Yogi Berra: the man behind baseball’s greatest catchphrases

<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

Yogi Berra took a lot of ribbing for his looks when he joined the New York Yankees in the 1940s. The Pinstripes were the premier organization in Major League Baseball, and their new backstop was told he was too ugly to be a Yankee. Yet he went on to an extraordinary career in MLB, first as a player and then as a manager, making quirky, and often incisive, observations throughout, including “It ain’t over till it’s over” (although there is some doubt whether he ever uttered that phrase). A new documentary on Berra references this “Yogi-ism” in its title – It Ain’t Over, directed by Sean Mullin.

The film is a sweet tribute to Berra, who died at age 90 in 2015. It recently made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and is also screening at the Nantucket Film Festival, which starts on 22 June. Berra’s granddaughter Lindsay Berra, who features in the film, praises her grandfather’s response to jokes from teammates about his appearance.

“He had the witty response, ‘I never saw anyone hit with his face,’” Lindsay Berra says. “I know he was really good at letting stuff roll off of his back.”

Yogi-isms have become part of American culture, with eight included in the most recent volume of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, more than any US president. Among them: “Slump? I ain’t in no slump. I just ain’t hitting.” As a pitchman for products from Yoo-Hoo to Aflac, he played upon this persona, befuddling the Aflac duck with statements like “and they give you cash, which is just as good as money.”

Panels in the film pair various Yogi-isms with sayings from other sages throughout history, from Confucius to Einstein. “If you come to a fork in the road, take it” accompanies Robert Frost’s observation, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by.”

Asked which of her grandfather’s quotes are her favorites, Lindsay Berra says she likes the existential ones, such as “The future ain’t what it used to be” and “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.” She notes that the Berra family has embraced the fork-in-the-road philosophy – originally a description of Montclair, New Jersey, where both forks in a road led to Yogi’s home. The family use Berra’s saying as a reminder to stop procrastinating.

Related: Yogi Berra obituary

The family participated in the documentary, joining forces with Mullin, a West Point graduate who served in the National Guard as a 9/11 first responder. At Ground Zero, he was the officer in charge over several months while doing stand-up comedy in the evening. His multifaceted career gave him perspective. The film seeks to present Berra beyond the quotes and other offbeat moments – such as getting into a tiff as Yankees manager over a loud harmonica session on the team bus, or his concerns about the emergence of a certain cartoon character named Yogi Bear.

“This is something that’s really personal to me,” Mullin says. “Society has a very difficult time allowing somebody to be both funny and good. You can either be one or the other … I was a standup comedian for a while, then I went to West Point. People didn’t know how to place me. If you don’t fit into a box, people get nervous.”

Born Lorenzo Pietro Berra in 1925, he grew up in an Italian-American section of St Louis. When Berra sat cross-armed and cross-legged watching games, it invited comparisons to a yogi. During the second world war, Berra participated in a dangerous assignment for the Navy on D-Day. A devoted family man, he exchanged poignant love letters with his wife, Carmen, whom he met when she was waitressing at Biggie’s restaurant in St Louis. The restaurant inspired his quote “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” while Yogi and Carmen’s marriage of 64 years led him to reflect, “We’re together even when we’re not together.”

As a player, Berra was very good indeed. His 1,430 RBIs are the most for a catcher. He excelled at hitting bad balls and coming through in the clutch. He and his Yankees teammate Joe DiMaggio are the only players to hit 350 or more home runs while striking out fewer than 400 times in their career. Berra won three American League MVP awards and a record 10 World Series titles as a player from 1946 to 1963. As the film notes, he bridged different eras of Yankee greatness, from Babe Ruth to DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle.

“Even now, I think he’s underestimated as a player, and I want the documentary to make people remember just how good he was,” Lindsay Berra says.

And it’s not just his family who testify to his greatness. “In the film, we were fortunate enough to interview so many incredible people,” says Mullin, who was particularly moved by one expert’s takeaway: “John Thorn is the official MLB historian and we have him on record … saying Yogi’s the greatest catcher who ever played the game.”

Berra also thrived after his playing days. He added three championship rings as a coach – one with the New York Mets in the miracle season of 1969, and two with the Yankees during their mid-1970s resurgence. As a manager, he took two different teams to the World Series, the 1964 Yankees and 1973 Mets. While both lost, it was that ‘73 Mets team’s climb to the National League pennant that inspired another Yogi-ism – “You’re not out of it until it’s mathematical,” which evolved into “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Referencing Berra’s longtime manager with the Yankees, Lindsay Berra says, “One of the things Casey Stengel said about Grandpa was that he could fall in a sewer and come up with a gold watch … I know that players enjoyed playing for him and that he was really good at putting guys in positions to succeed.”

However, his second stint as Yankees manager ended just 16 games into the 1985 season, when owner George Steinbrenner fired him through a subordinate. Berra’s son, Dale, was a player on that team. The firing marked a tough stretch for both father and son. Yogi vowed never to visit Yankee Stadium again, while Dale subsequently was involved in a drug scandal. Dale turned drug-free after some tough love from his father, and published a memoir about his experiences. As for Yogi, he and Steinbrenner eventually made up, prompted by team broadcaster Suzyn Waldman. When the reunion turned stormy, Carmen Berra intervened to defuse tensions. In 1999, Yogi ended a 14-year exile and returned to Yankee Stadium for Yogi Berra Day, with World Series perfect-game pitcher Larsen in attendance. The result on the field? Another perfect game, by Yankee David Cone, against the Montreal Expos.

“I think Bob Costas said it best in the documentary,” Mullin says. “George Steinbrenner was a polarizing figure but obviously loved the Yankees and loved Yogi, and there was a strain on their relationship.” He adds, “Great stories involve difficult situations. I think the way it turned out ultimately, at the end, was wonderful and for the best.”

How to sum up Yogi Berra? Well, with the Mets, he once noticed up-and-coming player Ron Swoboda trying to hit like Frank Robinson. Yogi’s advice: “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.” Yogi Berra was truly inimitable.

  • This article was amended on 21 June 2022 to correct the year Yogi Berra took the New York Mets to the World Series. The Mets achieved that feat in 1973 rather than 1972, as we had stated in the original article.