Happy Birthday Yogi

The thing I remember most about Yogi Berra was the silence that surrounded him, the thing I once called “expectant silence.” People always waited for him to say a Yogi Thing. People always waited for him to say that some restaurant was so crowded that nobody ever went there anymore or how early it gets late at Yankee Stadium, especially, that whatever it is, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. He handled the silences with grace because he was Yogi Berra.

The quotes — the many he said and the countless more that he probably did not — were fun, but after a while they came to define him, which never made any sense. It is like defining George Washington by his teeth. Yogi Berra lived the great American life.

He was there on D-Day, looking up at the sky with wonder until a commanding officer shouted for him the get his head down unless he wanted it blown off.

He was there playing for Newark in 1946. He was throughly raw, just out otf the Navy, the son of an Italian immigrant who cared nothing for baseball. People were cruel. “You must be sick,” a longtime Boston pitcher named Mike Ryba told him. “Nobody looks like that when he’s feeling well.” They called him ape. They called him ugly. In the first major Sporting News story about him appeared this sentence: “Berra has virtually no neck.”

Yogi was lonely. He went to the Marx Brothers “A Night in Casablanca,” again and again in every town Newark visited. The movies helped him through those hard years. “Did you ever see a bad movie?” he was asked by a reporter. “No,” he said, “they’re all good.”

And then he was there at Yankee Stadium, 21 years old, determined to prove the bastards wrong. There was a strange polarity to Yogi Berra’s baseball life. On the one hand, he swung at everything — he simply could not watch a baseball go by, no matter where it was thrown.

And on the other, nothing embarrassed him more than swinging and missing. That was what they wanted, the taunters, the doubters, the critics who longed to make him feel small. No, he had to swing, and he had to hit the ball, and though the two needs pulled apart, Yogi Berra did it anyway. He was the best bad ball hitter of his time, or perhaps any time. He hit 358 home runs and won three MVP awards. And he almost never struck out. In more than 8,000 plate appearances, he struck out just 414 times. In 1950, he came to plate 656 times. He struck out 12 of them.

“Don’t swing at those bad pitches,” he scolded Derek Jeter.

“You did!” Jeter said laughing.

“I hit them,” Berra said.

He was there to jump into Don Larsen’s arms after the most perfect of perfect games, there to play in 14 World Series, there to play, coach or manage in every New York World Series for two generations. No one won more than Yogi Berra.

He was there in Stan and Biggie’s — Musial’s restaurant in St. Louis — when he fell hard for a waitress named Carmen, and he mustered the courage to ask her out, and they were married for the rest of their lives.

He was there in Cooperstown, induction day, and he said, “I want to thank baseball. It has given me more than I could have ever hoped for.”

He was there for his family, his huge family, three sons, 11 grandchildren; there for his friends, particularly on Wednesday night. That was poker night for Yogi Berra.

It was an impossibly big life, and the bigness was easy to miss because he became so famous for the quotes, for the Yogi-isms, for “If you come to a fork in the road, take it,” and for “You can observe a lot by watching,” and for “How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time,” the last a quote he insisted that he never said even though people kept telling that he did.

In his honor, I’d like to throw five less reported Yogi-isms, ones he definitely said that maybe you’ve heard before and, then again, may you have not.

Yogi was playing golf with George Brett and others at a Hall of Fame outing. He hit his putt short. “If I had hit the ball harder,” he grumped, “I’d have missed it closer.”

Yogi’s granddaughter Lindsay, a colleague at MLB.com, tells the story of a time when she wrote a story about a tennis player. Yogi saw a photo of the guy and said, “You should date him.”

“Gramps,” Lindsay said, “He dates a swimsuit model.”

Yogi considered. “You got swimsuits,” he said.

“Darling, you said I won’t have time to miss you. What do you mean? I do miss you always.”

— Letter to Carmen from the road.

In 1949, a reporter asked Yogi Berra if he was ever late getting to Ebbetts Field.

“No,” he said, “I know I’m going to take the wrong train so I leave the house an hour early.”

The last time I saw Yogi, it was a rainy day in New Jersey, and Yogi looked out the window at the sky. All was gray and bleak. He stared out at the sky and rain for the longest time as if trying to figure it out.

“They’ll play,” Yogi Berra finally insisted. “They’ll play baseball today.”