By: Allen Barra
Reviewed by: Bill Plott
W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
Why yet another book on Yogi Berra? Simple answer, according to author Allen Barra: There has never been a serious biography of the Hall of Fame catcher, noted mostly for his years with the New York Yankees and his ability to churn out seemingly dimwitted but nevertheless amusing sayings. Barra says Berra is America’s most beloved former athlete and the most quoted American since Mark Twain. It’s hard to deny either assertion.
But it is Berra the baseball player that is the focus of this book. Quantitatively and anecdotally Barra builds a case for his friend and hero. Short, stump-legged, awkward in appearance, Berra just simply performed consistently, according to Barra. Despite less than complimentary scouting reports early in his career, he proved a capable receiver, a good clutch hitter, a leader of teammates.
Berra was the primary catcher on fourteen World Series teams, ten of them champions. In seventy World Series games, he hit ten home runs and drove in thirty-seven runs. He earned three regular season MVP awards and was twice runner-up. His career numbers were a .285 batting average and 358 home runs.
An outstanding catcher and all-round baseball player, for sure, but what is a little harder to accept is Barra’s contention that Yogi is the greatest catcher of all time, topping such luminaries as Johnny Bench and Roy Campanella. He makes a compelling case, supporting his position with an array of arcane numbers—RC27 (runs created per out), Bill James’ Win Shares—as well as more traditional figures. But seemingly overlooked is the fact that Berra enjoyed an extraordinary supporting cast during his Yankee career. If you take away Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Phil Rizutto, Whitey Ford, etc., etc., would the Yankees have collectively produced those championships that Berra shared? For that matter, would not another great catcher such as Bench, Carlton Fisk, or Gary Carter have had similar honors with the Yankees?
Well, that’s the stuff of hot stove leagues. For Yankee lovers this is an unabashed fanfest, filled with great stories of the game, reflections on heroic performances such as Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. For even Yankee haters—it is true that you either love them or hate them—well, what the heck, who cannot love Yogi Berra? Barra’s research on Berra’s growing up years on Dago Hill in St. Louis extends that lovability. His narrative is a marvelous compilation of anecdotal prose that makes Berra’s nineteen major league seasons a fun as well as a factual read.
Touching on the Berra sayings, both real and apocryphally manufactured (i.e., If Yogi didn’t say it, it sure seems like something he might have said and attribution usually followed.), Barra has a delightful appendix comparing Yogi’s observations to some of the world’s great minds. There is the obligatory “It ain’t over till it’s over” but also the unexpected but unquestionably wise line to the Saint Louis University Class of 2007: “Go out live your life like every day is opening day.” June 2009
Bill Plott is a freelance writer and retired journalist.