NEW YORK – Baseball people tell a wonderful story about Yogi Berra, who died Tuesday at age 90, and the most famous home run in history.
Yogi and a couple of his New York Yankees pals went to Game 3 of the Dodgers-Giants playoff for the 1951 National League pennant, eager to see who they’d face the next day in the World Series opener. But when Brooklyn took a late 4-1 lead, Yogi told his buddies it was time to leave the Polo Grounds.
Yep, Yogi said it was over. They needed to beat the late-afternoon traffic. So the man cherished for saying “it ain’t over till it’s over” missed seeing Bobby Thomson’s home run.
Did it really happen that way?
Yogi always insisted that some of the sayings that put him in “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” and into the heart of American lexicon didn’t actually come out of his mouth.
Not that he put up too much of a protest.
In fact, only once could people ever remember him getting angry. Watch how mad he gets when the plate umpire called Jackie Robinson safe on a steal of home in the 1955 World Series.
A half-century later, Yogi still was steamed.
There’s a big picture of the play at his museum in Montclair, New Jersey. Almost every time he’d walk past that shot, he’d grumble: “You’re out.”
Until recent years, Yogi was a fixture at Yankee Stadium. He’d pop into the pinstriped clubhouse on days of big events at the ballpark, or sometimes he’d just show up unannounced.
Derek Jeter would stop whatever he was doing to visit with Yogi. All the stars made time for him. Rookies would point and, eyes wide, marvel that his man, barely over 5 1/2 feet tall and stooped over a cane, commanded such a presence.
It was hard for them to imagine that he’d been such a great – a slugging catcher who earned three American League MVP awards and won a record 10 World Series titles. Or fully take in that this soft-spoken person had spawned such lore and a legacy.
Of course, everybody who crowded around him hoped to hear a Yogi-ism. Just one. They’d ask him questions and get him to tell stories, ears alert for something funny.
Maybe a “thank you for making this day necessary.” Or a “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
More often than not, nope. He’d talk for a bit, make observations about a player or a game, and that was it.
Nothing hilarious, nothing new to post on Twitter or go viral on Vine.
Not that anyone seemed disappointed. Far from it.
Former Yankees fan favorite Paul O’Neill fondly recalls one of his best days at the ballpark. It was the time he spent with Yogi in an equipment manager’s office.
O’Neill said he sat mesmerized as Yogi talked about being aboard a Navy gunboat at the D-Day invasion. No boasting, just telling how it was. That, and reminiscing about spring training in the 1940s and the way things were.
I can remember approaching Yogi in spring training in 1988, working on a story about the dearth of good catchers in the majors. He was a coach then for the Houston Astros. On a morning in Haines City, Florida, hours before an exhibition game against the Royals, he was standing by himself in the dugout.
He didn’t have an aura around him, like a Sandy Koufax or Reggie Jackson. He wasn’t a huge physical presence, like Dave Winfield or Willie Stargell.
A couple of questions, a couple of quotes – “Maybe they’re scared to catch. We didn’t know any better” – and an impish smile.
Simply Yogi, right there.
A day after he died, the tributes poured in from the sports world and beyond.
Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn, a New Jersey native, began his regular Wednesday news conference with a nod to him, even before talking about a big upcoming game against the Cowboys.
“I’d like to give a little recognition to Yogi Berra today,” Quinn said. “Anytime you’re a 10-time world champion, that shows what a good career you’ve had. That’s a stellar career. What a neat guy.”
As fans traded their favorite Yogi-isms, it was nice to see another one emerge, thanks to Johnny Bench. The Reds Hall of Famer posted a picture of a telegram he got from Yogi right after topping his mark for home runs by a catcher.
“I knew my record would stand,” Berra wrote Bench, “until it was broken.”
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