In W.P. Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe, a fictional J.D. Salinger says, “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time while America has rolled by like a procession of steam rollers … It is a living part of history … It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.”
Baseball’s—and America’s—most constant constant over the past 70 years was Yogi Berra, who died Tuesday at age 90, about a year and a half after losing his beloved wife of 65 years, Carmen. Like baseball, Yogi was never really in fashion; like baseball, he was too popular to be fashionable at all. His life and achievements transcended fashion, pointing to something indelibly good in the American character.
It’s been half a century since Yogi Berra played in a major league baseball game and more than 30 years since he managed one. Those who don’t remember him for what he did on a baseball field probably know him best for what he said, or was supposed to have said. In 1991 The New Yorker noted, “Hardly anybody would quarrel … that Winston Churchill has been replaced by Yogi Berra as the source for quotations.” Every American has heard and probably even used a Yogism at one time or another.
But what exactly is a Yogism? Some of the most famous aren’t Yogisms at all but mere malapropisms, such as his remark on Yogi Berra Day in his hometown, St. Louis: “I’d like to thank everyone for making this day necessary.”
Then there were the unintentional, off-the-cuff Yogisms, such as when the famous saloon-keeper Toots Shor introduced him to his friend, “The great writer, Ernest Hemingway.” Yogi shook his hand and asked, “What paper ya’ write for, Ernie?”
We all know that Yogi didn’t say many of the things he said, and even the ones he said that he did say weren’t always repeated as he said them. Sometimes even Yogi didn’t say it the way he said it.
In my 2010 biography, Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee, I sifted through the layers of legend that had built up around what Yogi said to determine the essence of Yogisms, and in doing so tried to answer this question: What’s the difference between a bogus Yogism and a real one?
The answer, I think, is that the false ones made Yogi sound like a dunce. Like the one, probably originated by his childhood pal Joe Garagiola when Joe was a regular on The Today Show. A teacher supposedly asked the young Lawrence Peter Berra, “Don’t you know anything?” To which Berra supposedly replied, “Ma’am, I don’t even suspect anything.” Very funny, but there’s a false ring in that—too self-deprecating, as if Yogi was setting himself up as the butt of a joke. (And he wasn’t even Yogi then, a nickname he acquired in his teens when he went with his friends to the movies and saw a travelogue about India; his buddies thought the way Larry sat cross-legged watching a game was like the Indian elders in the film.)
Real Yogisms had a bit of Zen wisdom in them. For instance, when he told a journalist how to find his home in Montclair, New Jersey: “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” He lived on a cul-de-sac—either way you went, you got there.
Short, sharp, to the point. Yogi often got to the truth quicker than a great many of history’s most celebrated minds, expressing the same thoughts in fewer words.
Napoleon said, “In war, the moral is to the physical as three to one.” Yogi said, “Half this game is 90 percent mental.”
The great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson thought, “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards, never while actually taking a photograph.” Yogi thought, “You can’t think and hit at the same time.”
“Act the part,” wrote William James, “and you will become the part.” Of Bill Dickey, a former great Yankee catcher who coached him, Yogi said, “He learned me all his experience.”
Yoga master Ernest Wood told a disciple, “Concentration is the narrowing of the field of attention, the fixing of the mental eye upon a chosen object.” Yogi told a young catcher, “You only got one guy to concentrate on, he throws the ball.”
Kafka felt, “If none observe me, I have to observe myself all the closer.” Yogi: “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
Another yogi, Sikh Guru Yogi Bhajan, declared, “The time is now, and now is the time.” Yogi, when asked what time it was, replied, “You mean now?”
Winston Churchill told us, “Never, never, never give up the fight.” Yogi expressed the same sentiment when he said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” beating Sir Winston by two syllables.
Finally, Henry David Thoreau told a young student, “If one advances confidentally in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” In 2007, Yogi told the graduating class of St. Louis University, “Go out and live your life like every day is opening day.”
Yogi wasn’t trying to be witty or profound, it just came naturally. A few years ago a woman visiting the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center at Montclair State University came up to him with a request. “Mr. Berra,” she implored,” can you please make up a Yogism for me?” “Ma’am,” he shrugged, “If I could do that I’d be famous.”
Yogi became so famous for what he said (or didn’t say) that it’s easy to forget we wouldn’t have cared what he said if it hadn’t been for what he did.
He was a World War II vet who at age 19 fought with the U.S. Navy at Omaha Beach in the Normandy invasion. He was a Hall of Fame player at baseball’s most demanding position, catcher. He was the biggest winner in the history of American sports, a player on 16 pennant-winning Yankees teams with 10 World Series rings. Billy Martin, his friend and teammate, once said, “Yogi is too nice a guy to be a good manager.” Well, maybe he wasn’t that nice. He managed two teams to pennants, as many as Martin, and in different leagues.
He was a high school dropout. He was a hugely successful businessman, one of the first athletes to invest his money in enterprises like soft drinks and bowling alleys. He became a shrewd manipulator of his own public image; together with advertising genius George Lois, he made a landmark TV commercial selling cat food by having Yogi talk to a cat. (Unbeknownst to Yogi, the cat’s voice was supplied by Yogi’s friend and teammate, pitcher Whitey Ford. Lois later asked Yogi if he recognized the voice of the feline. Yogi said it sounded familiar but he couldn’t place it. “That’s The Chairman of the Board,” said Lois, using Whitey’s baseball nickname. Yogi was surprised: “You mean Sinatra?”)
My all-time favorite Yogism was one that very few people heard. I once asked him if the secret of his success as a player was that unlike so many great American winners in sports, he always seemed to enjoy playing, that he never treated baseball games as if they were as important as life. “Yeah,” he replied, “baseball is a game, it’s not life. Although if you play it for money, you can learn a lot about life.” Yogi played for love of the game, but, bless him, never lost sight of the money.
I thank him now for making his life and my book necessary.