SI'S 12TH ANNUAL REUNION OF HEROES FROM THE PAST BRINGS BACK THE QUIET WISDOM OF YOGI BERRA, THE POWER OF THE NFL'S STARS OF THE '60s, THE FUN OF MAJOR LEAGUE, THE INSPIRATION OF MICHELLE AKERS, THE MAJESTY OF SIR ROGER BANNISTER, THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A RETIRED NBA BIG MAN IN A SMALL WORLD AND THE SHEER JOY OF THE 1971 PIRATES
This is an article from the July 4, 2011 issue
THE HALL OF FAME CATCHER IS THE GREATEST WINNER IN BASEBALL HISTORY AND ONE OF ITS MOST BELOVED ICONS, YET HE REMAINS MOST RENOWNED FOR HIS YOGI-ISMS, THOSE PITHY SAYINGS THAT HE PROBABLY NEVER SAID
YOGI BERRA WILL BE A LIVING LEGEND EVEN AFTER HE'S GONE
No man in the history of American sports—perhaps even in the history of America—has spent a lifetime facing more expectant silences. And it is happening again. Another afternoon. Another silence. Strangers stand at a respectful distance and wait for Lawrence Peter Berra to say something funny and still wise, pithy but quirkily profound, obvious and yet strangely esoteric. A Yogi-ism.
It ain't over till it's over.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
You can observe a lot by watching.
In this case the strangers waiting in the silence are a mother and son. They had been touring the Yogi Berra Museum in Little Falls, N.J., in anticipation of having the boy's bar mitzvah here. The family had decided that there is no better place for a boy to become a man than in the museum of the greatest winner in the history of baseball. And when they got word that the legend himself was present, they had to meet him, of course. They found him here, in the museum office, looking for a glass of water.
"I cannot believe it's really you!" the woman says to Yogi Berra.
"It's really me," he says.
The woman pauses for a moment. Is that it? Is that the Yogi-ism? What did he mean by "really me"? Was he being existential? Could he be summoning Delphic wisdom from the temple of Apollo, that phrase which translates loosely as "Know thyself"? It's hard to tell. Yogi Berra is looking for water so he can take his medication. He is supposed to take it in about 45 minutes. He's getting nervous about it. Berra hates being late for anything.
It gets late early out here.
(At Yogi Berra Day in his hometown of St. Louis in 1947) Thank you for making this day necessary.
A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore.
"This is such an honor," the woman says after a moment or so. Berra nods sheepishly. Again there is the silence. The silence always surrounds Yogi Berra. It smothers him. Imagine having every word you say analyzed like bacteria in a petri dish. Imagine facing that look of wide-eyed anticipation whenever you are about to say something, anything. Once a man and woman came up to him at the museum and asked him to invent a Yogi-ism, on the spot. He told them it doesn't work that way. He does not just divine these phrases. He said, "If I could just make 'em up on the spot, I'd be famous." The couple laughed happily. Yogi Berra did not know what was so funny.
If people don't wanna come out to the park, nobody's gonna stop 'em.
If you ask me anything I don't know, I'm not going to answer.
I ain't in no slump. I just ain't hitting.
The silence has become stifling. Yogi Berra, decked out in a Yankees hat and jacket, holding the water that he plans to use for his medication, looks out the window. Rain falls. The woman walks over to give him a hug, which he graciously accepts as the conclusion to the conversation. The woman repeats a few more words about how wonderful it is to meet him, and Yogi Berra continues to stay silent and stare out the window.
"How do you think the Yankees will do tonight?" she asks.
Yogi Berra shrugs. He doesn't make predictions. He hopes it will stop raining by game time.
From here on this will be a story without quotes. Well, there will be two Yogi Berra comments at the end, but that will be about it. There will be no new Yogi-isms. There will be no bits from others about how much Berra means to baseball. There will be none of that.
Yogi Berra is 86 years old, and he is probably the most quoted athlete of the last 100 years. The sampling above represent only a few of the dozens and dozens of quips and one-liners and bits of wisdom that have been attributed to him. Yogi Berra has now crossed into that American realm—with Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and Will Rogers—in which just about any famous collection of words gains prestige by being connected to his name. Just throw "As Yogi Berra says" in front of anything and, voil√†, you're ready for the banquet circuit.
As Yogi Berra says, "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded."
As Yogi Berra says, "If you can't imitate him, don't copy him."
As Yogi Berra says, "I always thought that record would stand until it was broken."
Yogi Berra also says, "I never said most of the things I said," which is probably the most telling of all the Yogi-isms. He said some of those things, didn't say others, but at this point even he is not sure what he did or didn't say. He only knows that the quotes have created a folk hero and kept him famous almost 50 years after he stopped playing baseball. He doesn't resent the image—he embraces it. He has appeared in beer commercials as Yogi Berra. He has done movie reviews as Yogi Berra. He has laughed about his connection to a pic-a-nic-basket-stealing cartoon character. (The cartoon's creators always insisted that Yogi Bear was not named for Berra even though Yogi Bear debuted just a few years after Yogi Berra won his third MVP award.) Berra even agreed to have his own museum connected to a college baseball stadium in the town next to the one in which he lives, although, as he pointed out in another Yogi-ism, you really are not supposed to get these things until you're dead.
The image has been good to him. But the image is not him. Larry Berra was a shy boy who quit school when he was 14 years old and went to work at a shoe factory. His brothers had to persuade his father to let him play ball. He was passed over by his hometown St. Louis Cardinals. He stuck his head out the window of a rocket boat so he could see the explosions over Utah Beach on D Day. He won more championships than any player in the history of baseball. He jumped into the arms of the only man to ever throw a perfect game in the World Series. He watched Bill Mazeroski's fly ball soar over his head to end a World Series four years later. He married Carmen, the waitress he had a crush on and has lived happily ever after with since. After he was wronged by George Steinbrenner, he made Steinbrenner apologize to him. He has perhaps the highest baseball IQ of anyone to play the game—in his own modest way, he calls himself the luckiest.
And when you ask what it all has meant, tears well in his eyes.
He doesn't say a word.
Here is something to blow your mind: From 1957 through 1981 New York baseball teams appeared in 13 World Series. Yogi Berra—as player, coach or manager—appeared in every one of them. In all, Yogi Berra appeared in 21 World Series. Think about that. The number is so staggering, so overwhelming, that it defies attempts to make sense of it. The St. Louis Cardinals, the second most successful franchise behind Yogi's Yankees, have appeared in 17 World Series in their long history. At one point this season San Francisco, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Texas and Tampa Bay led their divisions—all six combined have not been in as many World Series as Yogi Berra.
Baseball is not a team sport in the way that basketball and football are team sports. One player cannot impose his will on each and every game. There is no question that Bill Russell was the lord of rings in basketball because he could (and did) control the rhythms of every game he played in. It is not hard to sum up what made Otto Graham or Joe Montana or Emmitt Smith such indomitable forces in football.
But baseball ... winning is more subtle. A pitcher starts only once every five or six days. A batter comes up only a handful of times, and not always in a position to make a difference. A fielder can get to only what is within his reach. Berra played in his first World Series in his first full year, 1947. And he played miserably, hitting .158. He struggled defensively. (This was before Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey, in Yogi's words, had "learned me all his experience.") He blamed himself for costing Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens the first no-hitter in World Series history. Bevens had the no-hitter going with one out in the ninth when he walked Brooklyn's Carl Furillo. One out later, pinch runner Al Gionfriddo tried to steal second base, and Yogi Berra threw high. After an intentional walk, Cookie Lavagetto hit a game-winning double, and Berra never stopped blaming himself for that high throw.
Still ... the Yankees won the Series in seven games. Two years later Berra hit .063 in the Series, but the Yankees won again. They won again the next year. Again the next. And the next. And the next. In Berra's 17 seasons the Yankees reached the World Series 14 times. Berra won 10 championships, more than any player ever. He won so many World Series that after a while he stopped requesting World Series rings. Who needs all those rings? There were other options back then; winning the World Series in those days was not unlike getting credit card bonus points. One year Yogi Berra got a cigarette box for winning the World Series. Another year he got a watch. Another, he got something nice for Carmen.
What made Yogi Berra the greatest winner in baseball history? His favorite manager, Casey Stengel, used to say two things about that. One, he said, no player he ever managed had a better understanding of what a team needed to do to win games. It's always something different, and Berra intuited that. He did so many subtle things. He knew how to coax a pitcher through a jam. He knew the weaknesses of every hitter in the game. He knew how to inspire his teammates and how to challenge them.
And he often grabbed the moment himself. He had a reputation throughout his career as a man who came through in the clutch, and it is true that he hit about 30 points higher with men on base. He hit more home runs with men on than with the bases empty. At his best, he was a nightmare to pitch to because he was so good at hitting bad balls. Teammates would remember him getting hits on pitches that bounced and others he had to jump just to reach. Like Roberto Clemente and Vladimir Guerrero, a legend can build around great bad-ball hitters. When Yogi Berra was hitting, he was inescapable.
Take the 1956 World Series. Many people forget that when Don Larsen threw his perfect game in that Series, it gave the Yankees only a 3--2 lead in the best-of-seven. The Dodgers—making a statement about how momentum doesn't carry over in baseball—won 1--0 the next day when pitcher Clem Labine suffocated New York for 10 innings.
The seventh game was the following day. Everything seemed tilted in Brooklyn's favor. The game was played at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers started Don Newcombe, who had won 27 games, the Cy Young and the MVP award. In the first inning, with a man on, Yogi Berra blasted a long homer to right to give the Yankees a 2--0 lead. Two innings later Berra hit his second home run. Baseball players don't win games single-handedly ... except when they do.
So what was the second thing Casey Stengel used to say about Yogi Berra's ability to win? Well, he said that Berra was the sort of person who could fall into a sewer and come out wearing a gold watch.
In other words: Yogi Berra is the luckiest son of a gun to ever play the game.
Luck? What is luck anyway? Take two men. They live in Northern Italy in the early part of the 20th century. They decide to set off to America where they can start families and better lives. Separately, they find their way to St. Louis, where they get jobs working in the kilns making bricks. They buy small houses on Elizabeth Street across from each other in a place that, in those crueler days, people called Dago Hill. The two men care nothing for sports but their sons love baseball.
One of the men is named Giovanni Garagiola. The other is Pietro Berra.
Think of it. One of Giovanni's sons, Joe, would play for nine years in the major leagues—like his friend across the street, a catcher—and become an iconic broadcaster. Pietro's son, the one a childhood friend called Yogi for his resemblance to a Hindu snake charmer he had seen in the movies, would win more World Series than any player. Odds? Off the charts. Heck, the odds of Pietro Berra even allowing his youngest son to play baseball were staggering. Yogi always says that all of his brothers were better players than he was—Tony, in particular, who Yogi says could really hit—but they had to help support the family. And that's what Yogi was to do too. He quit school at 14. He worked for Johansen Shoe Company. He worked on a Coca-Cola truck. He worked in a coal yard.
He loved playing sports, though, loved it so much that he had trouble concentrating on his jobs. He played about as much soccer as he did baseball—St. Louis was the U.S. soccer epicenter back then—but at some point he understood that baseball was his only shot at living a different kind of life. His brothers pleaded with their father to let him sign with the Yankees. In 1943 Yogi played his first professional year, in Norfolk, Va. And then he went off to war.
The U.S. Navy asked for volunteers to man rocket boats. Berra would remember being so bored—he just wanted to do something—that he raised his hand. He ended up on one of those rocket boats that led the invasion of Utah Beach on D-Day. His whole life he remembered the explosions and, oddly, how hauntingly beautiful the scene looked. He stuck his head out to see. His lieutenant shouted that he needed to get his head down unless he wanted it blown off.
Yogi Berra was a proud man. In the early years after the war he took unmerciful abuse from players and writers. They called him ape. They said he was built like a bull penguin. They said he looked like the bottom man of an unemployed acrobat team. He was 5'7", weighed about 190 pounds and was called ugly enough times that one of those Yogi-isms that has made it through the years is "I don't hit with my face."
The insults drove him, as did the fear of humiliation. He felt embarrassed, for instance, when he struck out, and so for the bulk of his career he simply did not strike out. From 1950 to '56—a seven-year stretch during which Berra won three MVP awards and played catcher at a sustained level of greatness perhaps unsurpassed in baseball history—Berra hit 191 home runs and struck out 166 times. One day in 1950 he struck out twice against Dick Littlefield. He did not strike out again for three weeks. He did not strike out twice in a game again for more than a year.
Letting down his teammates embarrassed him. He almost never rested. There is an account of an afternoon early in his career when he took off the second game of a doubleheader and heard his teammate and idol Joe DiMaggio gripe that he was too young to be taking games off. That did it. In his seven golden years Berra played in 100 more games than any other catcher in baseball. There are so many numbers involving Yogi Berra that boggle the mind, but perhaps none more than this: In that seven-year prime Yogi Berra started at catcher in both games of a doubleheader 117 times. Seven times during that stretch he started both games of a doubleheader on back-to-back days.
Being late embarrassed him ... and so he was always the first to the ballpark. Always. Berra had terrible insomnia in his playing days; he worried constantly. So he would get up early, get to the ballpark, think about the game, study the players, come up with strategies. That habit of being early has never left him. He, like his teammate DiMaggio, had no tolerance for people who are late.
In return for his loyalty he expected your loyalty. He ruthlessly negotiated for more money at contract time. The way Yogi Berra figured it, he gave his soul to the team; they needed to pay him for that. That hunger to succeed, to win, it was often softened by the funny quotes and the nickname. But that hunger and pride are much of what makes Yogi Berra. Years later, in 1984, he became manager of the New York Yankees. He was told by George Steinbrenner himself that he would be given a chance to succeed, meaning he would not be fired. In 1985 he was not only fired, but Steinbrenner did not even do it himself. He sent general manager Clyde King to do the deed.
Berra did not show up at Yankee Stadium for 14 years after that. People begged him to return—his own family begged him. But he would have nothing to do with the Yankees. Finally, Steinbrenner himself made a pilgrimage to the Yogi Berra Museum to make peace. He was five minutes late, which drove Berra crazy. But Steinbrenner admitted he had made a terrible mistake when he fired Berra. He personally apologized to Carmen. Berra accepted, and on July 18, 1999, they held Yogi Berra Day at the old Yankee Stadium. That day David Cone threw a perfect game against the Montreal Expos with Yogi Berra and Don Larsen watching from the stands.
Luck? What is luck anyway?
Yogi Berra began every one of his love letters to Carmen with the same three words: "Received your letter." He was smitten the first time he saw her. She was a waitress at Biggie's restaurant in St. Louis—later to become Stan and Biggie's when Stan Musial joined in—and she was beautiful, and Yogi Berra was not sure how he would ask her out. He did not like talking much.
Well, that was not exactly true. He loved talking on the baseball diamond. He talked to hitters. He talked to umpires. He talked to pitchers. He talked to whoever would listen. This led to some classic moments, such as the time the Indians' Larry Doby walked up to the plate and, before Berra could say a word, turned to the umpire and said, "Please tell him to shut up."
Or the time in Boston that it was so hot that Berra decided to get thrown out of the game. The umpire that day was Cal Hubbard, a former football player who did not listen to much talk before throwing players out of games. Berra figured it would be easy. So he made a few cracks. Hubbard didn't say a thing. Then, Berra started openly arguing about balls and strikes. Again, Hubbard didn't say a thing. Finally, Berra turned and tried to show up Hubbard, the surest way to get thrown out of the game. Hubbard calmly said, "Berra, if I have to be out here in this heat, so do you."
While he could not stop talking on the field—"Shut your yap, I'm trying to hit here," Ted Williams told him once (though Ted was one of the few who normally loved chatting with Yogi)—Berra was terrified of public speaking. His famous "Thank you for making this day necessary" Yogi-ism was, like so many of them, a simple slip of the tongue because of his nervousness. But he was so taken with Carmen that he broke through and asked her out. And she was so taken by his earnestness that she said yes. They have been married for 62 years.
The thing that Carmen always says about Yogi is this: He is solid. He is the same today as yesterday as tomorrow. He is never late. He is never mean. He is stubborn and regimented. Poker on Wednesdays. Three ounces of vodka with ice, if the doctor allows it. He spends as much time as he can with their three sons and 11 grandchildren. And he proudly holds on to baseball. He never misses a Yankees game.
Also, he doesn't change. In the Yogi Berra Museum there's the famous photo of Jackie Robinson stealing home during the 1955 World Series—one of the few World Series that Berra's teams lost. The steal of home happened in Game 1, and Berra was outraged. He was a fine catcher with a good arm, but one thing he did better than just about anyone else was jump out in front of the plate on bunts and stolen-base attempts. He jumped out so early, there was some worry that he might get hit with the bat. Berra was sure he had tagged Robinson out.
While walking through the museum, Berra did not even seem to notice the picture. He was talking about how he loves Little League baseball but wishes kids would organize more of their own games. When his own sons were young and they asked him to play catch, he would say, "Go ask your brothers." Adults, he thinks, should stay out of the way when it comes to baseball.
Then he passed the photograph. Without hesitating, without even turning his head, he pointed and said, "He's out." And then he went right back to talking about children and baseball.
Yogi Berra takes me around his museum, and he points at the different displays, but he hardly says a word. Berra fell from his front porch in 2010. His memory is still sharp, but his voice has grown softer. He embraces silences even more than he ever did.
At one point museum director David Kaplan shows a short movie about Berra, narrated by James Earl Jones, and Berra stands and quietly watches himself. If ever a man looked like a yogi, it is Berra, and it is now. He watches highlights of himself as a player. He watches himself perform in television commercials. He listens to a few of his Yogi-isms, the most famous of which is "It ain't over till it's over." He supposedly said that when he was managing the Mets in 1973, eventually taking them to the World Series. He probably didn't say it quite that way—the Berra quote that definitely made the papers was, "We're still in it, ain't we?" He may also have said, "We're not out till we're out."
Yogi Berra still thinks constantly about baseball. But you have to ask. If you do ask, you might hear him say that he thinks teams should take more infield practice before games. He thinks underhand toss doesn't really help hitters with their timing. If you ask, he might tell you when he watched football films with Vince Lombardi or how pitchers might try to pitch Albert Pujols. But you have to ask. And even then, he might not say anything. He would rather listen. He likes those silences.
So what's that three-word Berra quote promised above? One of the players who does ask for advice all the time is Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. The two men have built a close relationship. And Berra remembers watching Jeter strike out on an eye-high fastball. The next day he asked Jeter why he would swing at such a lousy pitch. Jeter said, "Well, you did."
To which Yogi Berra replied, "I hit 'em."