If you are of a certain age, you probably heard the name “Yogi Berra” and thought “Yogi Bear? What?” because the rest of the sentence, about being one of the all-time great ball players wouldn’t really make any sense. If you’re a little bit older, you might know him best as the guy who was famous for saying things that didn’t quite seem to make sense (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”) and to whom (like Mark Twain or Will Rogers) a great deal of pithy or silly sayings have been attributed to. You’d know he was a baseball player but you might not know how much of a player he was.
Well, Berra’s family and documentarian Sean Mullin (“Kings of Beer”, a 2019 documentary about Budweiser which might be worth a re-evaluation in Current Day) are here to set the record straight, and the result is the best documentary of the past several years.
The first thing that struck me here was that Berra was a mook. The reason this struck me is that in Painting With Fire, we learn that Frank Frazetta (whose Dark Kingdom just sold for $6M) was also a mook—and also a great ballplayer who wistfully recalled missing his tryout with a very interested major league team. (It might have been the Giants, and as I recall, he claimed to have missed it because he was “f*cking around”. So instead he just reshaped popular art.)
We need more mooks, in other words.
But after the background stuff we get the early days in baseball, interrupted by World War II. Berra landed at Normandy and his job after that was fishing bodies out of the ocean. He was wounded two or three times. Small wonder he didn’t consider baseball to be “hard”.
After the war, we’re back to baseball and the pay is low. There’s some great stuff on Berra holding out to get the same pay his buddy Joe Garagiola did ($500 or something ridiculous like that) and the machinations of a team manager gone wrong. But anyway, they couldn’t afford benches to sit on at games, so they sat on the ground. Lorenzo Pietro (that’s “Larry Peter” to you) Berra sat cross-legged and someone commented, “Hey, you look like a yogi!”
And so it stuck. Yet, there’s something almost too aesthetic about a guy being nicknamed “yogi” and then becoming famous for aphorisms. Some say we live in a simulation; I say we live in a pulp novel.
One chunk of the movie is dedicated to honoring Berra’s record. For reasons that seem shockingly superficial—he wasn’t conventionally handsome and he didn’t have the gait of a, well, a conventional homo sapiens—the press delighted in calling him names (e.g. “The Ape”) and turning him into a clownish figure. Mostly, he didn’t seem to mind, noting that no ball player ever won a game with his face.
Interestingly, the Yogi Bear thing did bother him. He didn’t like being turned into a literal cartoon character.
But as we learn, the only thing that made him mad—and this is hilarious—is a call that an umpire made where he tagged Jackie Robinson out at home plate and the ref called him safe. Decades later, people would wind him up by saying they thought Jackie was safe. (Interestingly, The Boy thought he was safe where I thought he was out. It’s really impossible to tell.) He and Jackie were friendly (and because it’s 2023, we have to know he was okay with The Gays, too).
The truth of the matter, the thing that stands out above all else, was that Berra took responsibility for the game. To a level it’s almost hard to comprehend. Like, obviously, as a catcher, you have to know everybody in the game, the strengths and weaknesses of the players and the pitchers and so on. That’s the job. (And Berra was terrible at it, until a coach drilled the bejeesus out of him.)
But as a batter, he took responsibility for hitting the ball. That is, I think—and forgive my ignorance of the game—the smart approach to batting is to only swing at balls in the strike zone. For Yogi, if it was possible to hit the ball, he hit the ball. (His batting average to home run ratio was amazing.)
But he would also coach players from the opposing team!
And wherever he went, pennants and series championships followed. As a player, he played in fourteen World Series and won ten. He had three more wins as a manager, and was on his way to a fourth (I’m guessing) when fired by Steinbrenner. As a manager, he turned around whatever team he was on. I attribute this, again, to his taking responsibility.
He loved the game.
No less inspiring was his family life, having landed a beautiful waitress from a restaurant baseball players couldn’t really afford to eat at, Carmen Short (who blessedly passed her looks on to Berra’s daughters and granddaughters) and celebrating their 65th anniversary together before their deaths (18 months apart). More than a little nice to see a ball player with a devoted family—not that there weren’t issues, of course, just that Berra was apparently a good father and grandfather.
Then there are the aphorisms. The best of them are a kind of Zen poetry like the “It ain’t over till it’s over” that gives the movie its name, or “You can observe a lot by watching”. Some is just good advice, like “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”
It’s also fun that the anticipation of a Yogi-ism created many that weren’t really odd at all if you knew the context. The “fork” comment for example was just true: If you went to Yogi’s house you’d come to a fork in the road—and both paths led to his house. There’s even an odd little digression with a copy editor who wrote Yogi-isms (for commercials) and couldn’t really remember which were hers and which were his.
On the three point scale for documentaries:
- Subject matter: Wonderful, joyous, definitely worthy.
- Presentation: Mostly pretty good. There’s enough film footage and interviews to keep things from getting too static. There’s a sort of story arc of his granddaughter trying to get him the Purple Hearts he never filed for because he didn’t want to worry his mom, but there’s so much good stuff here, the focus on some recognition from a defunct government seems trivial.
- Bias: This is a hagiography straight up, and I am here for it. For all I know, the man was a saint (except for the whole Jackie-Robinson-being-out thing) and an inspiration, and just incredibly likable. Nothin’ wrong with that.
The Boy and I were enthusiastic, and he knows less about baseball than I do. Check it out!