Sports Nut

Yogi Berra Wasn’t Trying to Be Witty

And he wasn’t dumb either. How did the narrative of the wise buffoon come to dominate his life?

Smarter than the average bear: Yogi Berra (1953 Bowman Color Yogi Berra No. 121).

Photo by Heritage Auctions/Bowman Gum via Wikimedia Commons

Yogi Berra, the great New York Yankees catcher who died Tuesday at the age of 90, was, famously, a winner. He would have needed all of his fingers and three of his toes to fit all his World Series rings on at once. More than winning, though, Berra was famous for the things he said. Berra biographer Allen Barra described these famed Yogi-isms as “distilled bits of wisdom which, like good country songs and old John Wayne movies, get to the truth in a hurry.” But of course Yogi said it himself: “I really didn’t say everything I said.” Many a line attributed to Berra either came from old jokes or appeared earlier than he could have coined them. (In at least two cases, Yogi-isms originally appeared in early-20th-century New Yorker essays, including one by Dorothy Parker).

How did the legend of the Yogi-isms become the dominant narrative of Berra’s life? In part it’s because Berra truly did have a remarkable ability to turn a phrase that was simultaneously paradoxical and clever. (“It’s déjà vu all over again” is one of the more famous lines that he actually said.) But the answer also has to do with the media mores of another time; sportswriters and other journalists felt free in those days to exaggerate, or even fabricate, facts to fit a storyline. When looking back on Berra’s era, historians face a real challenge separating myth from reality for many great players and sports personalities. Yogi Berra the legend was just the most pronounced of these modern myths, and the one that has lasted the longest.

The Yogi Berra who captured the imagination of popular culture—Berra as idiot savant—was a narrative that Berra disliked early in his career, before coming to accept and cannily profit off of it later on. As much as this Yogi was a creation of Berra himself, he also was a product of Berra’s childhood friend and fellow pro ballplayer Joe Garagiola. A catcher like Berra, Garagiola helped proliferate this image as a major league broadcaster, before parlaying his Yogi stories into national fame as a panelist on NBC’s Today Show.

“Joe built his whole career on these Yogi-isms, many of which were made-up,” Allen Barra told me, adding that he didn’t know the origins of many of the invented stories Garagiola shared. “Joe made it sound like Yogi would show up with a quip a day, and that’s not true.” For a time Berra resented his friend for the proliferation of this false image. “There was a bit of coolness there for a couple years,” Barra said. Yogi went so far as to say on multiple occasions that he didn’t appreciate people making up stories about him. In his 2009 book, Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee, Barra describes how Garagiola crafted an image that caused Berra to be “underrated” for his playing abilities and as an intellect.

Through decades of telling Yogi stories, many real and some apocryphal, to audiences of millions during Joe’s days at NBC, he undermined the perception of Berra as a great player and competitor and replaced it with the image of an amiable clown who was lucky enough to have been around when the Almighty handed out roster spots on winning teams. I don’t mean to imply that was Joe’s intention, but the stories, repeated endlessly on television and paraphrased in newspapers and magazines and then in subways, in offices, and in bars, created a pseudo-Yogi that took on a life of its own, a caricature of a real man.

The Yogi caricature became so ingrained that reporters began to resent him when he didn’t live up to expectations. As Barra wrote in his book, Jack Mann of the New York Herald Tribune was told to expect great quotes from Berra when he started covering the Yankees, but didn’t get anything he could use. “Yogi Berra wasn’t really a character,” Mann wrote in 1967. “He wasn’t even especially interesting. If there had not been a Yogi Berra, it would have been necessary for those attempting to write cute copy about the Yankees to invent him, and they did.”

Barra the author himself acknowledged in his book that Berra the myth isn’t entirely Garagiola’s fault. Yogi Bear, a character that referenced Berra and annoyed him to the point that he filed a defamation suit, was on the air three years before Garagiola started appearing on national NBC baseball broadcasts. Starting as early as the 1950s, New York writers were trying to get Yogi-isms out of Berra in the locker room.

Berra was a savvy businessman, though; he negotiated some of the best contracts for a player in an era when players often got the short end of the stick. He eventually came to appreciate the public image and to profit off of it. In a line that was republished in the New York Times obit of Berra on Wednesday, Robert Lipsyte wrote in 1963 that Berra “has continued to allow people to regard him as an amiable clown because it brings him quick acceptance, despite ample proof, onfield and off, that he is intelligent, shrewd and opportunistic.”

“Later in life he realized he could use that to his advantage and he sort of spoofed that a bit,” Barra said. The wise-simpleton character can be seen as late as a 2002 Aflac commercial in which Berra sits at a barber chair spouting inanities like “they give you cash, which is just as good as money.”

Before Garagiola revived the Yogi persona for the mass TV age, it was actually Berra’s brains—and not just his words—that helped craft it. As Barra told me, “the whole idiot savant thing” initially grew not just out of locker room quotes, but out of manager Casey Stengel’s statements playfully and consistently referring to him as “Mr. Berra, my assistant manager.”

“He called him that all the time, and it was true,” Barra said. Yogi was positioning his teammates on the field, putting fielding shifts in place decades before managers were doing so on a regular basis. “Why has our pitching been so great? Our catcher, that’s why,” Stengel once said. Of course, he couldn’t help but add the teasing line: “He looks cumbersome but he’s quick as a cat.”

And for every misattributed malapropism, Berra had a line that truly did put things in a simple, joyful way. “He was just a natural,” Barra told me. “He was good-natured, he wasn’t trying to be witty or funny.” Once, a couple came up to Berra at his museum and asked him to “make up a Yogi-ism.” “If I could just make ’em up on the spot,” Berra replied, “I’d be famous.”