Most baseball fans view Yogi Berra as a Hall-of-Fame catcher who, at best, rises to malapropisms like, "When you come to the fork in the road, take it." I have long hoped for a biography that details the real Yogi: a decent fellow and astute businessman with a great baseball mind and social conscience. Now we have it.
In this exhaustively researched and heavily footnoted tome, Allen Barra, a noted sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice and other publications (and who also reviews books for the Star Tribune), depicts Yogi's joyous boyhood on the Hill, an Italian-American district of St. Louis. Lorenzo Pietro Berra and his friends enjoyed endless sporting activities and stayed out of trouble, thanks to three significant factors: the family, the Catholic Church and the absence of cars to use for escapes.
Yogi became an über-organizer of games while demonstrating underrated coordination and speed. After he and his buddies viewed a travelogue involving a Hindu fakir, a friend told Berra, "You look just like a yogi." Hence, the second most famous baseball nickname after Babe.
In a telling decision, Berra rejected a $250 offer from the St. Louis Cardinals because it was $250 less than was offered his childhood chum, Joe Garagiola. Later, coming out of decorated military service that included D-Day, Yogi out-negotiated Yankee brass and built up endorsements while winning an unparalleled number of pennants and World Series. As Casey Stengel's determined and calm "assistant manager," he molded many a throwaway pitcher into a Yankee star. He reached out to black teammates and opponents such as Elston Howard, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella.
"Yogi was the glue that held the Yankees together between the fading of Joe DiMaggio and the rise of Mickey Mantle," Barra writes. In an appendix well worth reading, Barra makes a strong case that Yogi was baseball's greatest catcher. Regarding his subject's much-ridiculed quotations, the author reveals them as cosmic truths by pairing them with wisdom from more celebrated sources. An example:
"Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards, never while actually taking a photograph." -- Henri Cartier-Bresson.
"You can't think and hit at the same time." -- Yogi Berra.
At times, Barra overreaches, as when he calls the Berra-Whitey Ford pairing the "greatest big-game battery of all time" without documenting the assertion. At times, Barra misspells names and creates strange constructions, such as, "looking more disingenuous than a California blonde." But as Yogi emerges as the eternal Yankee, so does Barra's book set the standard for Yogi literature. As his subject might have told him, Yogi learned him all his experience.
Jim Kaplan, a former Minneapolis Star and Sports Illustrated writer, is co-author of "Walkoffs, Last Licks and Final Outs: Baseball's Grand (and not-so-grand) Finales."