"It ain't over 'til it's over," the wisest of the philosophers of sport famously said, but now it really, really is. They don't make 'em like Yogi Berra any more, who disdained clichés like this one to make up his own.
Yogi died Tuesday night in a nursing home near his home in New Jersey, aged 90, and he left behind an anthology of aphorisms that transcend baseball, the thinking man's sport. Baseball has none of football's smash-mouth violence, none of basketball's thrashing, dunking and running up and down the floor in gaudy underwear. Only baseball could have produced Yogi, who said goofy things with nuggets of insight and common-sense wisdom. We laughed, but with an acknowledgment and envy of his gift for making words dance.
There's something about baseball that attracts the different, the unusual and the oddball, and makes the rest of us take oddballs to heart. Dizzy Dean, the St. Louis Cardinals' merry prankster of the Depression years who lived up to his name and then some, left such a mark on the language. When the English teachers of St. Louis complained that he made their job of stamping out "ain't" difficult, ol' Diz replied, "Well, a lot of folks who 'ain't' saying ain't, ain't eatin', either."
Yogi's sayings were not an assault on the Queen's English but an exercise in how to enrich the language. "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Well, who hasn't, and sometimes lived not to regret it? "Never answer an anonymous letter." That's good advice for every man. "We made too many wrong mistakes." Generations of politicians in Washington heartily, sadly and entirely agree. "The future ain't what it used to be." Hillary Clinton would give him no argument about that.
George W. Bush, once the managing partner of the Texas Rangers (of the American League) and the former president (of the United States), could bend the literature a little himself, and he occasionally looked to Yogi as model. "Yogi's been an inspiration to me," he once said, "not only because of his baseball skill, but for the enduring mark he left on the English language. Some people think he might even be my speechwriter."
Yogi earned his place in the Hall of Fame quickly, following Bill Dickey as the Yankee catcher ("Bill Dickey is learning me all his experiences") and named three times the American League's Most Valuable Player. He went on to manage both the Yankees and the New York Mets. Yogi's Mets, an expansion team, often played like Yogi talked.
But there was another side to Yogi that he, like most of the men of his generation, did not often talk about. When duty called men to arms in World War II, he cheerfully traded the baseball field for the battlefield. He was 18 in 1943, catching for the Norfolk Tars of the Piedmont League, when his draft number came up. He quickly volunteered for the Navy, and when the Navy called for volunteers for D-Day duty on "a rocket boat," assaulting the invasion beaches of Normandy, he volunteered for that, too.
The rocket boat was a modified Higgins landing boat, the pine-and-mahogany invention of the genius of Andrew Higgins, a self-educated boat-builder whose New Orleans yards produced 20,000 of them for the amphibious landings that won World War II. The boats measured only 36 feet long and were designed to ferry the troops to the beach. The Navy armed them with two .30-caliber machineguns and rafts of rockets, and assigned them to accompany the invasion force to the sound of the guns.
"It's amazing what that little boat could do," Yogi remembered decades later, when I talked to him in researching a book about Higgins, the Marines and "that little boat." Instructed to "shoot at anything that moved," Yogi obeyed. "We all aimed at the first plane below the clouds and we shot down one of our own planes." It was an easy mistake to make because the Luftwaffe, with few planes left by 1944, could not provide air cover for the German defenders.
"The pilot was mad as hell," Yogi told Gary Bloomfield, author of a book about American athletes at war. "You could hear him swearing as he floated down in his parachute on us." Yogi went on to cover a second landing in southern France, and he was discharged in 1946 to resume his remarkable baseball career. He was grateful for the life he lived, he said as he approached the end of it. "I'm glad I'm still alive to hear about it."
Yogi once complained that "I never said some of the things I said." It's OK, Yogi. We're all glad you did. And thanks for many happy days at the ball park. RIP.