If you are an American who knows and cares nothing about baseball, you still know at least two baseball players’ names – Babe Ruth and Yogi Berra.
George Herman “Babe” Ruth was arguably the greatest player of all time, but there is no argument that he is the greatest star. His outsized personality was as important as his towering home runs in that regard. Americans love an overweight, non-athletic looking man who dominates his sport, and then, in response to a question about how he can justify making a bigger salary than the president of the United States, says, “I had a better year than Hoover.” He did, too.
We like our heroes brash and cocky. You have to know baseball to appreciate one saying attributed to the Babe: “If I tried for them dinky singles, I could have hit around six hundred.”
If you don’t know anything about baseball, you have still heard of another man who did not look like a great athlete: Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra. You may not know that as a catcher he led the New York Yankees to win the World Series ten times. You may not know he was an all-Star for 15 consecutive years who is in the Hall of Fame, or that he led both the Yankees and the New York Mets to the World Series as a manager. But you know his name because of yogi-isms, or witty malapropisms attributed to him.
“You can learn a lot just by watching.”
“Nobody goes there [a popular restaurant] anymore, it’s too crowded.”
“It’s déjà vu all over again.”
“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”
“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
“We made too many wrong mistakes.”
Now that he has died, you may hear or see twenty more on TV or in the paper. He was so popular that he had a cartoon (Yogi Bear) named after him.
Some of the yogi-isms seem to imply that he was dim-witted. He is once reported as saying “You better cut the pizza into four pieces rather than eight. I don’t think I can eat eight pieces.”
There are at least two ways to take this. Either the man is quite stupid or else he has a fine sense of humor. My guess is that his deliberate humor gets tossed in the same basket with his occasional malapropisms.
There is a current comedian whom I enjoy, Steven Wright, who spouts Yogi-isms, but there is no question that he does it on purpose because he does it on stage:
“What’s another word for ‘thesaurus’?”
“I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering.”
“What a nice night for an evening.”
“I put instant coffee in a microwave oven and almost went back in time.”
“Curiosity killed the cat, but for a while I was a suspect.”
So what will Yogi Berra’s legacy be? My friend, Craig Wright, is a sabermetrician and baseball historian who can assess his baseball legacy and where he fits among hall of fame players. I can’t wait to hear his verdict.
Others will point to Yogi’s philanthropic endeavors including the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University in Little Falls, New Jersey.
If legacy means how long you are remembered, it’s my guess that Yogi will be remembered for some of his yogi-isms for as long as English is spoken in something like its present form. I suspect that the number of yogis-ims will grow over time, because he is a larger-than-life figure. Much like George Washington and the cherry tree, we will hear of things he could have or should have said. I heard Yogi being interviewed on TV when he said, “I didn’t say half the things I said,” and I know he meant it.
How long a person is remembered is like a rock being dropped into a lake. The ripples go on for a long (or short) time until they finally disappear. A person’s influence, though not as measurable as a ripple, is longer lasting, because of the impact for good or for ill on others. For instance, my mother and father had a powerful positive impact on the lives of a great many people, not just family members. Each of us influenced by George and Dorothy Harper changed the way we treat others, who in turn interact with still others. In short, there are some who never met George or Dorothy Harper, but whose lives are better in small part because of the way they lived. I didn’t say that as clever as Yogi, but Yogi would understand it.
I didn’t know Yogi, but it appears he had a tremendous impact on his friends, teammates, and the game. Los Angeles Dodgers manager, Don Mattingly, who wears number 8 to honor Yogi, said, “The reason he was so beloved, it wasn’t really about his career even though he was a great, great player. It was about what a great person he was, the way he treated people, how humble, sincere, kind he was to people. That’s really what defined him and I think it’s why he’s touched so many peoples’ lives.”
That’s the way we should all live, Yogi. Without you, “the future ain’t what it used to be,” but we can do our small part to reclaim the future of humility, sincerity, and kindness.