Berra remembered for "Yogi-isms" and MVPs

March 29, 2012

FOX Sports presents "The Boys in the Hall," a series featuring
interviews with legendary members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Check your local listings on June 17 for showings of "The Boys In The
Hall" featuring Yogi Berra.

It was 1986, long after Yogi Berra was a Hall of Fame catcher/left fielder for the New York Yankees and a manager for the Yankees and the New York Mets.

Berra was a bench coach for the Houston Astros, a team destined to lose a fabulous NLCS series to the Mets that season.

It was a stifling hot, muggy day outside, but inside the hideous Astrodome there was air-conditioned comfort during batting practice.

Berra was seated in the Astros dugout, one foot propped on the bench and the other planted on the floor boards, a bat in his hands.

I hadn't had much personal contact with Berra and knew him mostly by reputation, a reputation for malapropisms and fractured English that was so famous a cartoon character named Yogi Bear was concocted in his, uh, honor.

Needing a pre-game story, I wandered into the dugout and opened my notebook, expecting Berra to fill it with some of his pithy and twisted sayings.

Maybe it was the non-penetrating questions I asked, but it was a quick and boring conversation and the only quotable thing he said was, "I really didn't say everything I said."

That was funny and I jotted it in my notebook, only to be disappointed when veteran Cincinnati writer Earl Lawson told me, "He says that all the time."

Although it is disputed, Berra is credited as the first to say, "It ain't over ‘til it's over," a quote that has become a sports cliché.

Some of the better Yogi-isms that may or may not have been uttered by Berra:

Giving directions: "When you come to the fork in the road, take it."

About a famous restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

Asked if he wanted his pizza sliced in six or eight pieces: "Make it six pieces. I can't eat eight."

Answering Mets owner Joan Payson on a hot day when she told Berra he looked very cool: "You don't look so hot yourself."

For many fans of this generation, that's who Yogi Berra is — a real life Yogi Bear. They need to watch the black-and-white film of his playing days to grasp how good Yogi was behind the plate and in the batter's box.

When it came to catching, from 1946 to 1965 Berra was the end-all/be-all, despite his 5-foot-7, 185-pound body that was an anti-baseball build.

And that's how Larry Berra became Yogi. A friend, Bobby Hofman, saw a movie and thought a Hindu holy man, a yogi, resembled Berra. The name stuck.

Berra wasn't a holy man, just a holy terror on the field, where he incredibly made All-Star teams 18 times, including 17 years in a row, and played in 14 World Series.

His face was craggy and people poked fun, to which Yogi once said, "So I'm ugly. I never saw anybody hit with his face."

He was a portrait of consistency and while he was American League MVP three times (1951, 1954, 1955) he never led the league in any offensive category.

He finished with a career .285 batting average with 358 homers and 1,430 RBI.

And you could not strike the man out -- only 414 strikeouts in 8,364 at-bats. He never struck out more than 38 times in a season and in 1950 he struck out once every 50 at-bats.

Nor could you walk him -- only 704 walks in his career.

Pitchers couldn't strike him out or walk him because he never saw a pitch he didn't like, swinging at any pitch in the same zip code and many of his hits came on deliveries eye-high or ankle-low.

Of his approach at the plate, Berra once said, "You can't think and hit at the same time." And most famously, he said, "Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical."

Defensively as a catcher, he led the league in assists three times, led the league in throwing out baserunners four times, led the league in putouts eight times. And he led the league in errors three times.

When the New York Yankees had a day for him after his career, he stepped to the microphone and said, "I'd just like to thank everybody for making this night necessary."

What was necessary was for the baseball writers to put Berra into the Hall of Fame, which they did in 1972 when he was on 339 of the 396 ballots.

There is a fork in the road near Cooperstown and Berra took it, entering the Hall of Fame, even though it's crowded.