Remembering Yogi, the Everyman who always made nice

He was blessed, by any measure, with a wonderful run, a very long one, too, fully four score and ten. It was thereby a sweet sadness that touched the end of the life and times of Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra. Would that more folks – many, many more, indeed – might be quite so lucky.  

Yet there was something about this fellow that’s causing so many to dwell in striking ways on his passing, as if there might be some deeper meaning to be sought out somehow. You need only have had the pleasure of having crossed paths with him here and there to want now to get your two cents in. In his unassumingly quirky way, he made a lasting impression.

He was a man with strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us, it is safe to say. But there was a simplicity about him that was particularly engaging, a certain authenticity, humility, lack of pretense. Everyone who knew him agreed; he was a “nice man.” Is there something better you can say about a person?

As it happened, the pope was making the rounds the same week Yogi departed this mortal coil and in his remarkable pilgrimage along the East Coast, Francis was making wonderful claims in behalf of such virtues as distinguished Yogi. One suspects Yogi, who was known to have taken his faith seriously, was a fan of this pope. And I’d bet Francis might have gotten a boot out of Yogi had they ever crossed paths.

Isn’t it nice when one of our cultural icons, particularly out of the realm of sport, proves to have been faintly worthy of the excessive adulation they’ve been too freely accorded in a nation much too obsessed with stature, celebrity, and stardom. The key to the charm of Yogi Berra and his hold on our affections, which are now sure to endure, is that he never saw himself as “a star,” nor much cared to be one.

But he was one, in a special and maybe even unique way. The week he died was  little short of incredible – and one uses that dreadfully over-used term advisedly – with spectacular events bursting all over the landscape. Yet the tribute to Berra in the New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record ever proud of its discerning balance and perspective and sophistication, ran four full pages with a jump from Page One. How many presidents, princes, or primates can boast of that?
What a trip it was, this life, and what a story! There’s been much talk of late about the glories of the American melting pot and how magnificent human statements evolve from the starkest of immigrant experience. Yogi was a fine example.

His mom, Paulina, and dad, Pietro, emigrated from the Milanese suburb of Malvaglio around the time of WWI.  Pietro was a bricklayer, and on a day laborer’s wages, he and Paulina raised five children on the other side of the tracks in St. Louis, in the colorful Italian neighborhood known as “The Hill” across the street from another immigrant family, the Garagiolas.

Yogi never made it past eighth grade, but he got a world-class education in the streets and on the sandlots, where he excelled in three sports and shrewdly developed the instincts and insights that would shape him as the genuine on-field leader of arguably the greatest corporate athletic titan of all time, the New York Yankees.

Was Yogi Berra near as dumb as he was too often and too comically portrayed? Don’t be ridiculous! As the old expression goes, he was dumb as a fox.

As teens, Yogi and his buddy Joe Garagiola got tryouts from the Cardinals, then run by the game’s self-professed supreme savant, Branch Rickey. It was apparently a bad day for the almighty Mahatma. Expressing a preference for young Garagiola, he offered Joe twice as much as he offered Yogi, who was already wise enough to know better and courageous enough to stand up to a demigod like Rickey, who could make or  break a kid-prospect with a snap of his fingers.  And that is how “Mr. Berra” – as his ultimate boss, Casey Stengel, would later like to call him – became a Yankee and not a Cardinal.  

I don’t recall that he ever made the point in any detail, and rather doubt he ever did because like most guys with meaningful World War II experience he was not inclined to talk about it, let alone boast of it. But it seems likely the war was the definitive factor in his formation.

He was barely 19 when he found himself bobbing in the frothing and bloody wake of the waters of the English Channel off Normandy early on D-Day morn, a seaman 2nd class in a crew of six aboard a small navy rocket boat and behind a machine gun helping provide cover for the troops being landed on the beaches, and thereby having a front-row seat on the making of epic history. Later that summer of 1944, he had a reprise, partaking in the second, lesser known of the great invasions, this one off Marseilles where he took a bullet, got a Purple Heart, and received still more commendations for bravery.

With all of that in his personal resume, serving as the essential quarterback of the great Yankee dynasty of 1947-1964, with all of its sheer dramatics, outrageous demands and oft unreasonable tensions, was for him a veritable picnic.

I’ve been trying to remember when I first met Yogi, or more precisely, crossed paths with him, for I won’t pretend we were pals or exchanged Christmas cards or quipped about how the wives and kids were doing when we encountered over the years.

But the instances were many and always kind of “nice.” The first was likely with the Mets in the late ‘60s into the early ‘70s when he managed them to a memorable World Series date, and then with the Yanks from the mid-‘70s into the mid-‘80s when it seemed he was expending too much of his energies trying hopelessly to control his old pal Billy Martin in his struggles with George Steinbrenner. If Billy had only listened to Yogi he might still be with us today. Then along the way, of course, Yogi himself fell afoul of George. Such a circus it was! Hate them all you wish as may serve your comfortable bias, but you gotta admit the Yankees have always been great theatre.
I digress, however. My point being that whenever I bumped into Yogi in the clubhouse or in a runway or on the field  during batting practice or whatever and caught his eye, there was always a seeming acknowledgment from him which included, invariably, his salutation, “How you doin’, Kid.” And you would respond appropriately and walk away thinking how nice it was to be on a first-name basis with one of the more certified legends of the popular culture, only to learn eventually that this was how he dealt with everybody he bumped into, even those he’d never met before.

Yogi, it seems, was terrible with names. He called everybody “Kid,” even half the players on his own team. His pal Phil Rizzuto, who was even a bit more scrambled, handled these matters quite the same.
But there was nothing insincere about it, nothing “dumb,” either. Yogi as a player and in his long and illustrious after-life was sort of an Everyman. Everyone liked him and everyone identified with him. So he felt keenly an obligation to this constituency, even while protesting that he was no star and thereby hardly worthy of the role. Nor is there any doubt that’s truly what he believed. This man was simply without guile.

In near everything he did, he was trying to be nice. Is there something better you can say about a person?