- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009


By Allen Barra

Norton, $27.95, 471 pages

As a first-rate ballplayer with Dorothy Parkeresque skills as a phrasemaker, Yogi Berra has been an important, and sometimes misunderstood, part of the nation’s cultural landscape for more than 60 years.

For all the acclaim he has received, it has been more than 30 years since Mr. Berra was the subject of full-scale biography. Journalist Allen Barra tells the story in an engaging manner and also uses “Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee” as a brief for arguing that Mr. Berra was the greatest catcher who ever played the game.

Mr. Berra, who played for the Yankees from 1946 to 1963 and for the Mets part-time in 1965 while serving as a coach, was both extraordinarily skilled and quite lucky. But Mr. Berra is a case study for the saying of legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey (who declined to sign Mr. Berra for the St. Louis Cardinals after determining that he lacked the skills to play in the major leagues) that “luck is the residue of design.”

Mr. Berra never played for his hometown team, but instead became one of the stars who helped make the late 1940s and 1950s one of the Yankees’ golden eras.

He played on 10 World Series championship teams and 14 that won the American League championship. Mr. Berra stood out on teams that included other baseball greats such as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford and was managed by future Hall of Famer Casey Stengel.

Mr. Barra, a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal, chronicles his subject’s life and career by synthesizing an extraordinary amount of material about key games and players and the cultural life of that era. As a result, his book will be the standard reference on Mr. Berra and one of the best accounts of that era in baseball.

At times, the summaries go on too long and the book seems to be a study guide for Trivial Pursuit, but that’s because the author is passionate about his subject and wants the reader to share that enthusiasm. Phrases such as Mr. Berra was “unequivocally the greatest catcher in the history of baseball” and the “greatest player at baseball’s most demanding position” are ubiquitous. Mr. Barra includes a 16-page appendix - complete with charts and historical comparisons - to further make his case.

He has convinced this writer, who grew up knowing only the image of Mr. Berra but has vivid memories of watching Johnny Bench when he led the Cincinnati Reds to an era of greatness in the 1970s. Mr. Bench was extraordinary but learning more about Mr. Berra convinced me that Mr. Berra - with a higher lifetime batting average and slightly better defensive numbers - has a slight edge for being the greatest catcher.

Although no team that he managed won the World Series under his leadership, his skills were such that two of those teams won their league championship.

As extraordinary as his playing and managing skills were, Mr. Berra became a cultural icon because of his engaging personality and his ability to turn a phrase.

Mr. Barra rightly describes Mr. Berra as “pragmatic, realistic, and playful. That, at its best, is America.” Mr. Berra (who received his nickname because a friend said he looked like a Hindu holy man) was sufficiently charming and iconic to be asked to play himself in the film “That Touch of Mink,” which starred Cary Grant and Doris Day.

Many people also know Mr. Berra as a phrasemaker, and fortunately some of the phrases attributed to him were actually said by him. The book doesn’t trace the origin of every real or purported Yogiism, but Mr. Barra does note that one phrase, “nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded,” is quite possibly one that was said both by Mr. Berra and Ms. Parker, albeit about different restaurants. Mr. Barra says this possible coincidence is a “breathtaking notion that will surely send some scholars into frenzied research.”

Mr. Berra’s life on and off the baseball field was extraordinary and well lived. Despite its occasional verbal excesses, “Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee” puts the arc of its subject’s life in proper context and will help this and future generations appreciate his significance.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on baseball, politics and history.

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