept of "out"—a soft-focus version of what E.E. Cummings called "precision which creates movement." (Cummings' own, not very pleasant, example of such precision came from vaudeville: "Would you hit a woman with a child?" "No, I'd hit her with a brick.")
But "out as the side of a barn" doesn't linger in the mind like Yogi's famous re-examination of two ordinary verbs: "You can observe a lot by watching." He actually did say that, except that it may have been "You observe by watching" in the original.
It's hard to make up a good Berraism.
One thing you cannot copy and that is the soul of another person or the spirit of another person. —YOGI BHAJAN
If you can't imitate him, don't copy him. —YOGI BERRA
I was determined to make up a Berraism for this story. One that would pass for real and go down in lore alongside "How long have you known me, Jack? And you still don't know how to spell my name." (Which is what Berra said—really and truly—when announcer Jack Buck compensated him for appearing on a pregame show with a check made out to Bearer.)
Here is an ersatz Berraism that I worked on for weeks: "Probably what a pitcher misses the most when he doesn't get one is a good target. Unless it never gets there." Nope. It's too busy. A real Berraism is more mysterious, yet simpler. Stengel once asked Berra what he would do if he found a million dollars. Yogi said, "If the guy was real poor, I'd give it back to him."
To come up with a Berraism that rings true, you have to start with some real Berraistic raw material, which, in itself, may not ring true. Take the famous utterance, "It ain't over 'til it's over," which is so distinctively descriptive of a baseball game—a football or basketball game is often over with five minutes to go—and which we would like to think is even true of life.
Research through old sports-page clippings indicates that what Berra probably said was, in reference to the 1974 pennant race, "We're not out till we're out." That quickly became "You're not out of it till you're out of it," which somehow evolved into "The game's never over till it's over," which eventually was streamlined into "It ain't over 'til it's over."
But I wouldn't call that a wholly manufactured product. Berra sprouted its seed. And he did so at a time when the expression "The game is never over till the last man is out" had become hackneyed, even if its meaning still held true. One thing Berra doesn't deal in is clichés. He doesn't remember them.
"Yogi gives short answers. And they're all mixed in with grunts," says Rizzuto, who adds, "but that doesn't mean he doesn't know as much as managers who'll talk forever." Usually these short statements aren't eloquent, and often they're more a matter of finger pointing, nudges, scowls, pats, shrugs and ingenuous grins than of words or grunts. And yet every time I talked to Berra this spring, he said something or other that I couldn't get out of my mind. For instance, giving me directions to the racquetball club he co-owns in Fairfield, N.J., he said, regarding how long I should stay on one stretch of road, "It's pretty far, but it doesn't seem like it."
As I drove to the club, I kept thinking that over. How could he know that a given distance wouldn't seem far to me? I thought it over so much that the distance went by even faster than I'd been prepared for, and I missed the turn. I should have remembered what Berra said about taking the subway to Brooklyn for the World Series: "I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early."
There is a vital difference between an idiot or a lunatic on the one hand, and a yogi striving to achieve a state of mindlessness on the other. —YOGI B.K.S. IYENGAR
People say I'm dumb, but a lot of guys don't make this kind of money talking to cats. —YOGI BERRA on receiving a residual check from his Puss 'n Boots catfood commercial, in which the voice of the puss was played by Whitey Ford
In his boyhood, Berra was called Lawdie—a shortening of Lawrence. Had that name stuck, would there now be a cartoon character named Lawdie Bear? At any rate, there is one named Yogi Bear, an amiable, rotund figure who assures people he's "smarter than the average bear."
"They came out with that after Yogi won his third Most Valuable Player award," says Carmen. "And yet they claimed it had nothing to do withYogi."
"Once somebody came up to me and asked, 'Which came first, you or the bear?' " says Yogi.
But how did Lawdie become Yogi? Historians agree it happened in his teens. At least five people, including Garagiola, have been credited for giving Yogi his name. Garagiola has said, "It was because he walked like a yogi." The New York Times once said it was because young Lawdie had taken up yoga-like exercises. According to other accounts, it was because nothing ever upset Berra, or because one day he was wrestling and spun out of his opponent's grasp, and someone said, "He spins like a yo-yo." Then someone else said, "You mean he spins like one of themyogis." The most established version is that Berra used to sit around serenely with his arms and legs crossed, and one of his American Legion teammates, having seen some yogis in a travelogue about India, said he sat like a yogi. Berra told me a few weeks ago that this last version was correct, except, "Nahhh. There wasn't any movie."
And yet this spring I also heard him telling reporters that he had no idea why he'd been dubbed Yogi. "I had a brother they called 'Garlic,' " Berra told one reporter who pressed him for possible explanations of his cognomen, "and his name was Mike." Berra did say that the original dubber was his American Legion teammate Bobby Hofman—one of the few people connected with youth baseball in St. Louis in the '40s who, according to my research, had never been credited before.
So there you are. Taped onto the Berras' refrigerator door in Montclair is a letter from a boy in San Francisco, which Yogi hasn't gotten around to answering:
Dear Yogi Berra, My name is Yogi, and I am 9. I hate my name because kids at school joke about it a lot. All the time. You are the only otherYogi I ever heard of. Where did you get your name from? My teacher told me about you. I hope that is OK. She said you just about invented baseball. How long did you play? Will you be my friend? I sure need one. Your friend Yogi Lisac
P.S. What do your friends call you? Did you ever get so mad you wanted to punch somebody?
When Berra came into organized ball, he, too, was the butt of cruel kidding—people swinging from dugout roofs and calling him Ape was typical of this kind of humor—and he never fought back. He says it never bothered him, but that's hard to believe. Even some of the compliments he got would have upset most people. Cannon wrote that he and Berra were sitting in a restaurant when a woman stopped by the table.
"I don't think you're homely at all," the strange lady said.
"Thank you," replied Berra, sincerely.
In 1949, Cannon reported that some players had theorized that Berra swung at bad pitches because he was afraid of being ridiculed for taking a strike. "Notice how Yogi acts when he misses a ball?" one player was quoted as saying. "He shrinks and closes up. They kid him so much he's afraid of looking bad in the spotlight."
But if that was Berra's motivation for attacking every pitch he could reach, he turned that anxiety into a strength that caused opponents to consider him the Yankee they would least like to face in the clutch. He was always at his best in the late innings. "You give 100 percent in the first half of the game," he's said to have said, "and if that isn't enough, in the second half you give what's left." And you don't look back to add things up. "He doesn't dwell on mistakes," says Carmen. "When something happens, it's done. His wheels are immediately turning about what to do next. I guess it's a quality that successful men have. I read that about David Rockefeller when he made a bad loan."
Male and female make a union and this complete union is the greatest yoga. —YOGI BHAJAN
She wasn't the first girl I had ever asked out, she was the third, but I could hardly believe my luck when it turned out that she liked me as much as I liked her. —YOGI BERRA
It's clear, in her 50th or so year, that Carmen Berra will always be a great-looking woman. She and Yogi met in 1947 when he was a budding Yankee and she was a waitress at Stan and Biggie's in St. Louis. "He was honest. And simple," she says. "Wasn't a show-off. I was dating a lot of college boys at the time and I liked him in contrast."
Her name was Carmen Short. "My family came from England in the 17th century," she says.
"Yeah," says Yogi. "She's got more aunts and uncles!"
At the time, Carmen's family wondered why she wanted to marry a "foreigner" and Yogi's why he wanted to marry an "Americano." But it has been a happy marriage, by all accounts, for 35 years.
When asked whether it's true that wise investments over the years have made him very comfortable financially, a near millionaire in fact, Yogishrugs. "I don't know," he says. "You'll have to ask Carm." But hasn't he been a remarkably successful businessman? "Well," he says, "I guess I've got a smart wife. She's a, whattayacallit, an inquirer. Where I'd say, 'Yeah, go ahead,' she'll say 'Let's wait and look into it.' It's like with the furniture for the house. She's patient. She'll leave the room bare till she gets just the right thing."
Carmen serves on the board of a regional theater group, is on the committee that is working for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and stays on Yogi's case. "Carmen said if you chew tobacco today, forget it. You don't have anyplace to come home to," says a young blonde employee at Berra's racquetball center. "She knows you chewed this morning, Yogs."
They have raised three solid sons: Larry Jr., 35, who caught in the minor leagues until he hurt his left knee and is now in the flooring business; Tim, 32, who played one season as a wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts in 1974 and now oversees the operation of the racquet-ball center; and Dale, 27, who makes $600,000 a year playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dale, who has always lived with his parents in the off-season, is about to follow his older brothers' example by getting married and buying a house not far from the New Jersey homestead. What with grandchildren and inlaws, there are as many as 17 people around the Berra table at Thanksgiving. Yogi carves.
When his boys were kids, Yogi says, "They'd try to get me to play ball with them, and I'd say, 'Go ask your brothers. I got to play.' " Otherwise, they say, he was a warm, normal father. And now they regard him with evident affection. Because he was already in Florida for spring training,Yogi couldn't make Dale's engagement party this February, but he telephoned his best wishes. After he hung up, Yogi said, "And Dale, you know, he's good. He's good. He said: 'I miss you.' "
"He's masculine," says Carmen of Yogi. "Very strong. Physically and mentally, or I should say psychologically. I think he's very sexy."
Yogi smiles. He doesn't look surprised.
"But he's stubborn. Very stubborn. About everything. I don't even think he's Italian. I think he's German. He's Milanese, from the north of Italy. They're very clipped. Very strong. They have a lot of German in them."
Feldmarschall Steinbrenner, please note.
Man suffers for one reason: Man loses his innocence. When you lose your innocence, you end up with dispute. To regain innocence so that universal consciousness will serve and maintain you is the idea of this yoga. —YOGI BHAJAN
How can you say this and that when this and that hasn't happened yet? —YOGI BERRA
Berra won't speculate as to how long he'll last as Yankee manager, except jokingly: "You better get this story out pretty soon." It should be remembered that in 1949 when the Yankees hired Stengel, who lasted as manager for 12 years and 10 pennants, some of the same things were said about him as are said about Berra now: that he was good for public relations, a funny guy, but not really a serious field leader. When Stengel was a player, they said the same thing about him that they said about Berra later: that he wasn't built like a ballplayer.
Stengel used to say of Yogi, "This is Mr. Berra, which is my assistant manager." He also said the Yankees would fall apart without Berra behind the plate, and that Berra was the best player he ever had, except for Joe DiMaggio. Such distinctly ungushy baseball men as Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson and Paul Richards all said Berra was an exceptionally smart player. His managing moves have been questioned in the past, but so have those of every other manager. No one accuses him of not knowing the game.
At the very least, Berra is a link with the old, proud Yankee days. The clubhouse today is full of players whom Steinbrenner acquired for big money after they became established and whom fans tend to think of more as former Reds, Padres and Twins than as Yankees. The team used to be a symbol of permanence. Under Steinbrenner, Yankees have come and gone and been shifted from position to position. Now that the pinstripes are doubleknits, the team lacks real fabric.
Will Berra produce cohesion? "He knows players," says Smalley. "He's made it clear to each guy what's expected. A team takes on the personality of its manager. And Yogi is comfortable."
But not wholly laissez-faire. "Before, we had a Broadway clubhouse in here, all kinds of extraneous people," says Smalley. "Yogi says no visitors except family, and them only at certain times. I asked if I could bring in Bob James, the jazz pianist. Yogi said he'd go out and meet him, he'd give him a hat, but not in the clubhouse. I respected that."
"Everybody likes Yogi," said Steinbrenner when he announced Yogi's appointment, "and...respects him." The pause was just long enough to make the "respects" sound grudging. When I try to imagine how Berra and Steinbrenner will relate to one another, I can't shake the unpleasant image of a TV commercial for a New York radio station that Steinbrenner and several uniformed Yankees appeared in a few years ago. WhenYogi, who was then a coach, began to say something in this commercial, Steinbrenner glared and snapped, "Just sing, Yogi." Yogi smiled, sang and gave no indication that heavy condescension bothered him. Self-control.
"To say that I don't have any worries or nerves is the opposite of the truth," Berra said in his 1961 autobiography, Yogi, written with the aid of Ed Fitzgerald. "I worry about getting old, I worry about not getting around on the fastball...."
Indeed, when Tony Cloninger struck him out three times on fastballs one May day in 1965, Yogi immediately retired as a player. "I didn't go out there to be embarrassed," he says.
"I worry," he went on in the book, "about keeping Carm happy so she won't be sorry she married me, about the kids growing up good, and about keeping out of trouble with God. I worry a lot."
He has always had trouble sleeping on the road. In his playing days his insomnia exhausted many of his roommates, including Rizzuto, from whom Berra often demanded bedtime stories. "Three Little Pigs, Three Bears, anything like that," Rizzuto says. "He said the sound of my voice put him to sleep. I often thought of that when I started broadcasting."
"Relaxed?" says Carmen. "I don't know why people think he's so relaxed. He's a basket case!"
But it's a well-woven basket. "Some men are kind of hanging in the balance," Carmen says. "It seems like they just might go off the deep end any minute. I don't have to worry that Yogi is going to have a nervous breakdown.
"I look around at our friends. The men are heads of some of the biggest corporations, they're members of the biggest law firms. And Yogi is the envy of all of them. Since Day One, I saw that Yogi was the only man I knew who loved his job."
That in itself, of course, doesn't make him a true yogi. "I am a yogi because it is in your mind," says the Yogi Bhajan. "The problem with man," the Yogi Bhajan also says, "is that he is asked, 'Are you this or are you that?' But you are not this nor that, you are as you are." Yogi Berra has said quite a few things more thought-provoking than that.