Yogi Berra: 1925-2015
He was a three-time MVP who played in more World Series games than anyone in baseball history—and by a long shot: 75 games vs. 65 games for second-place Mickey Mantle*. He's the only man to ever catch a perfect game in the World Series. Every season in which he played more than 100 games, which is every season from 1947 to 1961, he received MVP votes. Every one. He was a 15-time All-Star with 13 World Championship rings. Oddly, he never led the league in anything: runs, RBIs, doubles. Nada. But he had a career OPS of .830, he was part of the D-Day landing, and he had a cartoon bear named after him. He was beloved even by inveterate Yankee haters. Maybe you know some of those. For inveterate Yankee haters, he was also the guy in left field when Bill Mazeroski's ball sailed over the left field wall at Forbes Field to win the 1960 World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
(*Berra's World Series games played record will probably never be broken. If you played 20 years and got to the World Series in half of those years and every World Series went to seven games and you played in every one of those games, you would still be five short of tying Berra's mark. Didn't it seem like Derek Jeter was in the World Series forever? Well, guess how many World Series games he played in? Thirty-eight. Halfway.)
This is my favorite Yogi stat: In five different seasons, he had more homeruns than strikeouts. Only Joe DiMaggio did it more often (seven times). Yogi came pretty close to doing it in his career, too: 414 Ks against 358 homeruns. He was a famous bad-ball hitter but he put that ball in play. If I hit it, he liked to say, it wasn't a bad pitch. ESPN.com has a nice piece on the friendship between Berra and Derek Jeter, in which we get the following story:
One day after Jeter swung and missed on a high, full-count pitch, Berra asked him, “What the hell are you doing swinging at that? You looked terrible.”
Jeter reminded Berra that he used to swing at pitches out of the strike zone all the time.
“But I hit them,” Yogi shot back. “You don't.”
(For the record, Jeter struck out 1,840 times against 260 homers.)
But Yogi isn't known for stats and facts—no matter how interesting. He's known for saying shit:
- Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.
- You got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there.
- If you can't imitate 'em, don't copy 'em.
- It ain't over til it's over.
A good Yogi-ism is tough to come up with. When they made them up for various commercials he starred in (Miller Lite, Aflac), they fall flat. The stuff writers came up with paled next to the master in his domain. It helps if they're illogical in a mathematical sense but logical in a human sense. They shouldn't make sense but do.
Stories about Yogi are even better. This may be my favorite. After he retired, Berra was on a radio show and the broadcaster told him beforehand:
“We're going to do free association. I'm going to throw out a few names, and you just say the first thing that pops into your mind.”
“O.K.,” said Berra.
They went on the air. “I'm here tonight with Yogi Berra,” said the host, “and we're going to play free association. I'm going to mention a name, andYogi's just going to say the first thing that comes to mind. O.K., Yogi?”
“All right, here we go then. Mickey Mantle.”
“What about him?” said Berra.
That still makes me laugh.
This story is lesser-known but just as apt in delineating the man. It's from Bill Pennington's recent book “Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius,” about the infamous dugout explosion between Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin on national television in the summer of '77:
Billy charged at Reggie. But Yogi Berra, who had known Billy since 1949—and like Rizzuto knew when an explosion was about to occur—had already positioned himself between Reggie and Billy. Elston Howard, another coach and former 1950s teammate of Billy's, made it his assignment to corral Reggie. Unnoticed in the drama, the two men had maneuvered like trained bar bouncers accustomed to defusing confrontations. Watching the two former Yankees catchers move tactically and in tandem without saying a word was Ron Guidry, the young pitcher who was sitting on the dugout bench. As Guidry told author Harvey Araton, Berra and Howard both stood up as soon as Billy told Blair to get his glove. “They had the smarts to know that this doesn't look good, something's going to happen here,” Guidry told Araton. “Nobody else did, just them. ...”
Berra, fifty-two years old, was a bear of a man at the time, and he grabbed Billy by the belt and the crotch, which is an especially effective way to control someone. “Yogi had hands like vises,” Billy said later. “I wanted to get at Reggie in the worst way but Yogi had ahold of me.”
He was always in the midst of things. As Joe Posnanski reminds us, from 1957 to 1985, no New York team went to the World Series without Yogi on the squad as player, coach or manager. He played for the Yankees in '57, '58, '60, '61, '62 and '63. He was the player-manager for the '64 squad but got fired after the Yankees lost the Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. (The Yankees didn't appear in the World Series after that for another 12 years.) He was a coach on the '69 Mets, manager of the '73 Mets, and coach on the Yankee squads in the “Bronx Zoo” turmoil of '76, '77, '78 and '81. He became manager in '84 but was fired 16 games into the '85 season. (The Yankees didn't appear in the World Series after that for another 11 years.) The '86 Mets was the first New York team to go to the Series without Berra since '57. Interestingly, he was coaching the team that nearly prevented them getting there: the '86 Astros.
His last game as a player was on May 9, 1965. As a Met, he faced Tony Cloninger of the Milwaukee Braves and went 0-4 with three strikeouts. The man who rarely struck out couldn't abide that. “I didn't go out there to be embarrassed,” he said and quit the next day.