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Yogi Berra: a man greater than his legend

If you live long enough, time wears off the rough edges. Simplifies the complicated parts. Turns one’s struggle and the uncertainty one faces into a story of inevitable triumph. It’s a reward, really. A nice perk for living a long, good life and bringing happiness to people. But it also, perversely and quite unintentionally, robs one of the credit for the totality of one’s accomplishments. Yogi Berra may be one of the greatest examples of this in baseball history.

There is not a single person reading this who first became aware of Yogi Berra as anything other than a baseball legend. Given the demographics of those who get their news on the Internet, most of you were born into a world in which Yogi Berra was already considered something of an immortal. It is certain that a majority of you reading this were born after he was already inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972. A greater majority of you were born after he retired as a player with ten World Series championships. One could likely count the number of people reading this who were engaged and knowledgable baseball fans before Berra was considered one of the best in the game on one hand.

Which is to say that, there is no one with living memory of Paolina and Pietro Berra going back and forth between Italy and St. Louis, Paolina with a baby in tow and pregnant to boot, dealing with homesickness, a hostile and strange new land and separation by war as they struggled to make their family take root. So many families in their situation couldn’t make it happen and either returned to Europe or were somehow scattered to the winds. Paolina and Pietro persevered.

There is no one who was there when young Lorenzo -- known as Lawrence, then Lawdie and then, eventually Yogi -- quit school in the eighth grade to get a job over Pietro’s objections or who watched him cycle through job after job he either couldn’t or didn’t want to keep. So many young men who found themselves so adrift in the 1930s disappeared over the horizon, down train tracks or up the river and were forgotten by history.

Yogi’s legend begins here, of course, as anyone who knows anything about him knows about how he and his childhood friend and American Legion baseball teammate, Joe Garagiola, tried out for the Cardinals together, with Joe getting signed and getting a bonus and Berra getting almost no interest. We smile at this part of the story because, with the benefit of hindsight, we know how foolish the Cardinals (and the Browns and every other team besides the Yankees) were to pass on Berra. But at the time it was likely crushing for him. Possibly embarrassing. And almost certainly made Berra wonder what he would do with his life, at least for a little while.

The war intervened well before Yogi had established himself as a player, thereby likely precluding him from the safe duty a lot of star players who served received. Berra spent his time on an attack transport, the USS Bayfield and spent ten days surrounding D-Day aboard a 36-foot rocket boat just off the Normandy coast. Nearly 5,000 allied soldiers, sailors and Marines died in that invasion. We stand up and salute Berra for his service in the war and we remember those who died in that weird way we “remember” people who we did not know and will never know, but there are scant few left who know the fear and uncertainty Berra must have felt in those days. And we give more theoretical than real thought to the possibility that Berra could have died then as so many did.

A little over two years later, Berra made his big league debut with the Yankees. Berra didn’t really have a position in late 1946 and most of 1947. The Yankees tried him in right field a good bit at first. Aaron Robinson was the Yankees catcher and he made the All-Star team in Berra’s first full year in the bigs, with Berra serving in a utility role. We see this time from our perspective as Berra’s first professional steps on an inevitably glorious professional journey, but if the wrong people were running the Yankees they may have lost interest in Berra, considering him a bad ball hitter with little plate discipline and no set position. Lots of players who fit that profile never make it. Good judgment by the Yankees -- particularly new manager Casey Stengel, who at the time was seen as something of an itinerant oddball more than a baseball legend himself -- and no small amount of determination by Berra helped author the glory that was to come. Glory that was by no means certain.

As the 1950s turned to the 1960s, the three-time MVP was in his mid-30s and his catching days were just about over. A younger, better catcher named Elston Howard was on the scene now, and it made way more sense to play him. Many in Yogi’s position might have retired. Or may have insisted on continuing to catch, forcing the club to either move Howard or say goodbye to a three-time MVP. Many have, actually. Berra returned to the outfield, however, winning two more World Series rings in years he played the field more than he caught.

The next two decades of Berra’s life and career tend to get glossed over quickly in the shallower biographies and remembrances. His stormy, one-year stint as Yankees’ manager in 1964 where he could not control a clubhouse full of his former teammates and was unceremoniously fired after losing the World Series. His years as a Mets coach where Berra, despite having a pennant as a manager on his resume, was passed over on two occasions for the manager job. He eventually got the job, won another pennant, but was fired two years later as Berra once again had issues with his clubhouse. More years of coaching with the Yankees under a seemingly never-ending series of short-lived managers, culminating in his own short stint in 1984 and early 1985 when, despite 87 wins the year before, he was fired 16 games into the season, creating a nearly 15-year-long rift between Berra and the franchise with which he is most strongly identified. As a father, few of us can know the anguish his son Dale’s cocaine use and infamy as a part of the Pittsburgh cocaine trials of the mid-1980s caused Yogi and his wife Carmen. We think of Berra as the ultimate Yankees ambassador and an always-smiling, always-friendly presence, but the middle stages of his life were full of professional and personal strife just like anyone else’s.

If you’re younger than, say, 40, your living memory of Berra really starts then. In the late 80s or early 90s, after he was done wearing a uniform. A time when he became more well known for his funny sayings, philosophical musings or malapropisms, many of them misattributed, some of which were almost certainly intentional, than his actual baseball career. When he was seen in commercials and reunions and Old Timers Days and the like. When he was a bonafide LIVING LEGEND and the idea of anyone doubting him, moving him aside, disrespecting him or unceremoniously firing him seemed impossible. We know those things happened, of course, but we mentally erased them in our consideration of Berra because they don’t really flow well with one of the best baseball careers of all time and to one of the most beloved men in baseball history. They’re footnotes, really, in the grand and happy baseball story of Yogi Berra.

But Yogi Berra, however much a legend he was, was a man. A man whose success was by no means preordained. A man who, at several points along the way, could have been forgotten or not given a chance. Who could have decided there were easier things to do than the things he did. Who could’ve never been born due to the upheaval of World War I, been cast into oblivion by the Great Depression, could’ve been killed by a Nazi shell on D-Day, could’ve been sent to the purgatory of the low minors by a club which wanted to “fix him” and could’ve left baseball altogether after the Mets and Yankees front offices gave him less rope than men half of his worth were given as a manager and a coach. Time has sanded those rough edges, though. Rendered the obstacles he overcame and the challenges he faced eminently surmountable from the get-go. Allowed us to live Yogi Berra’s life backwards, in a sense, and not only experience it as a story of the triumph that it was, but to enjoy it safely as an inevitable triumph, which it certainly was not.

On the first day nearly every single baseball fan, player, coach or executive alive wakes up without Yogi Berra, we are comforted, somewhat, with the knowledge that he is immortal, as we almost always knew he would be. When we woke up this morning to hear of his passing we were sad, but unlike some people’s passings, the sadness was quickly tempered with joy that he had lived for over 90 years and the knowledge that his story was, almost exclusively, a happy one.

But as we go through this day and the days after without Yogi Berra, let us never be mistaken that his triumph, his legend and his immortality was inevitable. They exist because his parents overcame great odds and willed him into this world. Because he willed himself to greater things than a short, undisciplined son of immigrants from St. Louis had any right to expect. Because God or fate or chance spared him from death during wartime. Because some people in baseball gave him a chance many wouldn’t and because he took advantage of that chance with a skill and determination that only a small handful of men who ever played the game ever demonstrated. Because, however much of a cliche it has become, Yogi Berra, however great a baseball player he was, was an even greater man.

Rest in Peace, Yogi.

(thanks to Dave Williams and his excellent bio of Berra for the SABR Biography Project)