Yogi Berra, National Treasure
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The suspensions of two baseball players came less than a week after some living legends assembled in Cooperstown, New York. They were honoring this year's Hall of Fame inductees. The presence of one of those players inspired our commentator, Frank Deford.
FRANK DEFORD commenting:
I suppose folks would say Muhammad Ali is the most famous athlete living in this country, or possibly Michael Jordan. But then when I saw a certain someone the other day, it occurred to me, you know, there may another American sportsman who keeps coming back into our consciousness more than any other. Think about it when I say the name, Yogi Berra. Right?
`Listen up. I've got nothing to say, so I'm only going to say it once.' Yogi just recently had his 80th birthday. `I want to thank you for making this day necessary.' But he's part of our culture, isn't he, in ways that other great athletes never manage. Yogi remains the ultimate in athletic Americana.
It isn't just that he succeeded Gracie Allen for being the best at saying perfect things so imperfectly. `Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.' Neither is it said he's that rarest human being to have had a cartoon character named after him, the irrepressible Yogi Bear.
No, Yogi was so endearing from the first, even before we heard him mangle the language, because we could identify with him. He was the Yankee you rooted for even if you hated the Yankees. So many athletes are so tall and handsome, buffed. Berra was no more than 5'8, a blocky 195 pounds with a countenance that, well, left even the most generous beholders hard-pressed to find beauty. `So what? I never saw anyone hit with his face.'
He was just as fabulous behind the plate, catching, as he was beside it swinging. He knew the game intuitively, smart enough as a manager to win pennants in both the American and National Leagues. So what if he said goofy things? `It gets late early out here.'
Probably, too, he didn't utter quite all that's been attributed to him or, as Yogi himself explained it, `I didn't really say everything I said.' But, hey, it took Sheridan(ph) to make up Mrs. Malaprop and give us malapropism. Lawrence Peter Berra gave us Yogiism all by himself. But you knew that already, didn't you? So, of course, excuse me, `It's deja vu all over again.'
Yogi was back at Cooperstown last week, one of the oldest living Hall of Famers. `It ain't over till it's over.' As he enters his 80s, nature's noble man, he's trimmer than when he played, balding, bespectacled, wizened. Who would believe that this little old man schmoozing with all the sturdy big guys came out of World War II, bobbing in the waves, dodging the artillery, in a little 36-foot boat off of Normandy to become one of the finest athletes of his era, not to mention then going on to become something of a national treasure?
Good to see you again, Yogi, still being Yogi. Or if you do say so yourself, `If you can't imitate him, don't copy him.'
INSKEEP: Those are the inimitable comments of Frank Deford. His latest book is "The Old Ball Game," about baseball in America at the start of the 20th century. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.
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