Yogi Berra was not the clown or buffoon or nitwit as people want to say he was. The idea he is the dumbest of the dumb jocks is ridiculous. He was the farthest thing from dumb.
Years ago, the New York Times wrote a profile on his relationship with Yoo-Hoo, the soft drink he endorsed for decades. His obsession over the company’s finances and business plans reminded me of stories I’ve been told by business partners of Peyton Manning who tell of being bombarded with probing questions from the quarterback about meticulous details of their projects. Nobody thinks Manning is a buffoon.
But a storyline emerged over the years of an unsophisticated man who charmed with naiveté. Somewhere along the line we needed Yogi to be that loveable dope inadvertently turning straight answers into punchlines and so that’s what he became. No matter that as a player he was the rock behind countless World Series winning pitchers or that he was one of the first athletes to understand the stock market. He is destined to live forever on Joke-of-the-Day desk calendars and garbled-quote aggregation sites.
Berra, who died on Tuesday at 90, never fit those words. He was a father, businessman and leader. Twice, the New York Yankees wronged him as a manager. The first came after the 1964 World Series, when a New York team of fading superstars lost to the St Louis Cardinals. It took the Yankees 12 years to finish first again. The second came in 1985, when 16 games into the second year of his second run managing the Yankees, owner George Steinbrenner fired him.
Yogi vowed never to return to Yankee Stadium, a promise he held for 14 years until Steinbrenner personally apologized. Somehow, though, Berra’s stand against the ruthlessness of Steinbrenner doesn’t get mentioned as much as “Baseball is 90% mental the other half is physical.” Which he may or may not have said.
I covered a story this summer that reminds me of Berra. It was about a rundown old house in Seattle surrounded on three sides by a giant new shopping center. A few years ago, when the movie Up came out a savvy publicist attached balloons to the house because the home and the woman who once refused to leave it, Edith Macefield, recalled the movie’s plot. The house in Up was not modeled on the Seattle house and the story was not based on Macefield but nonetheless Macefield’s old home became the Up house and people came from all over the world to snap photographs of its plywood-covered façade and write heartfelt notes on balloons tied to a fence out front.
“It was somebody’s home and eventually everybody wanted it to be something else,” said Barry Martin, the man to whom Macefield willed her house. “Everybody has got to have something to believe in, and if that helps people get through their life or get through hard times, that’s OK. Because what they are going for is true. What they are going for is in their head.”
In many ways Berra is like the Up house. He became what everybody wanted him to be. The idea of Berra as a clever businessman never fit the image of a loveable lug who sounded smart in saying the wrong thing. Several times in recent years he tried to explain that he never said most of phrases attributed to him, but nobody listened. Trying to discern a real Yogi quote from a made up one was too taxing to try. It made people happier to believe he said it all. They took inspiration from the mangled metaphors. They didn’t want to believe the tales might not be true.
Perhaps it is fitting Berra died on the week the Pope came to America, for one of the greatest stories told about him involves a Pope. Years ago, Berra met Pope John XXIII. When a reporter asked him what he said to the Pope, Berra replied: “Hi Pope.”
Did Berra really tell a reporter that he said: “Hi Pope?” There is a good chance he never did. But everybody wanted him to. The story made them smile. It allowed them to embrace an image they have of him. It made their world a better place better knowing that old Yogi once said “Hi Pope.” So the story of Yogi and Pope John XXIII, like most Yogi yarns, became a piece of his legend.
What is not told as much is that Berra was one of the first in baseball to welcome African American players when the color line was broken or that he was always an inclusive person. A few years ago he joined Athlete Ally, an organization dedicated to ending homophobia and transphobia in sports. For some it must have been jarring. He was an old baseball star from the days when players boasted of boozing, brawling and chasing women now supporting gay and transgender athletes. But that was Yogi.
“Respect the game, respect others – that’s what I always learned in sports,” reads the quote attributed to him on the Athlete Ally website. “Whatever background or whatever you are, it doesn’t matter. Treat everybody the same, that’s how it should be.”
He always had a way with words.
This article was written by Les Carpenter, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 23rd September 2015 19.39 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010