Let's set the record straight. It was not Yogi Berra who said,
"Ninety percent of this game is half-mental." That gem came from
a ballplayer named Jim Wohlford, who played outfield and cracked
wise for the Kansas City Royals in the 1970s. Furthermore, I
challenge anybody on the St. Louis side of my home state to
produce proof that Mark Twain ever described golf as "a good
walk spoiled." I'm not saying he didn't, but you'll have to
show me. ¬∂ You see, in Missouri it's not our attributes that
set us apart--it's our attributions. Harry Truman set the tone
with "The buck stops here" and "If you can't stand the heat,
get out of the kitchen," and the knack for plain speaking and
homespun wisdom percolated down to the ballparks and arenas.
Harry Caray, play-by-play man for the baseball Cardinals from
1945 through '69, first shouted "Holy cow!" into a microphone
in St. Louis. Norm Stewart, basketball coach for 32 years at
the University of Missouri, said, "We're shooting 100
percent--60 percent from the field and 40 percent from the free
throw line." Dizzy Dean, the Cardinals' pitching ace turned
announcer, livened the lexicon with phrases like "he slud into
third" and "it's not bragging if you can back it up." Longtime
Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram described his well-schooled
offense "matriculating the ball down the field."
Pinch an athlete from Missouri and he'll say something more
colorful than "ouch." Our best talker, the corn-belt Confucius,
was the great Negro leagues pitcher Leroy (Satchel) Paige. "Don't
pray when it rains if you don't pray when the sun shines," said
Paige, who lived most of his life in Kansas City. "Work like you
don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance
like nobody's watching."
I can't explain why Missouri produces so many sportsmen with
enduring voices. In competition we have won no more than our
share over the last 50 years--a Super Bowl each for the Len
Dawson (and Stram) Chiefs and the Kurt Warner Rams; a World
Series for the George Brett Royals, two for the Bob Gibson
Cardinals and one for the Ozzie Smith Cards; a single, glorious
NBA title for the underappreciated St. Louis Hawks of Bob Pettit
and Cliff Hagan; eight major golf championships for Kansas City's
Tom Watson and three U.S. Open titles for Joplin's Hale Irwin.
Not bad, but not the stuff of dynasties either.
Wire us for sound, however, and we speak for posterity. When Ken
Burns aired his documentary Baseball in 1994, the healing voice
that captivated America was that of Buck O'Neil, the Negro
leagues star and former manager of the Kansas City Monarchs.
What is the source of our loquaciousness? Certainly, a river runs
through it--the Missouri, which veers east at Kansas City and
works in serpentine curves until it reaches the Mississippi, a
few miles north of the world's biggest croquet wicket. Most of
the state's population lives in this brown-water corridor, and
while there is hardly a Missourian alive who has dipped a toe
into the Big Muddy, we have at least read our Tom Sawyer and Huck
Finn. ("The most enjoyable of all races is a steamboat race,"
Twain wrote. "This is a sport that makes a body's very liver curl
with enjoyment.") There is a farm-town influence, as well,
descended from the Bootheel boys and Gallatin girls in pickup
trucks who listened on muggy nights to the play-by-play of Jack
Buck, Denny Matthews or Fred White on frequencies crackling with
Or maybe the source is the Hill, the old Italian neighborhood in
St. Louis where Berra and his friend Joe Garagiola grew up. Yogi
was the naif and Joe the shill, and what they offered was
enlightenment disguised as malaprop. "It ain't over till it's
over," Berra said. "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore.... This
is like deja vu all over again...."
In the final analysis we Missourians know that, win or lose, your
words must endure. My favorite Berra story has his wife, Carmen,
asking him where he wanted to be buried if he died before she
did. Berra's answer: "Surprise me."
I'm 90% half-certain that Yogi meant to say Missouri.
SI senior writer John Garrity is a native of Kansas City.