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Yogi Berra, American philosopher

New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra has died. He was 90. (AP Photo)

Parents say it to their frustrated little leaguers three-quarters of the way into a rough game. Friends say it to disconsolate fans when their favorite team trails in the pennant race.

“It ain’t over till it’s over.”

The original quote — or something like it — appeared in the summer of 1973, when Yogi Berra’s Mets were floundering at the bottom of their division and rumors circulated that Berra might lose the manager’s job. A reporter asked, “Is it all over, Yogi?”

“It ain’t over till it’s over,” he replied. Berra was right. The team would go on to win their division and barrel through the postseason, thwarted only by the Oakland Athletics in the final game of the World Series.

“When you come to a fork in the road … take it,” intentionally or not, captured the uncertainty of life at critical junctures. And “you can observe a lot by watching” is just plain genius, deployed in every discipline.

[Yogi: The most famous quotes from the most quotable American]

Berra always insisted that he didn’t try to say the things he said; they just came out. And often, they were mocked.

The utterances of some philosophers lose meaning with time. No one understands them. Yogi’s gained meaning with age, and everyone knows what they mean. “It ain’t over till it’s over” — the aspirational assertion of someone whose season was almost certainly doomed — has become a time-honored truism, and not just about baseball.  Like other “Yogisms,” it has a sort of intuitive insight. It technically doesn’t mean anything (just ask a grammarian), but at the same time, it says everything: about tenacity, about possibility, about the “Ya gotta believe” mythology shared by ballplayers and American dreamers.

It makes sense that this sort of wisdom would come from a baseball player. Fans will say there’s something soulful about the sport, with its pastoral origins, gentlemen-like sensibilities (see: the infield fly rule, implemented to prevent infielders from pulling a fast one on the opposing team’s runners) and leisurely pace. It’s a game of mythologies, traditions and codes, one that grew up alongside America itself. Baseball metaphors — “curveball,” “hit-or-miss,” “out of left field,” “batting 1000” — are already part of our national dialect. No wonder we’ve adopted Berra’s oxymoronic musings too.

[Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra dies at 90]

Berra, who died Tuesday, is a baseball icon for his smart catching, powerful hitting and leadership on one of the most indomitable teams in the history of the sport. But his Yogisms are what make him a national icon, skirting past absurd to become the quintessential American philosopher.

“He has a native intelligence, an innate wisdom, and a wonderful way of cutting through all the folderol and getting to the heart of a matter,” wrote New York sportswriter Phil Pepe, who covered the Yankees in the 1960s while Berra played in the Bronx. “When he says something that seems funny, it really isn’t funny at all; it is wise.”

Part of the weird magic of Berra’s wisdom was that he was such an unlikely source. Growing up in St. Louis in the 1930s, Berra was an indifferent student who quit school after eighth grade. Asked in a Baseball Hall of Fame interview how he did academically, he replied, “Not too good. You see, I break up the English a little bit. I don’t mean to do it, but it just comes out that way.”

A bit later, he added that his favorite part of school was recess. Because that’s when you got to play ball.

But Berra was accustomed to being underestimated. He had dealt with it as an athlete as well. He told the New York Times in 1975 that his childhood teammates laughed at him for his clumsiness and stumpy stature, and Yankees General Manager Larry MacPhail said that when he saw Berra for the first time, his initial thought was, “This guy can’t play baseball. He looks like the bottom man of an unemployed acrobatic team.”

Berra countered those snubs with a classic Yogism: “I never saw anyone hit with his face.”

Sure, Berra wasn’t classically good-looking, but he didn’t need good looks to play. Berra took no time proving himself on the diamond, and found that his unassuming appearance and goofball reputation served him well off of it.

“He has continued to allow people to regard him as an amiable clown because it brings him quick acceptance, despite ample proof, on field and off, that he is intelligent, shrewd and opportunistic,” New York baseball writer Robert Lipsyte said in 1963, when Berra was made a Yankees manager.

Berra, Lipsyte argued, was lovable because he was fallible. Men like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio were respected, certainly. But they were too talented, too poised, too tall (both stood over 6 feet) to really win fans’ hearts.

Yogi was different. He was a son of immigrants who dropped out of school, who worked in a coal yard at age 14, who struggled to put his thoughts into words, who was the butt of jokes even as he became the stuff of legend. He was less Greek hero than folk hero. Which is exactly the kind of hero that appealed to Americans.

With age, Berra gained gravitas. His witticisms, real and imagined (Mickey Mantle once estimated that Berra only uttered a third of the quotes attributed to him, and Berra himself insisted, “I really didn’t say everything I said”) were mocked less and admired more. By the ’80s, he’d become a sort of baseball wise man, and by the ’90s, his sayings became the subject of serious study.

In 1997, more than three dozen legal scholars devoted a 95-page journal article to explaining how Yogisms could be used to replace sentences from the California Civil Code.

“This essay will examine Yogi’s wisdom and demonstrate the parallels between judges’ and legislators’ comments and what Yogi said; only Yogi said it better,” they wrote.

Another researcher authored a study on “the sociology of sport and humor” citing Berra’s odd aphorisms.

Most of Berra’s Yogisms were paradoxes (“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be”) or tautologies (“You can observe a lot by watching”). In grammatical terms, they were either blatantly nonsensical or blatantly obvious.

But putting aside the awkward phrasing, they often seemed to get at something true. An imagined perfect world would inevitably be flawed. You really do see more if you just sit and watch. Somehow, Berra’s mispronouncements became accidental adages, the kinds of thing a dad might say to a dejected daughter after a bad day at the ballpark.

No one understood that better than the man who heard them first, Berra’s childhood friend and competitor Joey Garagiola. When Gil Hodges became Mets manager in 1968, Garagiola offered him some advice about Berra, who was then a coach.

“When Yogi says something, go to the bank with it,” Garagiola recalled to the New York Times. “He might not say it right, but he knows what he’s talking about.”