Book Review: Yogi

Like so many of his catch phrases, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction on how Lawrence Peter Berra was given the nickname “Yogi.” The prevailing theory is that after he and his teenage friends saw a movie travelogue featuring an Indian fakir who resembled Berra, the moniker from his pals stuck.

And so began the life of “Yogi,” considered by all objective measurements to be the greatest player at baseball’s most demanding position. He wasn’t physically imposing by today’s standard of player, but Berra played on more pennant-winning Yankee teams (14) and more World Series winners (10) than any player, while accumulating three MVP awards. He’s also the most quoted American since Abraham Lincoln and ranks with Winston Churchill as the most quoted figure of the 20th century.

There have been numerous books published on Berra’s views on baseball, anecdotes about how and why he came up with those malapropos (“When you come to the fork in the road, take it.”) and a memoir in 1989. Now, however, Allen Barra has authored the first comprehensive biography of Berra in “Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee.” Beyond his formative years growing up, to his salad days with the Yankees, to a post-baseball career that includes TV commercials and an infamous reconciliation with George Steinbrenner, Barra examines an important question: Do we take Yogi Berra seriously?

His answer is no. Yogi’s lifetime friend from “The Hill” and former Cardinals catcher Joe Garagiola agrees. Garagiola gives a surprising reply to the question “What’s the first word that springs to mind when you think of Yogi?” “Underrated,” replies Garagiola in the book. That Garagiola should call Yogi underrated is, of course, ironic, writes Barra, since it was Joe who helped create the mindset that caused him to be underrated.

Through decades of telling Yogi stories, many real and some apocryphal, Garagiola seems to be living vicariously through Yogi’s life. “He undermined the perception of Berra as a great player and competitor and replaced it with the image of an amiable clown who was lucky enough to have been around when the Almighty handed out roster spots on winning teams,” writes Barra. The author doesn’t imply that was Garagiola’s intention, but the stories, repeated endlessly on television, created a pseudo-Yogi. Of course Yogi shares some of the blame or credit for his image. “They’ve been doing it to Yogi for nearly 60 years,” writes Barra., “and for nearly 60 years, Yogi, instead of doing what almost anyone else would have done, nursing resentment and allowing bitterness to fester, has had the last laugh by turning the pseudo-Yogi into a cash cow.”