Friday, September 25, 2015

Appreciating Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra has passed away, beloved by multiple generations of baseball fans. As much as his assorted "Yogi-isms" were such a delight and made him an American cultural icon beyond baseball, and though the culture often had fun with his seemingly unathletic physique, Berra was very much an athlete—strong, faster than he looked, especially in his youth, and quickand one of the great players of his generation. He played in 14 World Series and managed in two, one with the Yankees and one with the Mets. And he was a man of great dignity and personal integrity, best revealed the two occasions he was fired as Yankee manager. His death comes almost exactly forty years to the day after that of his managerial mentor, Casey Stengel.

Appreciating Yogi Berra

There were four catchers in the debate about the best in history at the time Berra made the Yankees for good in 1947, alternating his rookie season between catcher and the outfield. Three were contemporaries in the late-1920s through the 1930s—Gabby Hartnett of the Cubs, Mickey Cochrane of the Athletics and then the Tigers, and the Yankees' Bill Dickey—and the fourth was 19th century catcher Buck Ewing, one of the earliest entrants into the Hall of Fame

There was no question the Berra kid could hit. The Yankees were still debating what position he should play, however, when Dickey took charge of "learning me his experience," as Yogi put it in one of his earliest Yogi-isms. The two made for an odd couple, at least by appearance—the tall, lanky, statesman-like Bill Dickey at 6-1 and 185, and the short, stout, arguably-neanderthalish Berra at 5-7 and also 185. Anyway, Berra proved a superb pupil and, appearances notwithstanding, had the athletic attributes Dickey could leverage in learning the seemingly awkward kid his experience.

While Mickey Mantle was the superstar when the Yankees dominated the American League in the 1950s, Yogi provided critical ballast. He was a dangerous hitter to complement the Mick, made more so by his uncanny ability to hit pitches out of the strike zone that might have been meant to set him up or throw him off-stride. Perhaps more importantly in the grand scheme of championship baseball, Berra was a fine defensive catcher and savvy handler of the Yankee pitching staff, and his leadership and knowledge of the game caused Mr. Stengel to call Yogi his "assistant manager." 

In the 10 years from 1949 to 1958, while the Yankees were winning 9 pennants, Berra hit at least 20 home runs every year, with a career-high 30 in both 1952 and 1956. He drove in over 100 runs five times, including four seasons in a row from 1953 to 1956. All this while playing baseball's most demanding position, long before the armor and accoutrements of the modern catcher. And he was durable. In the seven years from 1950 to 1956, Berra caught at least 137 games every year. He was in at the finish of 93 percent of the games he started.

Indicative of his value to the Yankees, Yogi Berra won three MVP Awards, in 1951, 1954 (when, ironically, the Yankees did not win the pennant), and 1955—sixty years ago—which is the focus of most posts on Baseball Historical Insight this season. Beginning in 1958, when he turned 33 but already had nearly 1,500 major league games under his belt, Berra was typically platooned behind the plate with Elston Howard, which nonetheless meant he had by far the most catching responsibility because he was the left-handed-batting half of the platoon. His playing career began winding down in 1960, when he began alternating between catching and playing left field. Howard became the Yankees' regular catcher in 1961, and Berra a valuable part-time catcher-outfielder.

Berra took over as the Yankees' manager in 1964 and retired as a player. In a very eventful season that included the Phil Linz harmonica incident, the most important thing is that he led the Yankees to a pennant they won by a single game after the team looked lost for much of the summer. After falling in seven games to the Cardinals in the World Series, Yogi was gracelessly fired, in a decision that had apparently been made when the Yankee struggles earlier in the summer raised questions about his leadership abilities.

As manager of the Mets, Berra is most remembered for saying “it ain’t over till it’s over” when the 1973 Mets were in last place in mid-August, and then managing his team to the division title and into the World Series by beating an early iteration of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine (winners of 99 games to the Mets’ 82) in the NLCS. Alas, his team was once again on the losing side of a 7-game World Series. But perhaps Berra's best Mets legacy was holding the team together in trying circumstances in 1972 when he took charge following the death of their beloved manager Gil Hodges, who suffered a massive heart attack in spring training. 

Returning to the Yankees as a coach after being fired by the Mets in 1975, Berra got to manage the entire 1984 season for George Steinbrenner, not without having to endure considerable Boss interference. He was summarily dismissed just 16 games into the 1985 season, with Steinbrenner sending his GM to do the dirty workan event that said much about the relative integrity of both men and ruptured his relationship with the Yankees for nearly the entire rest of the 20th century.

Bill James in 2001 concluded that Yogi Berra was the best catcher in baseball history. Ahead of Hartnett, Cochrane, and Dickey who came before. Ahead of Campanella who was a contemporary. Ahead of even Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Ivan Rodriguez who came later. Given that Joe Mauer, despite having won three batting championships as a catcher, caught 100 games in only five of his 10 big-league seasons before moving over to first base, and that this year will mark only the fourth time Buster Posey has caught 100 or more games, it seems safe to conclude that James's judgment still holds: Yogi Berra, baseball's best catcher ever. 

A final thought: Casey Stengel exited this world on September 29, 1975, almost exactly 40 years ago. Not only was Stengel a mentor to Berra as a leader and game-manager, just as Dickey was to Berra's catcher's skill set, but they were two of the game's most colorful personalities in the use of language—both of whose clever, confusing, confounding words contained (when pondered) some profound meaning, observation, or immutable truth. 

Yogi, of course, was the master of the one-line quip; Casey of the telling anecdote, although each could do the other. They would have made for a great vaudeville act, which was not an uncommon off-season gig for some of the higher-profile names in baseball in the early days of the 20th century. They could have had a dueling banjos kind of act between Stengel-speak and Yogi-speak.

Of course, we were now in the middle of the 20th century. Still, it would have been fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment