"It ain’t over till it’s over," he once told us, and now that it really is sadly, touchingly and poignantly over for the great man, say this: He leaves us smiling.
Yogi Berra is the only Hall of Famer who was part fact, part fiction and all American.
He heroically fought on D-Day as a member of the U.S. Navy, manning a machine gun and providing cover fire at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. He also was believed to be the inspiration for the long-running, beloved cartoon character Yogi Bear.
“Believed” is a key word in the grand, sprawling life of Lawrence Peter Berra.
“I really didn’t say everything I said,” he once (supposedly) said.
He is one of the most widely quoted Americans who ever lived, and he was one of the most widely imitated baseball players who ever played.
As one of the most beloved Yankees ever, for a time during his prime it was impossible to imagine an October without him in it. You think the Yankees of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera dominated the month in recent years? Berra earned a record 10 World Series rings during another Yankee dynasty between 1947 and 1962.
He played in more World Series games (75) than anybody in history, cracked more World Series hits than anybody (71) and was behind the plate when Don Larsen threw his perfect game in the 1956 World Series. He won the American League Most Valuable Player award three times (1951, 1954, 1955), finished second two other times (1953 and 1956) and third once (1950).
Widely considered the second-greatest catcher of all time, behind the legendary Johnny Bench, Berra was a fantastic bad-ball hitter and a gifted bad-phrase speaker.
One of former major leaguer Tim Flannery’s favorite stories (which he surely heard from the late Yankees infielder Jerry Coleman) was the time when Yogi went 4-for-4 in a game but called the official scorer the next day, explaining that the newspaper said he went 3-for-4. Relax, the official scorer told him, that was a typographical error.
“Bulls--t,” Berra said. “It was a clean single up the middle.”
You’ve heard about it being “deja vu all over again” and how “a nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”
Yes, Yogi was a man for all seasons and for all generations. As legacies go, overflowing love is pretty darned great. Yankees legend Don Mattingly wears No. 8 today while managing the Dodgers in tribute to him. One of the best managers of our time, Jim Leyland, became a catcher in his earlier days because he grew up idolizing Berra.
“Renowned as a great teammate, Yogi stood for values like inclusion and respect during the vital era when our game began to become complete and open to all,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “With his trademark humility and good humor, Yogi represented only goodwill to baseball fans. His proud American story will endure at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Little Falls, New Jersey.”
Born in St. Louis to immigrant parents, Berra’s story soon became richly American. As Manfred noted, “Yogi Berra was a beacon of Americana.”
Berra once was a pitch man for Yoo-hoo chocolate soda, of all things. He was the man who supposedly once ordered his pizza cut into six slices instead of eight “because I’m not that hungry.” He also was the man who once advised that “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
The first time I ever met him still seems totally out of context: It was in the late 1980s, and he was coaching for the Houston Astros. What a sight he was in that uniform. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had fired him as manager in 1985, causing a famous rift that wasn’t healed until 1999, when Yogi finally forgave, if not forgot, and ventured back into the Yankees family.
Thank goodness he did, because how else can you picture him? He did manage the Mets from 1972 to 1975 (“We were overwhelming underdogs”), but though he was born in St. Louis (and grew up great friends with another future big leaguer, Joe Garagiola) and did make a few other stops in different incarnations of his life, this was a man who had pinstripes stamped on his soul.
Though he was overshadowed at times by teammates Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle (and even, at times, Whitey Ford), that says more about the greatness of the Yankees than it did about Berra. On the all-time frieze of Yankees greats, there is Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio and Berra. Then comes Jeter, and Rivera, and whomever else you want to nominate.
Just 5'7" and squat of stature, Berra’s hands were enormous—perfect for a baseball life spent behind the plate. He also was quicker than he appeared, in many ways.
“While his baseball wit and wisdom brought out the best in generations of Yankees, his imprint in society stretches far beyond the walls of Yankee Stadium,” Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ managing co-partner and son of George, said in a statement. “He simply had a way of reaching and relating to people that was unmatched. That’s what made him such a national treasure.”
It is impossible to do the math on how many lives he touched during his 90 years. Those who knew him well loved him. Those who didn’t know him well knew of him. It is not a stretch to call him one of the more important Americans of our time.
“We’ve lost Yogi, but we will always have what he left for us: the memories of a lifetime filled with greatness, humility, integrity and a whole bunch of smiles,” Hall of Famer Joe Torre said in a statement. “He was a lovable friend.”
A friend who left us marveling in life and who, with his passing, will continue to leave us marveling…and chuckling.
So maybe sometime soon, in tribute to Yogi, take a moment to soak in those pinstripes and appreciate those graceful men and women among us who rise above partisan divide during a Yankees game in these final days of the season. Or, better yet, do it in Yogi’s month, October.
Or, maybe toast him at your favorite restaurant that nobody goes to anymore because it’s too crowded.
If you didn’t like Yogi, you didn’t like ice cream.
I do know one thing: His funeral will be jammed with loved ones and admirers eager to send him off in style. Because, well, that’s how he always wanted it, isn’t it?
“Always go to other people’s funerals,” Berra once advised. “Otherwise, they won’t go to yours.”
Of course. Or, as he once told CNN, “If I had to do it all over again, I would do it all over again.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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