I needed VERY badly to get away last night. My Florida playoff teams are both on the brink of elimination, the Mets’ bullpen and most of their starting pitching is an unqualified gasoline fire and even the Oregon Ducks found a way to miss out on their first-ever NCAA baseball tournament with two consecutive gut-wrenching losses to the weakest team in the field, Oral Roberts University. So much for the power of prayer, at least on this end.
But fortunately, a nearby movie theater is still running a theater-only release of a documentary I’ve wanted to see since it was first announced five years ago, so delayed between its production and its release that several of those interviewed for it have passed away in that span. And its subject has been dead since 2015.
But Yogi Berra was exceptionally popular in my home, and in those of a lot of other baseball fans, especially those with roots to either of the New York teams. As any true fan knows, Berra was an extraordinarily popular catcher and later manager of the Yankees, winning a pennant in his first season with the team immediately after his retirement. He made it into the seventh game of the World Series against a miraculous St. Louis Cardinals team that took full advantage of what was at the time the biggest late-season collapse of any team (sorry, Phillies fans, but you know those facts way better than I) to even get to the series, but fell two runs short on the road against Bob Gibson aftwe winning 102 regular and post-season games prior to that. For that, Berra was fired, and replaced by that series’ opposing manager, Johnny Keane.
He also won an even more improbable pennant in his first full season with the Mets, tasked with the emotional baggage of taking over after the Miracle Mets’ mentor Gil Hodges dropped dead a year before, rallying the team with a late-season sprint to again come within one game of a world’s championship. Had he chosen to pitch Tom Seaver in Game 7 in Oakland, perhaps the Mets may already own a third such title, a loss all the more painful since it appears the 50th anniversary of that near-miss will result in yet again another lost season.
All that said, Berra was far better known by a more recent generation as a ubiquitous commercial pitchman, turning up constantly hawking everything from beer to chocolate beverages to insurance where his performance eclipsed even Gilbert Gottfried’s duck imitation. And “Yogi-isms” were to pop culture what memes are today. “When you see a fork in the road, take it”. “It’s Getting Late Early” and “Nobody Goes To That Restaurant Anymore, It’s Too Crowded” may at first seem to be the illogical ramblings of a comic book-obsessed simpleton. And indeed, Yogi loved his comic books, indulging in them while his roommate, future American League president and renowned surgeon Dr. Bobby Brown (the one who didn’t help Whitney Houston die) read medical textbooks.
But Berra was also an outstanding PLAYER, a three-time MVP winner, a ten-time World Champion over a 17-year playing career than spanned the eras of Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich to Mickey Mantle and Joe Pepitone. A phenomenal defensive catcher, renowned for his aggressive play challenging base runners.
And as his lovely journalist granddaughter Lindsay reminds the viewers of IT AIN’T OVER, still in limited theatrical release via Sony Pictures Classics, he was one of only two men in major league baseball history with more than 350 home runs and fewer than 500 strikeouts. One was DiMaggio, immortalized by Simon and Garfunkel in an Oscar-winning movie, The other was Berra, immortalized by a picnic basket-stealing cartoon bear.
What Lindsay reminds us as she takes us on perhaps the most complete telling of his iconic life is that for as much as her entertained a generation of fans with his wit, he has nearly been forgotten by them as how impactful a player he was. Moreover, how loving a husband, father and grandpa he was to his adoring family, with her perhaps as his greatest and most grateful recipient. Although she might get a run for her money from her Uncle Dale, a one-time major league shortstop who played for his dad during his second disappointingly brief tour of duty as Yankee manager, and later, upon his trade to Pittsburgh, was part of many players who were indicted for using cocaine during games, with one of his dealers actually the Pirates’ parrot mascot. As Dale related, Yogi called him up to his New Jersey estate, much like Tony Soprano would. with his brothers in tow, and performed a masterful intervention that effectively promised he would be excommunicated from the family if he dared snort another line or disgrace the Berra name ever again.
Dale is now decades sober and helps to run a museum dedicated to Yogi’s life and career at Montclair State University, which upon its opening provided the venue for Yogi’s return to the Yankee family after 14 years of self-imposed exile after George Steinbrenner fired him 16 games into the 1985 season. Fittingly, on the day he was honored at Yankee Stadium in July 1999, with his batterymate Don Larsen, who threw a World Series perfect game on that mound in the 1956 World Series, David Cone did the exact same thing to a National League opponent as well. Unsurprisingly, Yogi was a fixture at the Stadium for most of the balance of his life, and got to share his wisdom and good luck charm status with the Core Four that restored some of the glory his teams saw.
And even in death, Yogi continues to make news. He was also a Navy veteran, present at the Battle of Normandy. And with Lindsay leading a spirited social media charge in only a way someone of her generation could, they were able to secure enough petition signatures to make him eligible for the Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly after his passing. He subsequently was immortalized on a stamp, which pleased his philatelist namesake son Larry to no end.
Far more than could any cartoon bear, smarter than average or not.
So despite the reality that Yogi Berra isn’t physically in this world any more, after seeing this beautiful homage you’re likely to be as convinced as I am that his impact and his presence on fans of baseball, humor and common decency will continue for generations to come. Lindsay Berra is doing her best to continue that legacy. I hope you’ll give yourselves the chance to see why she is as dedicated as she is.
It sure ain’t over. Because it ain’t getting late early much these days.