Remembering the Quintessential Yankee

No question about it, Yogi Berra (1925-2015) was an American original. With his passing earlier this week at age 90 it is now more obvious than ever before. As one of the Hall of Fame players from the Yankee dynasty of the 1950s and early 1960s, a team that also included Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, to a legendary post-baseball career as pundit and sage Yogi (and he needed no other name) was a great and honorable man. He was also a genuine personality.

Who hasn’t heard some of his witticisms (Yogisms): “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” or “It ain’t over till it’s over,” or “Half this game is ninety percent mental.” And then there is my personal favorite, “We may be lost but we’re making good time.” That last one seems to sum up so much about our modern society. His folksy wit demonstrates a keen mind, one that gets to the heart of any issue. I recently read The Yogi Book containing a lot of his wit and wisdom. It was a fun read, and gave me a renewed appreciation of this Hall of Fame baseball player and folk hero.

Aside from his knack for summing up great philosophical thoughts in pithy phrases, Yogi Berra was also one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Yogi may not have been the leaders of the Yankees in the one of its most legendary dynasties, that was Mickey Mantle, but I believe he was its most essential element.

During his time with the New York Yankees, 1946-1963, Berra played on more pennant winners, 14, and enjoyed more World Series victories, 10, than any other player in Major League Baseball (MLB) history. Was Yogi the greatest catcher ever to play, even more important than Johnny Bench? Was he one of a handful of the most indispensible Yankees ever to take the field? I think so. Along with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and perhaps Derek Jeter, Yogi Berra’s exploits have defined Yankee greatness through the ages.

Not bad for a kid from the Hill district of St. Louis, whose friend and baseball rival Joe Garagiola says was the best to ever play the game. Both played together and against each other while growing up in the Italian section of that city. Both were scouted by the St. Louis Cardinals, but Branch Rickey signed only Garagiola to a Cardinals contract. He did not think Berra had what it took to play beyond the minor leagues.

In a Karmic sort of way that dumb decision ranks right up there with the Cardinals snookering the Chicago Cubs out of Lou Brock by trading Ernie Broglio for him in 1964. As a Cardinals fan I kick myself thinking about how Yogi Berra would have helped them in the 1940s, 1950s, and the early 1960s when they already had a good team that might have become a dynasty to rival the Yankees. With such a talented catcher as Berra on the field with Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, and Red Schoendienst, I would be surprised if they had not won several more championships.

But he became a Yankee, perhaps the quintessential Yankee. Even more than playing catcher better than anyone else of his era, Yogi also excelled both at managing and at life. He took the Yankees to the World Series in 1964, only to lose in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. At least the Cards got even in that one instance. Yogi was also a good and decent human being, a folksy sage who mentored the young and stayed close to his family.

Yogi Berra had just passed 9oth birthday on May 12. I’m sorry to learn of his passing. Here’s to Yogi’s high quality life. While I am not a Yankee fan I am certainly happy to cheer this one.

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