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A Player of Deep Depth

By STEVEN V. ROBERTS
Sunday, March 22, 2009

YOGI BERRA

Eternal Yankee

By Allen Barra

Norton. 451 pp. $27.95

When I was 8 or 9, my dad took me to Yankee Stadium, and Yogi Berra, the Yankee catcher, hit a home run. I had a great view of the white ball arching into the blue sky, straining against gravity before it fell into the right-field stands. That day helped make me a lifelong Yankees fan.

So I picked up this book by Allen Barra (also a biographer of football coach Bear Bryant) with considerable anticipation. I was only slightly disappointed. This is a competent and comprehensive job, with enough stories and statistics to satisfy the most fervent fan. But it lacks wit or insight. I seldom sat up and said, "I never thought of it that way!"

Still, the story is strong enough to carry the book. It starts in the Italian neighborhood of St. Louis, where Lawrence Peter Berra was born to immigrant parents almost 84 years ago. He got the name Yogi as a teenager, when a friend thought he looked like a yoga teacher in a movie travelogue. And while he carried pictures of his parents in his wallet well into his 60s, he ignored their wishes and dropped out of school in the eighth grade to concentrate on baseball. When he was 17, a scout delivered this prophetic report: "He does everything wrong but it comes out right." His first contract with the Yankees in 1943 was for $90 a month (new Yankee lefthander CC Sabathia will make more than $6,000 per pitch). After the Navy he joined the Yankees for good in 1947. Over the next 12 years, "the Yogi Berra era," the Yanks won 10 pennants and eight World Series rings.

Those were the years that shaped my loyalties, and while backing the Yankees has often been compared to rooting for U.S. Steel, I want to defend my fellow fans. We were rooting for professionalism and consistency. All you Chicago Cubs fans can have your "lovable losers"; I'll take a winner any day. The Yanks were defined by two forms of excellence: Joe DiMaggio, lean and limber, epitomized grace and beauty; Yogi Berra, short and squat, didn't "even look like a Yankee," but he sure played like one. Joe D. was remote, larger than life; Yogi B. was real and life-size. "He was the guy," said teammate Mickey Mantle, "who made the Yankees seem almost human."

That humanity was often turned into parody. "Even among the many who liked and admired Yogi," the author writes, "the attitude was often grossly condescending." The result was "a pseudo-Yogi that took on a life of its own," a cartoon sketch of "a simple clown . . . an innocent child of the streets." Yogi chafed at the insults but choked back his feelings, and in the end the clown had the last laugh. Always shrewd with money (he sold horse manure as a kid for a nickel a plop), he had more endorsement deals than any other athlete of his day. A commercial he cut years ago for Aflac insurance is still popular: In it, Yogi says: "They give you cash, which is just as good as money." That line was written for him, but many of his famous sayings were original. Take: "You can observe a lot just by watching." Or: "We have deep depth." Or: "It's déjà vu all over again." And his most famous line: "It ain't over till it's over."

The era of Yankee Stadium, the one where I saw Yogi hit that home run, is now over. A new ballpark opens this spring, and as the old one was shutting down, I realized that my most indelible memories were not of the players I saw on the field. They were of the people I sat next to in the stands. But it was Yogi and his teammates who brought me and my dad together on those summer days long ago, and I'm grateful for that gift.

Steven V. Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University and is completing a book about new immigrants to America.

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