Yogi's greatness as player underappreciated
Berra's icon status later in life overshadows a tremendous career
Yogi Berra was so great, we forget how great he was.
Maybe that sounds like a bit of a Yogi-ism, but it's true. Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra was a legend whose celebrity and whose legacy far exceeded baseball. He served in the Navy during the D-Day invasion. He inspired a cartoon character. He was a Yoo-Hoo pitchman. His simple-yet-sage phrases made him, quite accidentally, one of the most quotable figures in history. And more than anything, this son of Italian immigrants who rose to the pinnacle of professional sports, served as the physical embodiment (small though that body might have been) of the American dream.
It should go without saying that Yogi Berra was a great baseball player, that he didn't appear on a record 10 World Series championship teams (and four runners-up) or get inducted into the Hall of Fame by accident.
But because his impact was so vast, his image and his words so instantly recognizable even to people who know nothing about baseball (indeed, the announcement of his death at the age of 90 was a worldwide news item Wednesday), Yogi Berra the Player basically took a backseat to Yogi Berra the Icon.
That's all well and good and understandable, but let's remember the player. Because even if Yogi had possessed zero personality, even if he had never uttered a single unintentionally eloquent phrase, even if he were to somehow compile an identical career in something other than pinstripes, he'd have an argument as one of the greatest players this game has ever seen.
Yogi Berra had a reputation as a free-swinger for whom the strike zone was merely a suggestion.
"If I can hit it," he once said, "it's a good pitch."
This bad-ball hitter must have seen a lot of "good" pitches.
We're talking about a man who never struck out more than 38 times in a season, a man who outhomered his strikeout total not once, not twice but five times. In 8,359 regular-season plate appearances over 2,120 games, he drew 704 walks against just 414 K's.
You know how many players in history hit at least 350 home runs without striking out at least 500 times?
There are two: Berra and Joe DiMaggio.
Because of his rare ability to hit anything in reach with that violent swing of his, Berra compiled some gaudy numbers in his time. He had five seasons of at least 20 homers, 20 doubles and 100 RBIs. Berra ranks first all-time among catchers in RBIs (1,430), fourth in homers, sixth in hits (2,150) and total bases (3,643), third in runs (1,175) and runs created (1,279), eight in games played (2,120) and ninth in OPS (.830).
Oh, and Berra won three American League MVP Awards, one of only four players to achieve that feat. He was a two-time AL MVP Award runner-up. He was a 18-time All-Star.
Berra basically played the equivalent of a half-season in the postseason, logging 75 games played and 295 plate appearances and compiling a strong .274/.359/.452 slash line with 12 homers, including the first pinch-hit homer in World Series history (in Game 3 in 1947 against the Dodgers).
Those are the offensive exploits. Defensively, Berra had to prove himself, and it took some time.
Berra landed at catcher because his play in right field in Spring Training 1947, before the start of his rookie season, wasn't cutting it. And in the lead-up to 1949, after the Yanks endured a third-place finish in the AL, they were rumored to be looking for a new catcher. But then the Yankees hired manager Casey Stengel, who believed in Berra. He assigned Bill Dickey to tutor Berra, and there was almost instant improvement in Berra's mechanics. Over the course of that season, Berra earned the trust of his pitchers, and that was an essential element in their run to an AL title over the Red Sox and a World Series title over the Dodgers.
How far did Berra, who retired with the AL record for putouts (8,723), come as a catcher? Well, when Don Larsen threw his perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series against the Dodgers, he said he did not shake Yogi off a single time.
"Why has our pitching been so great? Our catcher, that's why," Stengel once said. "He looks cumbersome, but he's quick as a cat."
None of Berra's on-field excellence gets lost to history, but it does tend to get overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of this great American life. Yogi Berra was a true hero, a family man, a kind man, a veteran, a believer in equality and inclusivity, a surprising sage, an American treasure.
And yes, he was a damn good baseball player, too.