An 'American original,' Yogi Berra, dead at 90

Hall of Fame baseball catcher Yogi Berra died on Tuesday at the age of 90.  His passing was announced by the team he won 10 world championships with as a player and one as a manager: the New York Yankees.  (He also coached the New York Mets to a title.)

The New York Times does its usual fine job with the obituary – including this little nugget that explains a lot of Yogi's appeal:

In 1949, early in Berra’s Yankee 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.”

He was an underappreciated catcher whose abilities were sometimes belittled, but who did nothing except win championships, playing for the Yankees during the most dominant streak by any team in baseball history.  From 1948 to 1964, the Yanks played in an astonishing 14 of 16 World Series, winning 10.  And Berra was a big part of that dynasty.

But the younger generation knows Berra – if at all – by what came to be known as "Yogi-isms" – sometimes strange, sometimes goofy words of wisdom:

  • "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."

  • "All pitchers are liars or crybabies."

  • "He hits from both sides of the plate. He's amphibious."

  • "You can't think and hit at the same time."

  • "So, I'm ugly. I never saw anyone hit with his face."

  • "It's déjà vu all over again."

  • "You can observe a lot just by watching."

  • "I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did."

  • "Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel."

  • "The towels were so thick there I could hardly close my suitcase."

  • "Cut my pie into four pieces. I don't think I could eat eight."

  • "Never answer an anonymous letter."

  • "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

But, at bottom, Yogis was a fabulous baseball player:

The character Yogi Berra may even have overshadowed the Hall of Fame ballplayer 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 grueling and concentration-demanding position on the field. (For a respite from the chores and challenges of crouching behind the plate, Berra, who played before the designated hitter rule took effect in the American League in 1973, occasionally played the outfield.)

Stengel, the Hall of Fame manager whose shrewdness and talent were also often underestimated, recognized Berra’s gifts. He referred to Berra, even as a young player, as his assistant manager and compared him favorably 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.

Berra’s 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). Widely praised by pitchers for his astute pitch-calling, Berra led the American League in assists five times, and from 1957 through 1959 went 148 consecutive games behind the plate without making an error, a major league record at the time — though he was not a defensive wizard from the start.

Dickey, Berra explained, “learned me all his experience.”

On defense, he certainly surpassed Mike Piazza, the best-hitting catcher of recent vintage — and maybe ever. Johnny Bench, whose Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s were known as the Big Red Machine, and Berra were comparable in offensive production, 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.

Berra played on teams that featured numerous Hall of Fame inductees, including Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, and Whitey Ford, which is why he was sometimes overshadowed on the field. 

But Berra took second place to no one when it came to entertaining the fans.  He is being referred to as an "American Classic."  In this, as with most other statements being made about the beloved Yogi, there is understated greatness.

Hall of Fame baseball catcher Yogi Berra died on Tuesday at the age of 90.  His passing was announced by the team he won 10 world championships with as a player and one as a manager: the New York Yankees.  (He also coached the New York Mets to a title.)

The New York Times does its usual fine job with the obituary – including this little nugget that explains a lot of Yogi's appeal:

In 1949, early in Berra’s Yankee 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.”

He was an underappreciated catcher whose abilities were sometimes belittled, but who did nothing except win championships, playing for the Yankees during the most dominant streak by any team in baseball history.  From 1948 to 1964, the Yanks played in an astonishing 14 of 16 World Series, winning 10.  And Berra was a big part of that dynasty.

But the younger generation knows Berra – if at all – by what came to be known as "Yogi-isms" – sometimes strange, sometimes goofy words of wisdom:

  • "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."

  • "All pitchers are liars or crybabies."

  • "He hits from both sides of the plate. He's amphibious."

  • "You can't think and hit at the same time."

  • "So, I'm ugly. I never saw anyone hit with his face."

  • "It's déjà vu all over again."

  • "You can observe a lot just by watching."

  • "I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did."

  • "Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel."

  • "The towels were so thick there I could hardly close my suitcase."

  • "Cut my pie into four pieces. I don't think I could eat eight."

  • "Never answer an anonymous letter."

  • "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

But, at bottom, Yogis was a fabulous baseball player:

The character Yogi Berra may even have overshadowed the Hall of Fame ballplayer 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 grueling and concentration-demanding position on the field. (For a respite from the chores and challenges of crouching behind the plate, Berra, who played before the designated hitter rule took effect in the American League in 1973, occasionally played the outfield.)

Stengel, the Hall of Fame manager whose shrewdness and talent were also often underestimated, recognized Berra’s gifts. He referred to Berra, even as a young player, as his assistant manager and compared him favorably 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.

Berra’s 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). Widely praised by pitchers for his astute pitch-calling, Berra led the American League in assists five times, and from 1957 through 1959 went 148 consecutive games behind the plate without making an error, a major league record at the time — though he was not a defensive wizard from the start.

Dickey, Berra explained, “learned me all his experience.”

On defense, he certainly surpassed Mike Piazza, the best-hitting catcher of recent vintage — and maybe ever. Johnny Bench, whose Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s were known as the Big Red Machine, and Berra were comparable in offensive production, 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.

Berra played on teams that featured numerous Hall of Fame inductees, including Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, and Whitey Ford, which is why he was sometimes overshadowed on the field. 

But Berra took second place to no one when it came to entertaining the fans.  He is being referred to as an "American Classic."  In this, as with most other statements being made about the beloved Yogi, there is understated greatness.