|Yogi Berra (left) with teammate Mickey Mantle in 1956. (Associated Press/File)|
Catching up with Yogi
Author Allen Barra opens his acknowledgements with a telling quote from Red Sox great Ted Williams, who once cautioned a prospective Yogi Berra biographer: "If you don't write a good book about Mr. Yogi Peter Berra, I will have you killed."
Barra can relax. Even the Splendid Splinter, as cantankerous as he was, surely would have approved of Barra's ode to Berra. "Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee," is a comprehensive and compelling look at one of baseball's most beloved players and characters.
It's been a long, strange, and remarkable trip on the way to Cooperstown for Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, from his hardscrabble youth growing up in the "Dago Hill" section of St. Louis to his little-known World War II exploits, through his glory years as the charismatic catcher on one of the most famous sports teams ever - the muscular link between the Yankee dynasties of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle - and continuing through his managerial and sponsorship careers. Like Michael Jordan two decades later, Berra's popularity would transcend his adopted city, the team he played for, and even the game itself.
Berra, contends the author, was above all else a great ballplayer - a peerless clutch hitter and astute game tactician - a loyal teammate, and devoted family man. Conversely, one of Barra's primary objectives is to debunk the image of Yogi as a happy-go-lucky if rough-cut lug who was along for the ride aboard the Yankees gravy train. Barra writes not so much as a man possessed, but a fan enamored. Which leads him to occasional bouts of hyperbole. He also can't resist the self-indulgent exercise of comparing Yogi to Bill Dickey, Roy Campanella, Mickey Cochrane, and Johnny Bench to determine who was baseball's greatest catcher. To Barra's credit, though, he reserves this debate for the appendix section.
The son of Italian immigrants, Yogi spent his formative years on the sandlot fields of St. Louis. This set the foundation for his career, and likely kept him on track when many of his teammates (notably Mantle and Billy Martin) faltered.
Yogi's Navy service, rarely discussed, is riveting, and includes his part in the assault on Omaha Beach during D-Day.
And, of course, no biography of Yogi would be complete without a retrospective of "Yogiisms," including my favorite, "If you can't imitate him, don't copy him." True enough, Berra displayed an early propensity for malapropism. Still, while eloquence wasn't Yogi's strong suit, Barra proves he was undeniably intelligent, with a keen business mind, a clairvoyant feel for the game, and an insatiable drive to win.
Occasionally, Barra gets bogged down with comparative statistics, especially when sizing up World Series opponents. Think Billy Beane gone wild. But that's a quibble given the cornucopia of baseball lore presented.
Lending a final perspective is Barra's depiction of Yogi off the field, his endorsement deals (showcasing Yogi's "blissful unawareness of his own celebrity"), his disdain for the cartoon character Yogi Bear (made even more painful when his error-prone son, Dale, was tabbed with the nickname Boo-Boo, after the cartoon bear's sidekick), and his love of movies and comic books.
This work, however, is no comic book. At more than 400 pages, it is a tome. The sheer volume of research, normally reserved for historical figures, reinforces Barras's contention. Yogi Berra is a historical figure, every much as baseball is an integral and important part of our sports-mad society. This biography does him justice. It is, as Teddy Ballgame admonished, "a good book."
Boston-based writer Brion O'Connor can be reached at email@example.com.