Richard Lutz salutes the passing of a baseball star who died today and who was beloved by all New Yorkers:
Yogi Berra, who has died aged 90, was an integral part of the outsized New York Yankees, a baseball team itself that is either loathed as a kind of Evil Empire of the sport or lionised as the best that ever existed. Take your pick.
The players were and still are well paid, belonging to a super rich organisation, clad always in pinstripe uniforms and laden with an almost smug attitude to other teams. Even when they lose, they seem superior.
Buit despite the sheen, there was always Yogi Berra to give it some humanity. He left school at 14 and even when you were a kid, you knew Yogi could have been your neighbour, or your funny uncle or the guy who sold ice cream from the back of a van.
But at the heart of things, he was a star: he played for the Yankees for 19 years in the bone-crushing bruising role of catcher which meant he had to handle baseballs thrown at 95mph and get hit time after time by balls chipped backwards by hitters. He did it for almost 20 years.
To those that don’t understand baseball, his career was star studded. He was Most Valuable Player (MVP) four times in the major leagues and went straight into the Hall of Fame museum right after his career, an almost unheard-of honour.
Bu it was his cheeky, street smart persona that made fans take to him. He was kind of like the Ringo Starr of the sport. Smart-dumb. And his quotes, whether true or not, are great.
Here are some:
- If you see a fork in the road, take it
- I really didn’t say everything I said
- 90 percent of the game is half mental
- It’s déjà vu all over again
Yogi got his nickname because as a boy his street pals in St Louis saw a picture of an Indian yogi teacher and recognised a similarity. Maybe it was the jug handled ears, maybe the squat square body, maybe the lopsided grin.
The name stuck and after his naval days, which included the D Day landings, he began his baseball career with the almighty Yanks. He played with some of the biggest names in the 1950’s game: Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Elston Howard who not only were great players but, let’s say, kept the bars and night clubs ticking over with their off-field antics.
Berra signalled, in a way, the post-war opening up of the game. More Italian Americans entered the game after World War 2 to be followed by the talent of Afro-American stars and then the golden onslaught of Latino players who rejuvenated the game. He was the start of the seismic liberation of baseball which had been stuck in a reactionary cracker barrel culture for too long (and some like comedian Chris Rock, who claims it still is when it comes to black communities).
Outside his career, which included a checkered spell as a manager for the Yankees and the city rivals The Mets, he took on specific coaching stints and even owned a bowling alley in New Jersey. Everyone loved him still. As he once declared: It ain’t over ’til it’s over”.