Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 24, 2015

The Best Way To Remember Yogi

Nearly seven decades later, the box score still tells its tale. Boxes lack the drama of play-by-play accounts, but in the agate type that generations of kids grew up poring over in the back pages of sports sections the fundamental facts of every big league contest are laid out. Called up now on a monitor with a couple of mouse clicks, this one is no different. On September 22, 1946, a Sunday afternoon, the Yankees hosted the last place Philadelphia Athletics in the first game of a twin bill. With the season in its final days, the home squad was well over .500, but still far behind the Red Sox. Led by Ted Williams, Boston had already clinched the AL pennant. So then as now a season’s final games provided an opportunity to give youngsters called up from the minors their first exposure to the Great Game at its highest level.

An example is that is hidden in plain sight, right there in the box score. Batting eighth in New York’s starting lineup and catching is Yogi Berra. The numbers and abbreviations cannot impart what we know from history, namely that Berra was 21 years old and making his major league debut. But they do inform us that in front of just over 25,000 fans he went two for four, with one of the two hits a home run, the first of 358 that he would accrue over his playing career. In just over two hours the Yankees defeated the A’s 4-3, with Berra’s 4th inning shot into the seats providing the difference.

More than sixty years later another box outlines another Yankee win. This one is on September 21, 2008, also a Sunday. Andy Pettitte picks up his 14th win of the season as New York downs Baltimore 7-3. Pace of play has slowed over the years, and this box score tells us that after starting at 8:36 p.n. this game took three hours and three minutes. But it does not reveal what we who were in the stands that night know; namely that this was the final game at the old Yankee Stadium. Long after the last out fans and players alike remained; first for postgame ceremonies and then because we simply did not want to leave. We were there as the clock struck midnight, and the 62nd anniversary of Yogi Berra’s first game on the diamond in front of us arrived.

One more box score to peruse, one more game to consider. Tuesday evening, Yankees at the Blue Jays up north of the border. Trying to claw back against Toronto’s second-half surge, New York wins 6-4 in 10 innings on the road. Brian McCann, Berra’s descendant behind the plate is two for five, and knocks home the first run. Greg Bird, a 22-year old September call up as Berra once was, wins the game with a home run in the 10th. Even as he does so the word is starting to spread. At the age of 90, on the 69th anniversary of his major league debut, Yogi has left us to rejoin his beloved wife Carmen, who passed away last year.

In the short time since Berra’s death, much of the focus has been on the outsize character he became off the field. Larger than the Great Game, seemingly larger than life. That is understandable, for casual fans and even those who care little for baseball knew of that Yogi. The Berra who lent his name to a cartoon character, the Yogi who appeared in television commercials, and of course, the beloved figure of popular culture whose seemingly bumbling way with words produced a treasure trove of “Yogi-isms.”

The dozens of epigrams that Berra was famous for, including many that he either didn’t originate or never uttered at all, were often regarded as evidence of a lack of intelligence. In truth they reveal both a keen wit and a wealth of street smarts. “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded,” might draw laughter as nonsensical. But any Gotham resident who has seen a neighborhood restaurant suddenly overrun by tourists understands the statement’s basic truth.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” might seem like pointless advice. But it is precise guidance to Berra’s Montclair, New Jersey home. Edgewood Road splits with Edgewood Terrace, but both wind up at Highland Avenue, where Berra lived for more than fifty years. Berra also once included the phrase in a commencement speech, and it serves as a sound reminder of the importance of making decisions in life, rather than being paralyzed by one’s choices.

“It ain’t over till it’s over,” or something along those lines was Yogi’s comment to writers in late August 1973, when the Mets team he was managing was below .500 and mired in 5th place in the NL East. Easy to dismiss as a statement of the obvious, until one remembers that Berra’s Mets raced through September with a 20-8 record to win the division and ultimately advance to the World Series. As the remaining days of another September dwindle to precious few, what fan of every team still in contention for a playoff berth doesn’t cling to the possibilities inherent in the old Yogi-ism?

For before Berra’s enormously successful second act as a cultural icon and baseball’s kindly grandfather, he was the proud man whose belief that he had been mistreated by George Steinbrenner when the Boss sent an underling to dismiss Yogi as the Yankees manager in 1985 led him to stay away from the Stadium for fourteen years, until Steinbrenner came to Montclair to admit the cavalier action was “the worst mistake I ever made in baseball.” Before that he was a manager who took both New York franchises to the World Series, the Yankees in 1964 and those amazing Mets nine years later.

And before all of that he was Yogi Berra, catcher for the New York Yankees. In his box score as a player lies the heart of Berra’s greatness and the foundation of all that would follow. An All-Star for fifteen consecutive seasons. A career .285 hitter, he hit for power with 1,430 RBIs and 358 career home runs, plus another 12 in the World Series. A classic bad ball hitter, Berra’s bat golfed low pitches into the outfield and sent high ones on line drives to the gap. His plate presence was sublime. Berra struck out only 414 times in a career that encompassed more than 8,300 plate appearances. In 1950 he had but 12 strikeouts, or less than once for every fifty times he strode to the batter’s box. On defense he led the AL in assists five times and once went 148 consecutive games without an error.

The Yankees have had the good fortune to field many outstanding catchers. Bill Dickey was the first, and Berra adopted his number 8 and credited Dickey as a mentor who helped improve his defensive skills. Elston Howard followed Berra, and first Thurman Munson, then Jorge Posada earned cheers from later generations of fans in the Bronx. But by that most basic of modern metrics, Wins Above Replacement, Yogi was the finest of them all.

He is also the only one of them, indeed the only player in all of our major sports, to have ten rings. Championships are a team accomplishment, but to have played the most demanding position in baseball on ten World Series winners is the ultimate proof of Yogi Berra’s greatness. He is gone now. There will be no more Yogi-isms. Our memories, and the box scores, will have to do.

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Responses

  1. Personally, I would take Yogi as my all-time catcher, even over Johnny Bench. He should be remembered more for his greatness as a baseball player than for his “Yogiisms,” but at least he was well-loved by virtually all baseball fans.
    Excellent post, as always,
    Bill

    • Thanks Bill. He’s my number one as well, though as a lifelong Yankee fan I’m certainly not the most objective observer. Obviously I am in complete agreement that the core of his greatness was what he did as a player and not some AFLAC commercial, as I tried to indicate in the piece. It was nice to see a significant number of teams take a moment to remember him Wednesday evening.

      Thanks again,

      Mike


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