“Why has our pitching been so great? Our catcher, that’s why. He looks cumbersome but he’s quick as a cat." —New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel, quoted in Jeremy Stahl, “Yogi Berra Wasn’t Trying to Be Witty,” Slate, September, 2015
Casey Stengel, who died 40 years ago today, knew a thing or two about how a comical persona can camouflage innate baseball intelligence. One senses, then, a deep affinity between him and his catcher, Yogi Berra, who likewise bridled at the image reporters created of him—until he learned how to play them as much as they played him, in the form of humorous ads (like the Aflac commercials) in his old age..
I wish I could say my noticing the nature of this relationship was unusual, but the marvelous sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, who covered both on a daily basis in their heyday in the 1950s, beat me to it. In one of his last columns before his death in 1972, Cannon observed the difference in style between manager and player (Casey, “excitable and flamboyant”; Berra, “slow and patient”), before shrewdly outlining their similarities:
“Why are they so alike, yet so different? They are both cunning and unafraid. Neither worries much about anything. Their luck holds, too. People couldn't believe it when Stengel was originally brought to the Yankees as their manager.... He was a marvelous entertainer, but they put him down to be a minor league manager. He had no dignity. George Weiss, the great baseball man who then ran the Yankees, understood him. Stengel was sharp with a hick’s stealth which he disguised with his comedian’s routines. Berra and Stengel share the ruthlessness a manager must have. It is the acceptance that failure can’t be tolerated. Neither pampers players. Like all humorists. Stengel has a streak of cruelty in him. He can be devious and savage in his estimates of players. Innocence dilutes Berra’s appraisals, but they can hurt because his candor can be brutal. They are both secretive. But Stengel conceals a private opinion in a cascade of words; Berra merely shuts up.”
Forget all the “Yogi-isms” you read before and after his death last week; probably at least a fifth were invented, either by friends like Joe Garagiola who wanted stories for the chicken-dinner circuit, or by sportswriters who found it easier under deadline simply to invent a good story rather than to verify an existing one.
What was not invented about Berra was his place in the record books. Central to his achievement were his three Most Valuable Player Awards; the three no-hitters he caught (including Don Larsen’s perfect game, the only one ever taught in the World Series); and an unprecedented—and still unmatched--10 World Series rings won as a player.
What gets overlooked about Berra nowadays may be even more important: his field generalship. Only baseball insiders or contemporaries of his could appreciate it. In his 2009 biography, Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee, Allen Barra observed that Yogi not only mastered the catching lessons taught by the Bronx Bombers’ brilliant retired backstop, Bill Dickey, but also that, in the wake of Joe DiMaggio’s devastating injury in the first half of 1949, Stengel had relied heavily on the 24-year-old as his stopgap RBI producer until Joltin’ Joe returned to action.
The Yankee manager became famous for his “Stengelese” potpourri of non sequiturs, doubletalk and tomfoolery, but he could speak perfectly plainly when it came to his catcher—or, as he put it, his “assistant manager.” He relied on him to pounce on bunts, “quick as a cat,” and to throw out baserunners; to indicate where players should shift on the field; to get a pitcher through a dangerous opposing lineup when he didn’t have his best stuff; and to distinguish, in a close game, when a pitcher could still get outs and when he was running out of gas.
The “Ol’ Perfessor,” who introduced “instructional school” in training camp, could react sharply if a player didn’t absorb lessons readily enough (the prodigiously talented Mickey Mantle came in for special grief at his hands). But he never had reason to complain about Berra, which he let the press know in a direct fashion highly unusual for him:
“They say Yogi Berra is funny. Well, he has a lovely wife and family, a beautiful home, money in the bank and he plays gold with millionaires. What's funny about that?"
Rest in peace, Yogi.