SUNDAY, OCTOBER 8, 1961, SPORTS
Copyright 1961/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Yogi Berra, the Legend
CINCINNATI — If you turn on your television set this weekend to watch the World Series and suddenly come upon what appears to be a large, shaggy bear in baseball uniform trying to roller-skate up an icy hill, don’t switch channels.
This will be Lawrence Peter Berra trying to match wits with the left-infield incline in Crosley Field, a ballpark designed either by a man with the sense of humor of an urchin who puts banana peels on sidewalks or one who just hates outfielders as a class.
The outfield in this ballpark is so steep in places the players should have oxygen and a Sherpa guide to scale it. It has produced more pratfalls than Mack Sennett in his heyday, and the sight of Yogi Berra and this incline coming together in combat should be funnier than watching Jackie Gleason and Elsa Maxwell trying to cha-cha.
Yogi Berra, it happens, is funny just standing still. In many respects, he is the most famous baseball player the game has had since Babe Ruth.
He is ageless — and changeless. He came upon the scene so many years ago and looked so old even when he was young there are those who think he was Columbus’ cabin boy.
The day he leaves baseball two million fans may leave it with him. He is as much a part of the legend of America as Paul Bunyan or John Henry. He is the patron saint of three generations of American kids with catchers’ mitts in their hands, and no churchman could seriously object. Yogi Berra is a man who has remained a boy — a rich man who remembered what it was like to be poor.
The face is sad. It has been said it is ugly but it is not, lit in the center by large, sad and curiously gentle eyes. It is the color of gray paste — a city face. It is a comforting face, the kind one trusts. “Hey, Yogi,” yell people with a chuckle who have never seen him before. A lineman outside the ballpark laughs delightedly when he looks over the fence and sees the familiar face and figure.
It is a silhouette baseball didn’t know whether to believe or not when they first saw it. This lumpy man, a perfect 50 in measurements — 50-inch chest, middle and two 25-inch calves — with the two protruding ears, the head that seems to grow, neckless, right out of the shoulders, couldn’t possibly be an athlete. Baseball didn’t know whether to turn him over to the minor leagues or Clyde Beatty.
Yogi, of course, turned out to be one of the most superbly skilled athletes of his time. He came to symbolize the New York Yankees, the haughtiest team in the annals of sports.
He outlasted derision by his own simple dignity and friendliness. The bench jockeys at first hopped about the dugout on all fours, scratched themselves busily like caged primates, called out “Hey, Berra, what tree did they pull you out of?” and offered him peeled bananas. It was that kind of ridicule that made a Ty Cobb behave forever afterward on the field with insensate rage and vengeance, but Yogi ignored — and forgave. His own dignity (and his bat) at first silenced and then made ashamed his ridiculers.
Yogi was unique. He is probably the only guy in history who wrote a book but never read one. The jokes were endless. But there was no cutting edge to them. Sometimes they even illustrated Yogi’s innate kindness to his fellow man. Like the fellow who rousted him out of bed in the early morning, “Did I wake you up, Yogi?” he chirped. “Oh no,” apologized Yogi. “I had to get up to answer the phone anyway.”
Then there was the balloon salesman in Washington who had a fistful of dirigible-sized balloons. “Want one, Yogi? For the kids.” “Oh, no,” said Yogi. “I’d never be able to get them in the suitcase.”
People smile when his name is mentioned. Housewives who are not sure what city Yankee Stadium is in feel a glow of affection for Yogi Berra. Their kids know a cartoon character named Yogi Bear who owes his existence to Yogi Berra’s, and they laugh with and love them both.
Yogi was a catcher who was as chatty as a Bronx housewife behind the plate. He’s lonelier now in the outfield. So he chats with the fans.
The New York Yankees came into Cincinnati on their special train at 9 o’clock in the morning on Friday. Yogi Berra was out at the ballpark at 11:30. He was practising catching fly balls on the left-field incline, a professional to the core even after so many World Series and so many records it takes calculation machines the size of election coverage computers to list them all.
There was a curiously sad tableau taking place in the park as Yogi arrived. High in the back of the stands as Yogi Berra, a study in perseverance, chased thrown fly balls, a lonely, frightened man stood poised, naked, on the roof’s edge threatening to jump. He didn’t. He was coaxed down. But you wonder, watching Yogi Berra, how a man could give in to despair.
Yogi Berra thinks he’s lucky to be in baseball. I think it’s the other way around.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 60753, Pasadena, CA 91116
What is the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation?
The Jim Murray Memorial Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, established in 1999 to perpetuate the Jim Murray legacy, and his love for and dedication to his extraordinary career in journalism. Since 1999, JMMF has granted 104 $5,000 scholarships to outstanding journalism students. Success of the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation’s efforts depends heavily on the contributions from generous individuals, organizations, corporations, and volunteers who align themselves with the mission and values of the JMMF.
Like us on Facebook, and visit the JMMF website, www.jimmurrayfoundation.org.