Berra sparkled on baseball diamond, Yogi-isms were gems

YOGI BERRA
YOGI BERRAPHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Yogi Berra was one of baseball's greatest catchers and characters, who, as a player, was a mainstay of 10 New York Yankees championship teams and, as a manager, led both the Yankees and New York Mets to the World Series .

But Berra, who died on Tuesday at 90, may be more widely known as an ungainly but lovable cultural figure, inspiring a cartoon character and issuing a seemingly limitless supply of unwittingly witty epigrams known as Yogi-isms.

In 1949, early in Berra's Yankees career, his manager assessed him this way in an interview in The Sporting News. "Mr Berra," Casey Stengel said, "is a very strange fellow of very remarkable abilities."

And so he was and so he proved to be. Universally known simply as Yogi, probably the second most recognisable nickname in sport - even Yogi was not the Babe (Ruth) - he was not exactly an unlikely hero.

But he was often portrayed as one: An All-Star for 15 consecutive seasons whose skills were routinely underestimated, a well-built, appealingly open-faced man whose physical appearance was often belittled, and a prolific winner whose intellect was a target of humour if not outright derision.

EYE-OPENER

You can observe a lot just by watching.

YOGI BERRA, above, in one of his many witty comments

That he triumphed on the diamond despite his perceived shortcomings was a source of his popularity. So was the delight with which his famous, if not always documentable, pronouncements, somehow both nonsensical and sagacious, were received.

"You can observe a lot just by watching," he is reputed to have declared once, describing his strategy as a manager.

"If you can't imitate him," he advised a young player who was mimicking the batting stance of the great slugger Frank Robinson, "don't copy him."

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it," he said, giving directions to his house. Either path, it turned out, got you there.

"Nobody goes there anymore," he said of a popular restaurant.

"It's too crowded."

Whether he actually uttered the many things attributed to him, or was the first to say them, or phrased them precisely the way that they were reported, has long been a matter of speculation.

Berra himself published a book in 1998 called The Yogi Book: I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said!.

But the Yogi-isms testified to a character - goofy and philosophical, flighty and down to earth - that came to define the man.

His Yogi-ness was exploited in advertisements for myriad products, perhaps most famously, Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink.

Asked if Yoo-Hoo was hyphenated, he is said to have replied: "No, ma'am, it isn't even carbonated."

If not exactly a Yogi-ism, it was the kind of response that might have come from his ursine namesake, the affable animated character Yogi Bear, who made his debut in 1958.

The character Yogi Berra may even have overshadowed the Hall of Fame ball-player Yogi Berra, obscuring what a remarkable athlete he was. A notorious "bad ball" hitter - he swung at a lot of pitches that were not strikes but mashed them anyway - he was fearsome in the clutch and the most durable and consistently productive Yankee during the period of the team's most relentless success.

In addition, as a catcher, he played the most physically gruelling and concentration-demanding position on the field.

Stengel, the Hall of Fame manager whose shrewdness and talent were also often underestimated, recognised Berra's gifts.

He referred to Berra, even as a young player, as his assistant manager and compared him favourably to star catchers of previous eras like Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett and Bill Dickey.

"You could look it up" was Stengel's catchphrase, and indeed the record book declares that Berra was among the greatest catchers in the history of the game, some say the greatest of all.

His career batting average of .285 was not as high as that of his Yankee predecessor Dickey (.313) but Berra hit more home runs (358) and drove in more runs (1,430).

Praised by pitchers for his astute pitch-calling, Berra led the American League in assists five times.

From 1957 through 1959, he went 148 consecutive games behind the plate without making an error, a major league record at the time.

But he was not a defensive wizard from the start. Dickey, he said, "learned me all his experience" .

On defence, he surpassed Mike Piazza, the best-hitting catcher of recent vintage - and maybe ever.

On offence, Berra and Johnny Bench, whose Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s were known as the Big Red Machine, were comparable, except that Bench struck out three times as often.

Berra whiffed a mere 414 times in more than 8,300 plate appearances over 19 seasons - an astonishingly small ratio for a power hitter.

Beyond the historic moments and individual accomplishments, what most distinguished his career was how often he won.

From 1946 to 1985, as a player, coach and manager, Berra appeared in 21 World Series.

Playing on powerful Yankee teams with team-mates like Joe DiMaggio early on and then Mickey Mantle, Berra starred on World Series winners in 1947, '49, '50, '51, '52, '53, '56 and '58.

He was a back-up catcher and part-time outfielder on the championship teams of 1961 and '62.

(He also played on World Series losers in 1955, '57, '60 and '63.)

All told, his Yankee teams won the American League pennant 14 out of 17 years. He still holds Series records for games played, plate appearances, hits and doubles.

No other player has been a champion so often.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2015, with the headline 'Berra sparkled on baseball diamond, Yogi-isms were gems'. Print Edition | Subscribe