On first glance it may seem surprising but now that Yogi Berra has died, it must be acknowledged: he was one of the great Americans of the 20th Century.
Consider his accomplishments: in baseball he is one of the ten greatest New York Yankees, one of the ten greatest players in World Series history, and one of only 310 people elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In pop culture, he is an fixture, one of only about 2500 people cited in Bartlett’s Book of Quotations. In addition, he won a Purple Heart for valor at the Normandy landing during World War II. Truly, not many Americans of the postwar generation can match the achievements of Yogi Berra.
Unfortunately, most obituaries of Yogi concentrated on his quotes or sayings attributed to him, many of which he didn’t say. It was a lazy approach; a better measure of who he was could be seen in what other people said about him.
Almost no one had a bad word about Yogi. Virtually the only one who did was the pompous sportscaster Howard Cosell. Cosell, who prided himself on his erudition, claimed Yogi’s “major contribution to society was a guttural illiteracy”, which merely proved Cosell wasn’t as smart as he thought he was. Today he is barely remembered, rightfully so.
Others realized that despite his eighth grade education, Yogi was anything but a naïf. Bartlett Giamotti, a professor of English Renaissance literature, a president of Yale University and a Commissioner of Major League Baseball said, “Talking to Yogi about baseball is like talking to Homer about the gods.”
The New Yorker, home for decades to intellectuals and literary lions, claimed Yogi replaced Winston Churchill as the favorite source of quotations. Pitcher Nolan Ryan said, “If Yogi had gone to college, they would have made him talk clearer but not better.”
Yogi’s unique brand of minimalist logic helped make him a great ballplayer. Ted Williams recalled the first time he saw Yogi, “I’d never heard of him and there he was- his shin guards and chest protector were too long – and I thought ‘who are they trying to kid with this guy?’ Well, I played against him for ten years and I appreciated his abilities more and more and more. He made the pitchers pitch. And he was a damn good hitter.”
That same minimalism made Yogi brilliant in front of a camera. His television commercial in a barbershop with the AFLAC duck is classic television surrealism. Billy Crystal recalled a Yogi performance on Saturday Night Live, “When I was on SNL, Yogi played himself in a mock documentary called ‘Ballplayers.’ Christopher Guest and I played 75 year-old black ballplayers talking about the old days. We acted our hearts out. Yogi had one line and stole the movie. I’ll never work with him again!”
For a professional ballplayer, Yogi was notably open-minded. He welcomed African-American players when the color line was broken in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. He immediately befriended Jackie Robinson (even though to his dying day he claimed Robinson was out in his memorable steal of home plate in the 1955 World Series) and he mentored the Yankees’ first black player, Elston Howard, who replaced him at catcher.
In 2013, Berra joined Athlete Ally, an organization that partners with professional, college, and Olympic athletes to advance LGBT equality. Hudson Taylor, Athlete Ally founder and Executive Director said of Yogi, “Not only was he one of the best catchers in MLB history, but he was strongly committed to diversity, inclusion, and education. “ Yogi worked with the organization to present a “Championing Respect” exhibit at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University. The exhibit featured social change through sports from the integration of baseball with Jackie Robinson to the growth of women’s sports with Billie Jean King to inclusion of gay athletes in sports.
The final word on Yogi Berra came from his manager Casey Stengel, also a legendary baseball raconteur. Of Yogi he said, “They say he’s funny. Well, he has a lovely wife and family, a beautiful home, money in the bank, and he plays golf with millionaires. What’s funny about that?”
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