The Corner

Culture

Yogi Berra, Always a Yankee — Never a Damn Yankee

For 44 years, 1921 through 1964, the New York Yankees dominated Major League Baseball as no team has dominated any league in the history of professional sports. For some part of 18 of those seasons — for 40.9 percent of them — catcher Yogi Berra was on the Yankees’ roster. Most of the teams he was on won the World Series, and all except four appeared in it.

Berra retired after the 1963 season (and came out of retirement briefly two seasons later, to play five games for the Mets, a fact to file away for your next baseball-trivia argument) and the Yankees made it to the Series one more time, to bow to Bob Gibson and the Cardinals, before collapsing into a deep slumber for about a decade. No Berra, no pennant. Correlation does not imply causation, but neither does it rule causation out. Instead of “causation,” let’s say “contribution.”

And what number can we hang on that? It would be some flavor of WAR (wins above replacement value), which in Berra’s case is nice but not a knockout. You want it to be higher. Should catchers carry, like pitchers, won–loss records for games they worked in? To some degree, pitching is a collaborative effort.

The catcher “is the psychologist and historian for the staff — or else his signals will give the opposition hits” is how Jacques Barzun put it many years ago — in 1954, to be precise, when Berra was in his prime. “The value of his headpiece is shown by the ironmongery worn to protect it.”

That observation is true, of course, but in Berra’s case ironic. According to legend, Yogi Berra is the source of every comically nonsensical aphorism ever uttered in the history of American English. “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” And so on. The culture recruited him to play a role, the male equivalent of the dumb blonde, and he played along when asked, a good sport.

Berra could never have compiled the record that he did were he not a shrewd and calculating ballpayer, but in his personal dealings he was evidently pure ingenuousness that some people mistook for dimness until they wised up. After they did, everyone still maintained the fiction about his unusual mind, in a teasing fashion, out of affection.

A serious Yankee hater, I do make a few exceptions. Joe Torre, for example, gets a pass because he once called manager Mike Hargrove in the opposing dugout to apologize for a tasteless gloat — video of Mark Langston, the Indians’ starter that day, giving up a grand slam to Tino Martinez in the 1998 World Series — that the scoreboard operator at the Den of Darkness, as I call it, committed in the name of Torre’s team. Few other Yankees have ever won my forgiveness for their complicity in the Evil Empire.

Berra never needed to. Always have I exempted him from my principled condemnation of the Damn Yankees, the Devil’s team. (I know you’re reading this, Mr. Applegate. Now go to hell — oh.) From the beginning, clearly, Yogi was destined for the better place. Congratulations, Mr. Berra, on your safe arrival. Now requiescas in pace. 

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