He's a philosopher with an eighth-grade education who has more entries in Bartlett's Quotations than Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and John Cheever. And he's a baseball Hall of Famer who played in more World Series games than anyone else.
Yet the story of Lawrence Peter Berra was still waiting to be told. So executive producer Andrew Walworth stepped up to the plate and made "Yogi Berra: Deja Vu All Over Again," airing Tuesday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. on WETA.
The future may not be what it used to be, but the story of Berra has never been better than told in this 67-minute biography hosted by sportscaster Bob Costas.
Costas, like Berra a native of St. Louis, accompanies the former catcher back to Berra's old Hill neighborhood, drawing out tales about his family and life in the late 1930s. Berra, 74, also demonstrates the children's game "bumbee," in which he and two other senior citizens try to throw Costas from their backs.
Such touches -- including excerpts from Berra's love letters to his wife, Carmen, and tapes of him playing with grandchildren in front of their New Jersey home -- give depth to the man known for seemingly inane yet ultimately profound sayings such as, "It ain't over until it's over."
"When you're making these programs, it's a process of discovery," said Walworth, who wrote the documentary's script with Jeffrey Peisch. "You can't make those things happen."
Ninety percent of the program is half sentimental, with "Yogi-isms" neatly headlining each section -- and providing opportunities for the inevitable pledge breaks.
"Deja Vu" has plenty of baseball clips as well, including Berra's first major league at-bat (a home run) and his famous leap into the arms of Don Larsen after the pitcher's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. New York baseball writers as well as former players such as Ted Williams, Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford expand on the legend of Berra, a three-time American League Most Valuable Player whose team appeared in the World Series 14 times (winning 10) during his 17 seasons.
The appealing profile also gets a boost from two well-known Yankees fans: Musician Marshall Crenshaw, who performs original compositions, and comedian Billy Crystal, who gives a fan's perspective. Many of the more than two dozen people interviewed also cite favorite Yogi-isms, ("When you come to a fork in the road, take it"), though all are at a loss to clearly define them.
"People genuinely wanted to be part of this project," Walworth said. The only obvious omission is Berra's boyhood friend Joe Garagiola, a former major league catcher whom the producers said they weren't able to schedule.
That Berra even made the major leagues was remarkable. He was a short, slow and somewhat awkward athlete who was rejected at a tryout by the hometown St. Louis Cardinals (they signed Garagiola instead).
A year later, after convincing the Yankees that he could play, he was so young he had to persuade his father to give approval, but he homered his first time up at bat in the Major League. By the time he retired, he held 20 league records and had played on more championship teams than any player.
Berra soon served a tour with the U.S. Navy, from 1943 to 1946, and served on a ship supporting troops in the D-Day invasion at Normandy. It's said he refused a Purple Heart because he didn't want to worry his mother.
Former New York Post writer Maury Allen says in the film he believes Berra represents the way people are supposed to be: honest, decent and humble.
Berra also is also a proud man, which is why he didn't officially return to Yankee Stadium for 14 years after being fired as manager 16 games into the 1985 season. The producers of "Deja Vu" benefit by being on hand for the reconciliation of Berra's feud with Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner.
But the filmmakers just missed Yogi Berra Day on July 18, when pregame ceremonies in which Berra was showered with gifts -- including a scheduled meeting with the pope -- were overshadowed by David Cone's perfect game.
Berra, no doubt, was thankful for everyone who made the day necessary.
"Deja Vu" is available on cassette from New River Media. Call 1-800-645-4727.