In honoring a life well-lived, the highest compliment is also the simplest. Yogi Berra, who died Tuesday at the age of 90, was a D-Day hero, a Yankees icon and, incredibly, the most quotable speaker of his generation.
And yet, standing next to Yogi, enjoying his company as countless people did, sharing a laugh with him, you'd never know it.
At the height of his baseball powers, Berra stood all of 5-7. An ordinary Joe in physical stature, perhaps, but nothing else. Seeing him during his visits to Yankee Stadium, Berra was as assuming as your grandfather. For those of us who never had the privilege of watching him play, and never met him until even his managing days were long over, we couldn't help but think, "That's Yogi Berra?"
It was a natural reaction, and hardly uncommon. Because a person such as Lawrence Peter Berra was too big to fit on a movie screen, too accomplished to fully appreciate on the written page. The best author, with the most vivid imagination, could not have scripted such a personality. And if they came close, would they have nailed it so perfectly with the nickname, "Yogi"?
Berra was an American original, truly one of a kind, whose influence radiated outward from the Bronx, where he was the stocky anchor of 10 World Series champions, from 1947 to '62. To put that in contemporary terms, Derek Jeter, the Yankee who had everything, ended his career envying him.
"The only one I'm thinking about catching is Yogi," Jeter said back in 2012, not knowing yet that his collection of rings would equal only half of Berra's haul.
It was a rivalry Jeter brought up for Berra's benefit, as the two often joked around together on the occasions Yogi would swing by his locker, either during spring training or Old-Timer's Day. Like Ruth and Gehrig and Mantle and DiMaggio before him, Berra served as the bridge to a Golden Era in Yankees history. Larger than life on the field, but in a cuddly, personable, engaging package outside the lines.
"We've lost Yogi," Joe Torre said Wednesday in a statement, "but we will always have what he left for us: the memories of a lifetime filled with greatness, humility, integrity and a whole bunch of smiles. He was a lovable friend."
That was the added dimension, the personal depth, the richness to a 15-time All-Star, three-time MVP and Hall of Famer. The numbers are the numbers, and few people to ever play the game can touch what the St. Louis-born son of Italian immigrants was able to do after returning from World War II. But for someone to jump off their Cooperstown plaque, and leave a legacy like Berra's, the statistics only tell a fraction of the story.
"While his baseball wit and wisdom brought out the best in generations of Yankees, his imprint in society stretches far beyond the walls of Yankee Stadium," Hal Steinbrenner said in a statement. "He simply had a way of reaching and relating to people that was unmatched. That's what made him such a national treasure."
As much as Berra adored the Yankees, his 14-year, self-imposed exile from the old Stadium reflected the basic life principles he held sacred. Yogi felt disrespected by George Steinbrenner when the owner refused to tell him personally of his firing in 1985 after only 16 games. That Berra could not forgive, and it wasn't until Steinbrenner apologized for the treatment that Yogi finally showed up for the Opening Day festivities in 1999.
Fittingly, the Yankees unveiled another championship banner that same afternoon, with the sell-out crowd chanting, "Yo-gi! Yo-gi!" for his ceremonial first pitch to Joe Girardi. Later, when Whitey Ford talked about raising the banner, Berra looked over and quizzically asked, "Was it heavy?"
On that day, the relationship had been repaired, all felt right with the Yankees Universe again. How could it be that the greatest champion of the most storied franchise in professional sports was the undersized everyman Yogi Berra?
Because when people saw him, maybe they saw themselves. From a modest upbringing, to serving his country, to succeeding in a way that never felt boastful or alienating. And with a slogan as American as apple pie, with a cold glass of Yoo-hoo.
"It ain't over 'til it's over," Berra famously said.
And even though he's gone, in our hearts and minds, Yogi ain't going anywhere.