Yogi Berra’s wit was 90% made up, though the other half of it was real. He was a gifted athlete, a shrewd businessman, and a prime example of how to embrace (and subvert) a dubious reputation.
Born Lorenzo Pietro Berra (1925-2015) to Italian immigrants in St. Louis, his name was first Americanized as Lawrence and then schoolyarded into Yogi for reasons that defy lucid explanation. Apparently he walked like a Hindu holy man from a movie they’d all seen? Combine this incongruously exotic nickname with his stocky build, immigrant background, and gappy smile and you had a figure of fun.
When he made it to the Yankees, he walked right into the role of the palooka. Sportswriters and announcers, egged on by Berra’s childhood friend Joe Garagiola, cast him as a tongue-tied rube who accidentally blurted out brilliant observations.
This 1949 Life magazine profile set the mould: “On the polite and professional Yankees, who are by and large an all-American dream of the lithe, long-limbed, and handsome athlete, Yogi looks as out of place as a tractor in a Cadillac plant.” He was a high-school dropout who “assumes a puzzled expression whenever the conversation turns too far from baseball,” and when he took the field away from home, fans would make monkey noises and beat their chests.
There’s no evidence he was any less smart than the average ballplayer, but he was certainly more skilled. As his first manager said, “he looks cumbersome but he’s quick as a cat.” Through the creative liberties of the sports media, Yogi Berra became a national figure. When Hanna Barbera blatantly stole his name for the character Yogi Bear, he achieved immortality. (Was dropping his winnable defamation lawsuit against the cartoon company a blunder or a masterstroke? )
The original Yogism emerged as he was honoured in his native St. Louis in 1947 and accidentally told the assembled crowd:
“I want to thank everyone who made this day necessary.”
After seeing his “lithe, long-limbed” teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back home runs in 1961, he claimed to have exclaimed:
“It’s deja vu all over again.”
From then on, the lines snowballed in two directions: The obvious and the impossible. It was hard to argue with statements like:
“It ain’t over till it’s over.”
“You can observe a lot by watching.”
And even harder to follow logic like:
“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
“If the people don’t want to come out to the park, nobody’s gonna stop ’em”
After he retired from baseball, he intentionally cashed in on his accidental wit with books, commercials, and his own museum. He made the caricature work for him, did what he wanted to do, and only then gave the people what they wanted. The lesson: If the world forces you to play a role, give it your all and collect your dues. Steal the pic-a-nic basket and become an icon. You may not have a choice: Even Yogi Berra’s attempts to set the record straight were turned into Yogisms, as per,
“I really didn’t say everything I said.”
Quick quips; lightning
In the spirit of Berra’s koans, three immutable-ish laws as compiled by Laurence J. Peter of Peter Principle fame:
“If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” — Harry S Truman
“If you don’t throw it, they can’t hit it.” — Lefty Gomez
“For every credibility gap, there is a gullibility fill.” — Richard Clopton
That was Get Wit Quick’s 92nd issue, for those keeping score. When you sing “I don’t care if I ever come back” at the ballgame, what are you really saying? Yogi Bear wore a collar so they wouldn’t have to animate his body. If I hadn’t written Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting, no one would have bothered reading it. Please bunt the ❤️ below.