With him gone, it isn’t, because no one can take his place. He died Tuesday, at the age of 90. He was baseball’s Will Rogers. And with all his memorably laughable phrases, we’ll always think he shoulda been a songwriter.
True, we live in a nation where no one memorizes quotations anymore. Your grandfather could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” and quote, from memory, selections of the works of Mark Twain. And grandma knew passages from Thoreau’s “On Walden Pond” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and lines from Shakespeare and Louisa May Alcott.
But you don’t, and your kids have never heard of any of them. That is a tragedy for our culture. And so is the departure, after a long life well-lived, of the modern wordsmith named Yogi Berra. Even if Yogi never understood how his creative mind did any of it.
He transcended the sports page. Never egotistical, his humor could just as easily be self-effacing (literally) as anything else:
“So I’m ugly. I never saw anyone hit with his face.”
Want to recommend against a choice others are making for you? Try this:
“No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”
That’s Yogi Berra.
There’s ample reason to explore how the world lost one of its true originals this week. Whether or not we realize it, no one among us does not know at least one of his “Berra-isms,” the name given to his colloquial expressions that seem, at first, to lack logic. They “are now countless, and many of them are just attributed to Berra, even if he never actually said them,” notes Nate Scott in his tribute in USA Today.
As Yogi himself inscrutably put it: “I never said most of the things I said.”
So how did the attributions gravitate to him? That would require explaining how some individuals transcend mundane humanity and become legend. But that would have made him blush. On the whole subject, Yogi once explained, “A lot of guys go, ‘Hey, Yog, say a Yogi-ism.’ I tell ’em, ‘I don’t know any.’ They want me to make one up. I don’t make ’em up. I don’t even know when I say it. They’re the truth. And it is the truth. I don’t know.”
Oh, but what truths he did know. Even if he didn’t know he knew. Did you know these two iconic comedic phrases are attributed to him?
“It ain’t over till it’s over.”
“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
There are so many. And who can argue with his observations?
“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”
“It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much.”
“It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”
“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
To simply classify Yogi’s expressions as malapropisms is dismissive. There was an early 20th century newspaper comic strip called “Mrs. Malaprope” from which we obtain our word for crazy contradictory gaffes. But Yogi brought a certain kind of — wisdom.
Nate Scott noted, “A sportswriters’ favorite, Berra had countless expressions and turns of phrase that were memorable because most of them didn’t make any sense. (At the same time, every one had some truth to it.)”
“Some truth”-? No. Wisdom. Unconventionally bizarre wisdom maybe — a perspective no one else had discovered, perhaps — but wisdom. Included in his body of work are his many words of advice. Here are a few:
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
“Never answer an anonymous letter.”
“Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”
“You can observe a lot by just watching.”
“Why buy good luggage, you only use it when you travel.”
And more, on the subject of luggage:
“The towels were so thick there I could hardly close my suitcase.”
He had such a charmingly bizarre way of seeing the world. Here’s a mixed bag:
“It gets late early out here.”
“Even Napoleon had his Watergate.”
“You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”
“I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.”
Convoluted wisdom from a rather humble, genial, unassuming, never bloviating guy you wished lived next door. Or across the street, where Yogi actually did live from other baseball legends.
Of course, many of his unique musings were about the game he loved:
“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”
“Pair up in threes.”
“If the people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them.”
“He hits from both sides of the plate. He’s amphibious.”
“I don’t know (if they were men or women fans running naked across the field). They had bags over their heads.”
“Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.”
There’s a good story of a famously controversial play (or infamously controversial play, depending on your perspective) from the 1955 World Series, in which Yogi Berra of the Yankees met Jackie Robinson of the Dodgers. Two immortals, and the umpire’s call on that play resonated between the two and their families for decades.
Moreover, when you read that story, there are a bunch of links for more stories and video clips, all carefully chosen by Major League Baseball to pay homage to the late and truly great human Yogi Berra, who just happened to be a baseball legend.
Go, and explore a bit when you get there. It’s time well spent.
And read Nate Scott’s list of the 50 best Berra-isms here.
For Yogi, the great catcher who was behind the plate so many times — including the only perfect game ever pitched in a World Series — he applied his athletic skills far more often than anything else to hear the words, “You’re out!”
And most of the time, they were.
But, Yogi, this time you weren’t wearing your cage mask and big glove. This one was your at-bat. The seventh game of the World Series, the bottom of the ninth, two outs and the score tied. You rounded all the bases, you’re safe standing up at home plate, and we can see your famous grin.
There’s a long line of Yankees in pin stripes waiting who rushed out of the dugout to greet you. Babe Ruth. Lou Gehrig. Whitey Ford. So many. And some Mets standing with them. The crowd is still cheering, it got late early, and we observed a lot just by watching.