Yogi Berra and Henri Richard Took the Same Fork in the Road to Success
Unlike hero and genius, doppelganger is a term not used all too often these days. Americans generally frown on complicated foreign words, with their exhausting myriad of syllables and intimidating accent marks (now mercifully deleted from doppelgänger by Merriam-Webster). But many of us have a doppelganger out there, even if we haven't been told in so many words.
Celebrities and athletes often have doppelgangers, too—perhaps not so much in the mirror, but on the stat sheet or in the bio, where careers sometimes intersect with eerie coincidence.
McLean Stevenson, who portrayed Lt. Col. Henry Blake in the sitcom M*A*S*H, and Roger Bowen, who played Blake in the original film, died of heart attacks within a day of each other.
Even stranger, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both signers of the Declaration of Independence and long contentious rivals, passed away on the same day—that day being the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration’s signing.
Cooperstown houses doppelgangers as well; long-time batting rivals who were traded for one another and later became teammates, Goose Goslin beat out Heinie Manush for the 1928 batting title on his last at-bat of the season while Manush—who himself had won the batting crown on the last day of the season two years earlier—looked on from left field.
Well aware of their symbiotic careers, Goslin and Manush eventually placed an annual wager that would earn the player with the higher batting average $50 and a new suit. Like many faithful doppelgangers, they died three days apart.
Sports features another pair of doppelgangers—ones, until now, overlooked because they played different games and thus eluded head-to-head comparison. But the New York Yankees’ Yogi Berra and Montreal Canadiens’ Henri Richard have far more in common than fistfuls of championship jewelry.
As key ingredients of their sport’s most dynastic franchise, Berra and Richard won more championships than any other player in Major League or NHL history—Berra earning 10 World Series rings and Richard engraving his name on the Stanley Cup 11 times.
Berra and Richard also popped victory champagne an astounding five consecutive seasons—the 1949-53 Yankees and the 1955-60 Canadiens the only franchises in their sport to attain such dominance.
Of course, they didn’t win it all every year. Each player experienced nine seasons in which he failed to taste ultimate victory.
Still, Berra and Richard won more often than not, largely because they excelled in clutch games. Richard netted two Stanley Cup-clinching goals, in 1966 (an overtime tally) and 1971.
Likewise, Berra clouted a pair of home runs that proved to be game-winners in decisive World Series contests: a sixth-inning solo shot in Game 4 of 1950’s sweep of the Whiz Kids and a two-run blast in the first inning of Game 7 of the 1956 Series.
Now let’s get personal. One would think that baseball and ice hockey statistics don’t mix. Yet two categories are quite analogous: home runs and goal scored.
Until recently, both sports held the same magic number, 50, as the most prestigious individual achievement.
Before Wayne Gretzky introduced the goal-happy 1980s and baseball juiced its muscles and shrank its parks, the 50-goal scorer and the 50-HR slugger were relative rarities in their respective sports (albeit slightly less so in hockey).
In the heydays of Berra and Richard—the 1950s and 1960s, respectively—a “40” season generally denoted the signature of a great player, such as Harmon Killebrew and Frank Mahovlich, Hank Aaron and Gordie Howe. A “50” season marked hallowed ground: Mickey Mantle and Bobby Hull, Willie Mays and Rocket Richard.
Thus, similarities among these statistics prove more meaningful than scavenging for blindly coincidental numbers.
So what do we find when comparing Berra and Richard? Yogi’s career home-run total: 358; Henri’s career goal total: 358.
Furthermore, Berra’s season-high home-run mark was 30 (which he reached twice); Richard likewise topped out at 30 goals in a season.
What’s more, upon retirement, Berra’s 358 home runs stood at 16th on baseball’s all-time list; Richard’s 358 goals placed him virtually identically on the NHL ladder, on the 15th rung.
And speaking of retirement, each was age 39 when he laid down his lumber for the last time.
Berra and Richard, however, were not players notable for colossal individual achievement (although Yogi did win three MVP Awards). Their greatest value translated as ever-dependable cogs in mighty dynasties whose only objective was to win. And win. And win.
On teams speckled with superstars—Mantle, DiMaggio, Ford; Beliveau, Plante, and Harvey, among many—Casey Stengel insisted that Berra was the Yankees’ greatest asset, and Frank Selke Sr., general manager of the Montreal juggernaut of the 1950s, opined that Henri Richard was the most valuable player he ever had.
That these great players earned a well-deserved spot in their sport’s Hall of Fame is hardly connectable—until you consider the men who shared their induction: Enshrined in 1972 with Berra was Sandy Koufax; Richard split the limelight in 1979 with Bobby Orr. Legends in—and finished before—their time, both Koufax and Orr played 12 seasons before succumbing to injury at age 30.
In addition, let’s do some addition: Yogi’s number 8 has actually been retired twice by the Yankees (both in honor of Berra and his predecessor, Bill Dickey). Add those retired 8s together, and you get Henri Richard’s 16, which hangs proudly from the Montreal Forum rafters.
Maybe that’s a tad esoteric. But it won’t keep me from mentioning my favorite—if not the decisive—link between these doppelgangers: For nine seasons, Henri Richard shared ice time with teammate Boom Boom Geoffrion. So what, you say? Yogi Berra inspired Yogi Bear, who, of course, shared screen time with Boo Boo.
Even if I’m stretching things, Yogi Berra was smarter than the average backstop, as evidenced by his two pennants in six years as a manager.
In fact, the final World Series in which Berra managed—piloting the 1973 New York Mets to a seven-game loss against the Oakland A’s—occurred in the same year that Henri Richard raised the Stanley Cup for the last time.
Small men in stature—Yogi stood 5’8"; Richard nearly matching him at 5’7"—Berra and Richard were members of sports families. Yogi’s elder son, Tim, played special teams for the 1974 Baltimore Colts, and his younger boy, Dale, spent 11 seasons as a light-hitting infielder with three teams.
Of course, Henri’s brother, Maurice, the aforementioned “Rocket,” resides in the pantheon of NHL greats.
Both Yogi’s and Henri’s kin ran afoul of their league in one of their sport’s most infamous episodes.
After a wild altercation with the Boston Bruins, Maurice received a lengthy suspension for knocking a linesman unconscious, which led to the “Richard Riot” on Montreal’s Sainte-Catherine Street.
Dale Berra incurred a one-year suspension for his part in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ cocaine scandal, commuted in favor of 10 percent of his salary going to charity (although, to my knowledge, disgruntled Pittsburghers did not rampage down Forbes Avenue protesting Berra’s enforced absence).
Even so, if Berra and Richard put on each other’s uniform, one could still tell these doppelgangers apart. Yogi, a reputed chatterbox on the field, remains one of the most oft-quoted athletes, and his hilarious “Yogi-isms” have literally filled books.
Ever soft-spoken, Henri could never be accused of not really saying everything he said.
Likely, I could go on and on finding increasingly tenuous similarities between these two perennial champions, because, as Henri Richard also wouldn’t have said: Il n’est pas terminé jusqu’à ce qu’il soit terminé.
But even though there ain’t a French word for ain’t, it’s over.
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