They will talk today about all winning Yogi Berra did with the Yankees today, and about as enduring a picture as there is in baseball history, Yogi jumping into Don Larsen’s arms after Larsen’s World Series perfect game in 1956. They will talk about all the funny things he said and the character he became and the way he stayed away from the Yankees for 14 years once because of the way George Steinbrenner fired him one time. And they will talk about how not one New York Yankee was ever loved more than he was, across the nearly 70 amazing years from when he first put on pinstripes.
It will all be true, as much part of his record as the records he set when he was one of the great baseball players of his time and all time, and one of the most accomplished champions we’ve ever had in American sports. You have to know that when Derek Jeter finally won his fifth World Series in 2009, and Yogi was asked about it, he smiled and said, “Hey, he’s halfway to me.”
But it was always more than baseball with Yogi Berra. The measure of this man, the full measure you take now that he is dead at the age of 90, the true measure of everything that happened to him after his talent for hitting a baseball got him off the section of St. Louis known as The Hill, was the goodness in him, and the courage, because in addition to everything else, when Yogi was 18 in 1944, he was on the beach in Normandy.
He was a war hero before he was ever a baseball hero, because all kids like him were war heroes in that time, at places like Normandy. He went from there to Yankee Stadium and he married his lovely wife Carmen, became a father and a grandfather and, in his own way, became as famous as DiMaggio or Mantle or any of the Yankees he played with in one of the most celebrated eras any team has ever had in any sport. He was more than No. 8, as much as we loved calling him that. He led a wonderful American life, one that spoke of talent and friendship, duty and possibilities and decency.
He was funny, but never a clown. There was always this marvelous element of truth in the things that became part of his sweet, personal legend, whether he was telling the whole world that it ain’t over ‘till it’s over, or how it sure gets late early around here, or how some place was so crowded nobody goes there anymore.
My own favorite was always the one about Yogi running into Mayor John Lindsay and his wife Mary on the street one day, on a hot New York City summer day. Yogi happened to be wearing a seersucker suit. Mary Lindsay looked at him and said, “Yogi, you look so cool in that suit.”
And Yogi said, “Mrs. Lindsay, you don’t look so hot yourself.”
So he played on 10 Yankee teams that won the World Series, and he ended up managing both the Yankees and the Mets in the World Series, going to Game 7 with the Yankees in ’64 before losing, doing the same with the ain’t-over-‘till-it’s-over Mets in 1973. Those were times when he – briefly – made a lie out of something that Lou Piniella once said about him.
“I just want to go through life walking next to Yogi Berra,” Sweet Lou Piniella said.
In the later years of his life, there was this splendid shrine to him, the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University. Yogi called it “my second home.”
“Carmen and I,” he said, “we’ve got our home we live in. Then I’ve got this one, where I can come and visit my memories.”
I have told of this before, but there is a picture in my parent’s living room from the day when I went over to Yogi’s museum to give a talk. I brought my three sons over there with me, and my dad, who happened to be in town. In that picture, dad is standing behind my sons and me, standing there with Yogi.
Bene Lupica is 91 now. He was a bombardier in B-24s during World War II. Yogi was Seaman 1st Class Berra on Omaha Beach. So there was a bond between them about their service, and their patriotism. But they didn’t talk about that, even in the shorthand about war that heroes of those wars sometimes have. My dad was like everybody else in the place. He just wanted to talk baseball with Yogi Berra.
On our way home my dad said, “His memories are my memories, too.”
But Yogi would talk about Omaha Beach and that June day in 1944 when he and all those like him, the ones who made it home and the ones who didn’t, fought for their country as hard and well as any Americans ever have. Keith Olbermann asked Yogi about the war one time and this is what Yogi said:
“Being a young guy you didn’t think nothing of it until you got in it. And so we went 300 yards off the beach. We protect the troops. If they ran into trouble, we would fire rockets over. We had a lead boat that would fire one rocket. If it hits the beach, then everybody opens up. We could fire one rocket if we wanted to, or we could fire off 24 of them, 12 on each side. We stretched out 50 yards apart. And that was the invasion.”
And in that terse way, in that spare language, that was as good a definition of America as you are likely to hear.
The people who always knew Yogi as some comic character knew really didn’t know him at all. I was with him after Steinbrenner fired him in 1985, fired him just 16 games into the season, no season having ever ended that badly or that quickly, and there was no meanness in him, because there never was, even though he would stand his ground and stay away from the Yankees for a long time because of that firing.
Carmen was with us that day, and there was a moment when she left the room when he was still smiling at her, because all that time after he first saw her, she was still the girl of his dreams.
He pointed at her and made a gesture that took in the room we were sitting in, or maybe it took in his whole life.
“What are they gonna do to me?” he said.
Carmen died a year-and-a-half ago. Now Yogi is gone at 90. But my dad was right. Yogi doesn’t take all those memories with him. They’re ours. The way he was.