“That’s the Berra kid they’re talking about?” a skeptical bystander asked after laying eyes on the 5-foot-7, 190-pound catching prospect for the first time. “He doesn’t look like a ballplayer.” Pete Sheehy, the longtime Yankees clubhouse manager, agreed, adding: “He don’t look like much of a sailor either.” Bronx Bomber star Joe DiMaggio piled on further, comparing Berra to a fire hydrant.
We are reminded, in the marvelous new Berra documentary “It Ain’t Over,” which makes its Rochester premiere at the Little Theatre on June 16, that looks can be deceiving. Berra may not have looked the part, but few played the part better on the diamond. Or off it, for that matter. “He was the most overlooked superstar in the history of baseball,’’ says renowned comedian/actor Billy Crystal in the film.
With three Most Valuable Player awards, 10 World Series rings, 18 All-Star game selections, a Baseball Hall of Fame plaque, and a slew of records that never will be broken, Yogi’s credentials stack up nicely with the finest players of all-time. Yet, thanks to a post-playing persona predicated largely on humorous malaprops that resulted in him being quoted as often as Shakespeare, his playing achievements became less appreciated over time. Lost, too, in the Yogi-isms – “It ain’t over till it’s over” and “It’s déjà vu all over again” – is what a genuine and generous person Berra was. “He was just a gentle, kind soul,’’ says former Yankee great Don Mattingly.
In the film, Yogi’s loving granddaughter, Lindsay Berra, along with her uncles and a cast of sports A-listers, peel away the caricature and reveal the man. And what we discover is a remarkable human being who realized the American dream despite being underestimated and underappreciated throughout much of his journey.
Like the man it pays tribute to, “It Ain’t Over” is multidimensional. It’s an immigrant story. (His parents came from Italy and his father initially didn’t understand how his son could make a living playing a child’s game.) It’s a war hero story. (Berra was wounded during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, but refused to file papers for a Purple Heart because he didn’t want to worry his mother.) It’s a baseball story. (You can make a strong argument Yogi was the best catcher of all-time.) And it’s a love story. (He and Carmen were married for more than 60 years and had the sweetest of relationships.)
It’s also a cautionary tale of how foolish and cruel it can be to judge a book solely by its cover.
No, Yogi was not out of central casting. He wasn’t this 6-foot-2, chiseled Adonis, but rather dumpy looking and short. While taking a break during games and practices, young Lawrence Peter Berra would sit with legs and arms crossed, prompting a teammate to joke he looked like a Yogi. The nickname stuck. Growing up on The Hill in St. Louis, Yogi dreamed of joining his neighborhood pal, Joe Garagiola, on the roster of the hometown Cardinals. But they low-balled him, and Yogi signed with the Yankees for $500. The return on their investment would be enormous.
In a span from 1947 through 1963, he helped New York win 13 pennants and 10 World Series. If you crunch the numbers, you’ll discover that Berra – not Reggie Jackson – is the true “Mr. October.” Despite being a slugger, Yogi rarely struck out and was at his best in the clutch. And he established durability standards – including catching both ends of a doubleheader 117 times – that boggle current players’ minds. Though sportswriters, fans, opposing players and even his teammates and managers poked fun at his looks, he never was deterred. “In this racket, all you’ve got to do is hit the ball,” he said. “And I’ve never heard of anybody hitting it with his face.”
The film delves deeply into Yogi-isms. The verbal faux pas make us laugh, but they also make sense. As a mentor skills coach points out, Yogi was a master of simplexity: the ability to take something really complex and boil it down to its simplest terms, so that other people can understand it. “He was,’’ says Crystal, “so wise about life … I really believe he was a genius.”
Yogi’s unique way with words contributed to him becoming a pop icon and a darling of Madison Avenue as a humorous, cuddly national pitchman for everything from soft drinks to insurance. But over time it overshadowed his legacy as the winningest player of all time.
One of the film’s most powerful segments details how Yogi saved his son Dale from cocaine addiction. Dale describes an emotional scene in which his father stages a family intervention, and sternly tells him: “I’m not going to be your father anymore, and your two brothers sitting over there aren’t going to be your brothers anymore, and your mom in the kitchen isn’t going to be your mom any more if you continue on the same path. You are going to have to make a change, and you are going to make it now.” Dale did and has been sober for nearly two decades.
That scene, and others, especially ones involving Yogi’s six-decade-long love affair with his wife, had me in tears. There are poignant stories about the role Yogi played in helping integrate the game, welcoming Black pioneers Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby to the major leagues. There’s a full exploration of his feud with bombastic Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and their subsequent reconciliation, which resulted in Yogi returning to Yankee Stadium on the same day David Cone threw his perfect game. And the Yogi Bear cartoon character that clearly was patterned after him without his approval is also examined.
Shakespeare once advised, “To thine own self be true.” When the Bard’s words of wisdom were relayed to Yogi, he told a reporter: “I’d be pretty dumb if all of a sudden I started being someone I’m not.”
Yogi always was true to himself. And thanks to his devoted granddaughter and director Sean Mullin we get to see the real Yogi Berra. You’ll come away from “It Ain’t Over” realizing he was so much more than this funny, little gnome who told us, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” He truly was an exemplary human being; a man we sold short.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.o