Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask – Book review: Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra was not only one of the greatest catchers in the history of Major League Baseball, but was also one of the most colourful characters the game has ever seen.
The stocky, happy-go-lucky guy with the gap-toothed smile from St. Louis will always be remembered for his sense of humour; how he set the standard for sports celebrity endorsements by being the spokesman for a number of products such as Puss’n Boots cat food and Yoo-Hoo chocolate beverage; and of course, his charmingly mangled sayings called “Yogi-isms” such as “you can observe a lot by watching”, “it’s deja vu all over again” and of course, the unforgettable “it ain’t over ’til it’s over”.
However, there is more to Yogi Berra than just chocolate drinks and funny sayings. During a major league career that spanned 17 years — and all of them with the fabled New York Yankees — Berra hit 358 home runs, chalked up 1,430 RBI, had 2,148 hits, played on 10 World Series championship teams with the Yankees, won the American League MVP Award three times, appeared in 15 All-Star Games, won a National League and an American League pennant as a manager, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
And he accomplished all of this with a sense of honesty, love and loyalty to his family, friends and teammates, as well as future generations of fans and players. Not to mention his love and passion for the game of baseball that was beyond question.
This prompted fellow Yankee Hall of Fame member Derek Jeter to say about Berra at the time of his death in 2015 at the age of 90: “To those who didn’t know Yogi personally, he was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. To those lucky ones who did know him, he was an even better person.”
So who’s laughing now?
Veteran sports journalist and author Jon Pessah set out to discover the public and private Yogi Berra and see what made him such a productive player on the diamond and a much beloved person even to this day. The end result is his epic biography Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask.
This is probably one of the best baseball biographies I have read since Jane Leavey’s biography about Babe Ruth — The Big Fella — that was published two years ago. Pessah has done a magnificent job through such diligent and thorough research to come up with this complete, multi-dimensional portrait of Berra.
First, the reader visits “The Hill”, the Italian neighbourhood in St. Louis where Yogi was born and raised, where family values reigned supreme and Yogi created the foundation of his baseball career alongside lifelong best friend (and future Cardinal catcher and baseball broadcaster) Joe Garagiola, much to the consternation of Yogi’s traditionalist dad Pietro Berra.
From there, you explore the cavalcade that is Berra’s entertaining career in baseball. He transcended three generations of Yankees teams, became the reluctant darling of the managers he played under (especially legendary Casey Stengel, who referred to Berra as his “Assistant Manager”), and later became a friend and mentor to subsequent generations of players, whether they played for the Yankees, Mets or Astros.
There’s also Yogi the astute businessman, who managed to buck the trend of players from his era who had to get regular jobs during the off season for supplemental income. He did it by being a successful pitchman for a number of products and businesses, such as Yoo-Hoo (in which he became a part owner), and building a bowling alley in New Jersey with Yankee teammate Phil Rizzuto, which they later sold at a substantial profit, not to mention the booming business in memorabilia and card show appearances, which kept the Yogi Berra name and legend alive.
But Pessah also focussed on the pain of being Yogi Berra. This includes the lack of faith from baseball scouts, fellow players and the press during his early years in the majors; betrayals from front office staff (including Yankees GM Ralph Houk, who searched for a replacement for Yogi as manager while he led the team to the 1964 World Series and of course George Steinbrenner, who fired Berra as manager after only 16 games during the 1985 season, which led to a 14-year feud and personal boycott of Yankee Stadium games and events); and then was the heartbreak he experienced when his youngest son Dale, who played for the Pirates and Yankees, had to testify against a drug dealing ring in baseball, as well as confront his own addiction to cocaine.
And of course there was Berra’s unique sense of humour, which was a major part of his universal appeal. One favourite example in the book happened when Yogi visited a Yoo-Hoo bottling plant in New Jersey. While in the plant executive’s office, he answered a phone call in which the person on the other end of the line asked him if the name Yoo-Hoo was hyphenated. In typical Yogi fashion, he replied “No ma’am. It isn’t even carbonated.”
No matter what he went through, Pessah portrays Yogi Berra as a man who had a genuine love for baseball, and felt a sense of peace and happiness whenever he put on a team uniform, arrived at a ballpark hours before a game, or shared his years of baseball stories and skills to any audience he faced, whether it was players, an audience at a banquet, or a group of youth who paid a visit to his museum and learning centre in Montclair, New Jersey.
Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask is a wonderful biography of a wonderful person who became not your typical baseball legend, but was widely adored for that. In fact, the legend that is Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra will never be over ’till it’s over. And this book is a major reason for that.