An emptiness always comes with the knowledge that a beloved personage no longer lives among us. We can feel this in Yogi Berra’s recent death at age 90. This is not only because of Berra’s extraordinary baseball record and the amazing American generation he represented, all of which Dan McLaughlin and Kevin Keating so expertly recounted here at The Federalist.
It’s also because everybody knows that Berra’s great legacy is not entirely about baseball. His personality radiated way out of that ballpark. His manager, Casey Stengel, described him in 1949 as “a very strange fellow of very remarkable abilities.” Indeed, his quirks and speech are bound to become only more endearing with time. Apocryphal or not, every “yogism” contains something uniquely Yogi in it.
Just consider how Yogi famously described baseball: “Ninety percent of this game is mental and the other half is physical.” I’ve no doubt there are various instinctive calculations that prove this theory, even if he meant to say the “other part.” In fact, it seems that maybe half of the world’s Yogi memories will come in the form of oft-quoted yogisms such as that one or this: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Just about every news outlet covering his passing has mentioned Yogi’s talent for uttering such maxims, although he never consciously prepared them.
Is that a bad thing? Some think so. Remembering Yogi for his yogisms is a sore point for some sports fans. The other day, ESPN columnist Skip Bayless took offense on his show “First Take.” He said: “My one great regret about the life and times of Yogi Berra is that several generations, including this one, came to know him only for those malaprops, those yogisms, if you will, instead of as the all-time great New York Yankee catcher, and feared—feared—post-season clutch hitter that was the real Yogi Berra.” Bayless’s co-host, Stephen Smith, seemed duly chastised as he deferentially pleaded ignorance of the extent of the depth and utter breadth of Berra’s accomplishments and abilities.
Bayless persisted, and could barely conceal his distaste for anyone who might dare to infect a eulogy with a yogism. He basically suggested that doing so would reduce Berra to a cartoonish figure. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Why We Adore Yogi and His Yogisms
People love yogisms not just because they induce cheerful double-takes, but because they seem so brilliantly witty, even profound. They often tap into our universal human understanding of our own feelings and experiences. And they’re loaded with unspoken subtext. For example, “Never answer an anonymous letter.” The deep-seated impulse to know the sender—and answer—is there in all of us, and this warning speaks to that universal impulse. It was probably even funnier back in the day when you couldn’t reply without an address. But it was also ahead of its time. When you consider the current Internet reality and the constant flow of anonymous tweets and comments one can answer directly, the phrase applies full force.
How about this one: “It was impossible to get a conversation going. Everyone was talking too much.” That’s the truth of any free-for-all chatter. There is no give-and-take of ideas when nobody’s listening and everybody’s talking. The phrase is an unexpected double negative of the sort that requires thought and provides clarity. The line is brilliant, in fact. If it was spoken naturally and without assumption, that makes it doubly brilliant.
Most people are not baseball fanatics, but we are all human, and that’s what makes yogisms so important as part of his legacy. Humor provides perspective, and perspective helps us gain insight. People appreciate this. Berra’s legacy and sayings have baseball touching the wider world with humor, affection, and truth. This is not a bad thing. This is a delightful and beautiful thing.
Now, I have no doubt that if you live and breathe baseball statistics 24/7 you’re going to be unsettled by the idea of a legendary player’s career highlights going underappreciated after his death, or of being remembered for seemingly lesser things than a career spanning 1946 to 1985—as player, coach, or manager—that included 21 World Series (!). But mentioning Yogi’s famous expressions do not at all depreciate his legacy as a phenomenal ball player or the reality that he was also a three-time American League Most Valuable Player, 18-time All Star, and a ten-time world champion player for the New York Yankees.
Indeed, baseball statistics and box scores comprise a liturgy all of their own on this earth. I married a die-hard Yankees fan who well remembers watching Berra, along with Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzutto, and other greats way back when. I am also the daughter of a diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan who moved to Los Angeles a few years before they did. Among my most persistent childhood memories is the sound of Vin Scully’s voice announcing the Dodger games. So, even though I’m not a technical fan myself, I love and appreciate the game.
Even more, I love the lovable. And Yogi Berra was lovable. Let’s not diminish what made him that way.
Yogi Was Bigger than Baseball
Last summer at The Federalist, I wrote a tribute to long-time Dodger announcer Vin Scully. One of the most amazing things about Scully and his 65 years (so far!) of announcing is his ability to transcend baseball and find the extraordinary in the ordinary. He has always filled the quieter moments of the game with back stories about the players and their lives, always adding an extra human dimension to the picture.
Scully also has a way of describing the moment—such as the sunset he might see over Dodger Stadium—as though he’s talking directly to you. As he explained in an interview with SB Nation about the impending end of his career: “It is the human relationships that I will miss when the time comes.”
Ultimately, good legacies are always about how people have touched others’ lives. Their accomplishments and skills are part of that picture, to be sure, but how someone connects with others—as in the case of Berra—is an even bigger piece of that picture.
In the same vein, I think for most our connection with Berra as a legend has to do more with how we relate to him as a human being through the power of his personality than through the power of his swing. That makes his legacy all the bigger and brighter.
A Yogism, Like Yogi Berra, Is a National Treasure
From the moment I launched my personal blog a few years ago, I’ve kept two quotes permanently at the top of my home page. One is about the power of speaking the truth, words by Vaclav Havel, the late Czech president and author of “The Power of the Powerless.” My other selection is Berra’s observation that “You can observe a lot by watching.”
“You can observe a lot by watching” is not pure tautology. What I know Yogi meant, and what we all know in our gut, is that you can learn a lot by paying attention. We need to pay attention (watch) if we want to absorb (observe) or learn anything. If we don’t connect the dots, then we don’t get the picture.
Instead of the dull command, “Pay attention,” in this yogism we get a laugh and a wake-up call. Berra had a gift for talking outside the box this way, so he didn’t realize just how brilliant he was. In this Internet-drenched age, attention spans have gotten far shorter, knowledge is scattered, and we seem to have lost our ability to focus.
So, my fear, to quote Yogi, is that “the future ain’t what it used to be.” But I think if we can appreciate Yogi’s full legacy as a person with a gift for insight as well as a phenomenal ball player, well, maybe we can bring some brightness back to the future.