Baseball lost another of its legends this week with the death of Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra. I know a lot has been written about him with his passing, even by our distinguished YGS’ers. A lot of that has been about Yogi the quote maker, or even Yogi the man—and in both cases very much deservedly so. But it strikes me that not much has really been said about Yogi the player or his “baseball life” and that’s where my head is today.
As you all know, I’m a baseball fan at heart and every time one of these blessed old-timers passes, it strikes me how little fans today really know about them. Much like Stan Musial not making a fan’s list of the 50 greatest players of all-time, I overheard a young man talking about Yogi’s passing this week: “You know, he’s the guy who said ‘It ain’t over ‘til it’s over’ and ‘when you come to a fork in the road take it…’ The funny quote guy.“ To which his companion replied, “That guy played baseball?”
Yeah, “the funny quote guy” played baseball. And for the uninitiated who have trouble recalling his retirement in 1963 (let’s be honest, even The Hoov was only three at that time…), he was pretty damn good. How good you ask?
Well, for starters, he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Despite being only 5’7” (let that sink in for a minute in today’s 6’4” plus culture), Yogi Berra was an 18 time All-Star who appeared in 14 World Series, and won ten of them—five straight from 1949 through 1953. True, he was a member of the juggernaut New York Yankees of the 1950’s so he benefitted from some amazing teammates: Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Billy Martin, Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto, Jim Delsing, Enos Slaughter, Bobby Richardson, Elston Howard, et al. But on that team, with that talent, Berra led the Yanks in RBI’s for seven straight seasons, from 1949 through 1955. More telling than all of that: the Yankees won more than 63% of the games that Berra was behind the plate. Today, his is one of seventeen numbers that have been retired by the most storied team in baseball history.
If you’re a Bill James guy, you’ll like this stat that the Wall Street Journal reported the other day: James calculated that Berra earned the most “win shares” all time among catchers, which takes in both offensive and defensive performance. According to James, 30 win shares in a season is MVP-level performance…and Berra AVERAGED that during his five peak years.
In baseball’s golden era of the 1950’s, playing on the greatest team in the sport’s history, Berra won three American League MVP awards in 1951, 1954, and 1955—a total that matches DiMaggio and Mantle; and in a seven year stretch encompassing those awards finished twice two other times, as well as third and fifth. In addition to his Yankee teammates previously mentioned like Mantle, Rizutto and DiMaggio (also all MVP’s), his American League peers of that era included such legendary talent as Ted Williams, Nellie Fox, and Al Rosen. If you’re a three-time MVP in that crowd, you’re swinging large. As a frame of reference, Ted Williams only won two MVP awards in his career.
Berra was known as a free swinger who was often referred to as “the best bad ball hitter” in baseball history, and he was frequently flailing at pitches outside the strike zone or above his head. And yet for all of that, he only struck out 414 times in his 19 year career. That equates to only 1.16 strikeouts for every home run he hit. The only guy better in all of baseball history is DiMaggio at 1.02; and Berra is better than Williams’—known as maybe the best contact guy in the sport’s history—ratio of 1.36.
Most people consider Johnny Bench, the Cincinnati Reds HOF catcher, the standard bearer offensively at the position. And he did have 389 home runs to Berra’s 358. But Berra outperformed him in virtually every other offensive category over his career: his batting average was nearly twenty points higher, .285 to .267; he had 1430 RBI’s to Bench’s 1376; better slugging percentage .482 to .476; better on base percentage .348 to .342, and all the while only striking out those 414 times in 19 seasons, to Bench’s 1,278 K’s in 17 years. Yes he had two more seasons than Bench. But as a catcher! Long before the designated hitter. In and of itself a career of 19 seasons, primarily as a catcher and at the level Berra did it, is virtually unheard of.
One of the most iconic images in baseball history is the shot of Berra right after he jumped into Don Larsen’s arms, after Larsen completed his perfect game performance in game five of the 1956 World Series. An amazing accomplishment. Larsen would later say “I was so nervous I couldn’t think straight. Yogi had to do my thinking for me.”
One of the greatest stories I heard about Berra came out when Phil Rizzuto passed away in 2007, and while it speaks about Yogi the man, I think it also speaks to his baseball mind because it’s about teammates. To Berra, that bond of team was nearly the ultimate bond. Family was higher, but it wasn’t by much.
When the Scooter was ill and in the final stages of his life, Berra made a point of making the trek to his beside every single day; and as I recall it was no small thing or short trip, especially for a man who was 82 years old himself. Yogi would sit at Rizutto’s bedside, sometimes talking, sometimes playing cards, sometimes just watching TV. He’d stay every day for five or six hours, having lunch with his teammate and just spending time. And then when the Scooter would get tired, Yogi would hold his hand until he fell asleep—only then leaving his teammate’s side for the day. By the accounts I heard, this went on for several months until Rizutto finally passed away.
Loyalty was deep with Yogi, which is why he was estranged from the Yankees for nearly fifteen years. After Steinbrenner had promised Yogi that no matter what, he would finish the 1985 season as the team’s manager, he was fired only sixteen games into the campaign. Berra felt it was not only a slight but a broken promise, and he swore he’d never attend another Yankee’s game or function at Yankees Stadium. He was good to his word, staying away for 14 years until a truce was struck in early 1999. It should tell you all you need to know about Yogi that Steinbrenner said at the time, “I didn’t realize how much I’d screwed up. It was a major screw-up. It was a stupid thing…a monumental mistake on my part. Sometimes, it takes a long time to get things right. Yogi is a highly principled man. I messed up.” How many times over the years can you remember Steinbrenner taking blame and apologizing?
With his playing career and penchant for memorable quotes, Yogi’s management career is often forgotten as well; but he managed the 1964 Yankees to the World Series in the year after his retirement as a player, and managed the 1973 Mets to the World Series as well. Berra was also a coach on Billy Martin’s Yankee World Series teams from 1976 through 1978, winning the championship in each of those last two years.
It’s well documented that Yogi was born on St. Louis’ famous Hill, and grew up with his pal from across the street, Joe Garagiola. When I lived in St. Louis, I use to make a point every year or so just to drive by the house where he grew up. I really can’t even tell you why, but it always felt special. He wasn’t the “man about town” like a Ruth, Mantle, DiMaggio, or Whitey Ford; but he’s my favorite Yankee.
You wouldn’t have won if we’d beaten you.
A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.
We made too many wrong mistakes.
If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop ‘em.
Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.
It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much.
The future ain’t what it used to be.
It ain’t over til it’s over.
Funny, human, endearing, and entertaining, every single one of them. But they’re a very small part of the story. Yogi also said, “So I’m ugly. I never saw anyone hit with his face.” Baseball may have been 90% mental, with the other half physical…but Yogi Berra played both parts equally well and at an extraordinary level. I hope that’s remembered too.
Rest in peace Yogi.