Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yogi, The Love Fot You Ain’t Ever Gonna Be Over

Yogi Berra said it ain’t over til it’s over. It’s over. Yogi died last night at age 90. With him goes one of the last notable links to an age of innocence, charm, civility, dignity and quiet heroism.
Heroism. That is a concept so often overused, and just flat-out  misused in sport. Having a great game after an off-field controversy, be it an arrest or locker-room contra-tempts, is often labeled the stuff of heroes. 
Try fighting for your country. Like so many from The Greatest Generation, Yogi did just that, participating in the invasion at Normandy, combing  beaches for the wounded and dying who fought on D-Day. That is heroic. Winning, and winning, and winning as a ballplayer, that was icing on the cake that made his legend as a Hall of Famer and Yankees great complete. 

HOFers Yogi Berra and Gary Carter

Yogi was a national treasure, larger than life, because of his contributions to his country and the game, and, not to be forgotten, the American lexicon, thanks to his many Yogi-isms. 

You know Yogi if only because of his Yogi-isms, many of which grace “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

  • "On his approach to at-bats: ``You can't think and hit at the same time.''
  • On selecting a restaurant: ``Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.''
  • On economics: ``A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore.''
  • On the 1973 Mets: ``We were overwhelming underdogs.''
  • On how events sometimes seem to repeat themselves ``It's deja vu all over again!''
  • On baseball attendance: ``If people don't come to the ballpark, how are you gonna stop them?''
  • On a slipping batting average: ``Slump? I ain't in no slump. ... I just ain't hitting.''
  • On travel directions: ``When you come to a fork in the road take it.''
  • On pregame rest: ``I usually take a two-hour nap from 1 to 4.''
  • On battling the shadows in left field at Yankee Stadium: ``It gets late early out there.''
  • On fan mail: ``Never answer an anonymous letter.''
  • On being told he looked cool: ``You don't look so hot yourself.''
  • On being asked what time it was: ``You mean now?''
  • On being given a day in his honor: ``Thank you for making this day necessary.''
  • On a spring training drill: ``Pair off in threes.''
  • On his approach to playing baseball: ``Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.''
  • ·On death: ``Always go to other people's funerals. Otherwise they won't go to yours.''
  • On learning: ``You can observe a lot by watching.''
  • On his team's diminishing pennant chances: ``It ain't over `till it's over.''
  • On the fractured syntax attributed to him: ``I really didn't say everything I said.''

Yes, Yogi, there was truth in most everything you said. You cannot argue the logic. It’s Yogi’s logic, crytic and fall-down funny at the same time. Proud to say that I heard two: “Home openers are exciting, whether they’re at home or on the road,” and “the runs and rains were pouring in buckets!” Oh, Yogi, so true, so true. ...

Yogi transcended sports because of moments in which he turned heads and made us laugh, then think, then laugh, again. He left an indelible imprint on a nation’s heart, and did so with grace, wit, sincerity and humility. He was a most improbable-looking athlete, yet a great one who simply collected rings the way Elizabeth Taylor collected husbands. He was the charming good luck charm for an otherwise cold, killing maching that was The Bronx Bombers, a loveable Yankee who defied being demonized.

And, forget Ruth, and DiMaggio and Mantle. Berra, an 18-time All-Star and 10-time World champion,
made you wonder, how did the Yankees ever win before, or after him?

There never has been one quite like him, and like there will never be one, again. 
Yet, he was, in many ways, this slight man in a tiny compact package with a never-fading smile was a giant in my eyes for much more personal reasons. For Yogi simply was someone who refused to look down on any human being and, because of that, he welcomed this reporter unlike any manager I ever covered. 
No manager made me feel more immediately comfortable in his presence. Here he was, a Hall of Famer, a legend who could, on any given day, give Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford a run for their money on the popularity scale at a Yankee Stadium Old Timers game. Yet he  made an unknown reporter from a distant land (Hartford, Ct.) feel  at home every single day I was assigned to cover his team. I never once felt that I was in the company of royalty, which many a Yankees legend does to this day. Yogi was always, always, always a down-to-earth person, the antithesis of “celebrity.” That made his stardom all the brighter in my eyes. I cherished his friendship, which lasted from the moment I met him at the start of the turbulent 1980s til the end. 
I think one of the things that awed me the most about Yogi was this well-kept secret of his, revealed only when the eyes twinkled. He knew stuffbut was so comfortable in his own skin he did not feel the need to prove the intelligence within. And believe this: Yogi was wise beyond what the popular narrative will have you believe. Yogi may not have been the had the most dexterity when it came to verbal game-play, but he was far from being cartoon character that was his public persona, someone filled with unintended witticisms rather than wisdom. 
No. For those who bothered to listen reveled in how Yogi turned that accepted belief on its ear. Yogi participated in panel discussions that his wonderful museum that bears his name on the campus of Montclair University in New Jersey. Even when not on panels, Yogi was often seen in the wings, hanging on every word, absorbing, listening, learning. He loved to quiz you in conversations, about journalism, especially. And his recall about every aspect of his career was simply amazing. And that career spanned most of the 20th Century. Remember, he passed away 69 years to the day that he made his major-league debut with the Yankees (Sept. 22, 1946).  
Yogi Berra, Ralph Branca and Roy Campanella
Quite often, Yogi’s museum, under the wonderful guidance of David Kaplan, would mirror the issues of the day. One of my favorite moments at the site occurred when the displays saluted the contributions of African Americans in baseball, and Yogi toured the museum with Larry Doby, his fellow Hall of Famer and Montclair neighbor. The two friends witnessed the breaking of the color barrier in 1947, by Jackie Robinson in the National League, and Larry Doby in the American League. Yogi was one of the players who never saw color, and welcomed the destruction of the game’s color barrier. He and Doby and their families remained friends for decades after, the shared pride of Montclair. The lessons taught that day were as invaluable as they surely were in ’47.
The wonderful thing about a day of remembrances is that so many will talk and write lovingly about Yogi in ways that would likely make Yogi smile, but shake his head in wonder. He might wonder, too, when the salutes will finally end, but to that I say, “Yogi, they won’t. This time, the love and affection for you ain’t ever gonna be over.” 
God bless. Thank you for everything, my friend.