I’m having a difficult time absorbing the fact that Yogi Berra turned 90 on May 12.
He’s always seemed timeless. He played at roughly 5’7” and 185 pounds. Over the years his dimensions never changed.
The hair grayed a bit, the face creased a bit, but he’s always looked just the same.
He’s just Yogi.
And for the generation that knows him only for his “Yogisms” the same holds true, for his quotes remain timeless. I doubt anyone, including non-sports fans, can make it through a week without hearing one.
Need proof? In the 17th edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” Yogi had eight entries. That’s more than any living American president!
There’s also a generation out there that remembers Yogi the manager.
He won an American league pennant in 1964, his first year as manager of the Yankees. It marked the last hurrah of an aging, aching team.
Yogi led them to the seventh game of the World Series, but was fired after the Yankees lost.
“The Yankees made the biggest mistake in their whole career firing Yogi,” Whitey Ford told Roy Blount, Jr. in 1984.
Mickey Mantle often said, “We never knew how good a manager Yogi was until the next year.”
The Yankees wouldn’t win another pennant for 12 years.
Sensing the promotional possibilities, the Mets, entering their fourth season, brought Yogi in as a player/coach in 1965. Casey Stengel, Yogi’s long-time manager with the Yankees, now managing the Mets, observed, “Mr. Berra always knew the pitchers, and he liked to talk to the batters, and besides which he got them into the World Series, so you’d have to say he ain’t failed yet.”
Stengel thought so much of Berra as a player that he often introduced him, “This is Mr. Berra, which is my assistant manager.”
When Gil Hodges died just before the 1972 season, Yogi was named the Mets manager. A year later, he won the pennant with an unimposing team that captured the division despite an 82-79 record. The Mets had been in last place in the division on August 30.
So, in just three years as a manager, Yogi had become only the second person to win a pennant in each league.
He managed the Yankees again in 1984, during George Steinbrenner’s tempestuous period. He was fired in 1985 when the club started 6-10. Yogi refused to set foot in Yankee Stadium again for 14 years.
There’s also an older generation out there that still remembers Yogi the player. He’d take his left-handed stance, wielding a bat that always seemed half-a-foot too long. Any pitch was fair game.
“I’ve seen him hit them on the bounce,” his teammate Phil Rizzuto told Blount. “I’ve seen him leave his feet to hit them.”
When asked if he was a bad ball hitter, Yogi told Blount, “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.”
Yogi grew up in St. Louis, and acquired his nickname in American Legion ball. “We didn’t have no dugouts when we played,” he told the Academy of Achievement in his induction interview.
“We sat on the ground. And I was sitting on the ground with my legs crossed and my arms crossed. And Bobby Hoffman says, ‘You look like a yogi.’ And it stuck!”
Yogi didn’t sign with the home-town Cardinals because Branch Rickey wouldn’t give him the same $500 signing bonus he gave Joe Garagiola.
Yogi’s always been a man of his principles.
After signing with the Yankees, Yogi caught the eye of Giants manager Mel Ott. “He seemed to be doing everything wrong, yet everything came out right,” Ott was quoted as saying in the 1989 50th Anniversary Hall of Fame Yearbook.
“He stopped everything behind the plate, and hit everything in front of it!”
Ott offered Yankees president Larry MacPhail $50,000 for Yogi’s contract. MacPhail turned him down. He told Arthur Daley in 1949, “I waited for my first look at the prize package which was worth $50,000. The instant I saw him, my heart sank. He was the most unprepossessing fellow I ever set eyes on in my life.”
But the funny-looking guy could sure play ball. He won more World Series than any other player, won three Most Valuable Player awards, and made the Hall of Fame.
Most people think of Yogi as just another bat in a formidable lineup. But as the catcher for the only team to win five straight World Series (’49-’53), Yogi led the team in runs batted in every single year; and in ’54 and ’55, too. He was also first or second on the team in home runs every year from ’49 through ’59.
As good a hitter as he was, he was an even better catcher. Ford doubts he ever shook off one of Yogi’s signs. Ever.
Neither did Don Larsen during his perfect game in the ’56 World Series. Ted Williams always said that Yogi could tell what pitch a batter was looking for by watching his feet in the batter’s box.
Stengel told Larry King — yes, that Larry King — in 1959 that Yogi was the reason the Yankees pitching was so good:
“This Mr. Berra ranks only behind Dickey and Cochrane as catchers in the American league.”
And Casey had seen them all.
Yogi Berra. Ballplayer, manager, linguist, and American treasure.
And 90 years young.