Yogi Berra is known to America as the lovable master of the malaprop, a baseball icon never taken too seriously given his mildly comical utterances of wisdom during his glory days as a player, coach and manager.
But in his fascinating new book, Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee, author Allen Barra makes a compelling case that Berra's on-field contributions have not been taken as seriously as they should — the result of the clownish perception of the Hall of Fame catcher throughout his career.
As Barra writes, "No one, of course, has more of a right to benefit from any image of Yogi than Yogi himself. But though it has helped make him the most famous living former athlete, one of the most quoted Americans of the last two centuries . . . it may have cost him something as well. Namely the full measure of respect that should be accorded a man of Yogi's accomplishments."
Barra does a first-rate research and writing job in bringing Berra, now 83, to life, from his working-class Italian neighborhood in St. Louis through his rise — starting with fabled baseball executive Branch Rickey's fateful decision not to sign the promising prospect as a Cardinal — to what became an illustrious reign as the Yankees' star catcher from 1947 to 1963.
That sets up a fascinating exploration by Barra of what Rickey, who changed the course of baseball with his signing years later of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, might have been up to. Did the legendary executive simply blow it by signing Berra's childhood friend and future network announcer Joe Garagiola instead?
Or was Rickey, on the verge of heading to Brooklyn, simply "hiding" Berra with the intention of making him a Dodger?
The discussion of what might have been if Berra had played for those two National League clubs is interesting. Barra notes that the Cardinals finished second five times and third four times during Berra's playing days, concluding, "If the Cardinals had boasted Berra during that span, they might well have challenged the Dodgers for National League supremacy. Yogi, as a St. Louis boy, would have been, along with Stan Musial, one of the two most popular players in the history of America's greatest game."
Barra projects that Berra would have helped St. Louis win several pennants that never happened and would likely be immortalized with a statue next to Stan the Man's outside Busch Stadium. And had Berra become a Dodger, replacing the great Roy Campanella after the car accident that left him paralyzed, the prospects are even more intriguing.
The Yankees were baseball's winningest team during Berra's 17-year tenure — 1,649-989, with the Dodgers second at 1,560-1,080. Barra projects that Berra, who was fourth or higher in MVP voting from 1950 to 1956, made the difference in three Yankee wins per season. Taking those victories away from the Yankees and giving them instead to Brooklyn would have given the Dodgers the most wins in that span and likely helped them improve on their total of eight World Series titles.
Barra's book is a treasure trove of Yogi anecdotes and history, and a fun read to kick off the 2009 baseball season. You learn how Lawrence Peter Berra got his name: Larry and his pals from "the Hill" section of St. Louis went to the movies one day and saw a travelogue with an Indian yogi, and the friends thought Berra looked like him; the nickname caught on instantly. And you learn that Berra never said some of the famous Yogi-isms attributed to him in the situations people are sure he did.
And you learn how Berra might just be, as Barra asserts, highly and unjustly underrated; that despite the caricature image that would come to define him, there is a strong case to be made that Berra was the greatest catcher in baseball history.
Dave Scheiber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8541.