Smiles emerged whenever Yogi Berra walked into the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium in the last years of his life. He was always cheery and sweetly blunt, and I can remember how he could make Paul O'Neill or Derek Jeter laugh, with what he said and how he said it, the part of his legacy that endures the most.
Berra entered conversations, after all, like a great comic who bore an awesome history of stand-ups, because of all of the malapropisms credited to him through the years by childhood friend and longtime broadcaster Joe Garagiola and by teammates, and repeated over and over:
It ain't over 'til it's over.
It gets late early out there.
It's déjà vu all over again.
We made too many wrong mistakes.
Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.
Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.
He might be the most quoted American in the past half-century who wasn't a president. At his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1972, Berra made reference to his history with words.
Earlier this year, his granddaughter Lindsay Berra was on our podcast, and I asked whether she thought he had uttered the unusual word constructions attributed to him. And with a laugh, she said that he did have a unique way of speaking.
But as Berra received happy greetings when he went to Yankee Stadium after he and George Steinbrenner made their peace in 1999 (the superstitious Steinbrenner would call to insist on Berra's presence for the ceremonial first pitch at crucial games), most of the players he spoke with probably had a vague sense that the small man in front of them -- he was listed at 5-foot-7 at the height of his career -- had been a player of some stature, given that his number was retired by the Yankees.
But a lot of them probably had no idea just how great he was, how his legendary personality obscured his excellence as a dominant offensive catcher. Berra was aggressive at the plate and seemingly could square up any pitch he could reach. He won three MVP awards, clubbed 358 homers, drove in 1,430 runs and was an 18-time All-Star. He finished in the top four in the MVP voting in seven straight seasons, from 1950 to 1956. Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra are arguably the greatest catchers of all time.
It's indisputable, however, that he won the most important games more than any other player, ever. Berra played in more World Series games (75) and generated more World Series hits (71) than any other player in history. He won 10 championships as a player, more than anyone else who played the game, ever. Basically, if you tripled what Buster Posey has achieved at the outset of his career, you would approach Berra's accomplishments.
But Berra was a humble man and wouldn't bring up any of that in conversation. Like many of his generation, he wasn't going to make reference to his military service, or that he had shared in the D-Day invasions, working on a rocket boat off Omaha Beach.
In fact, when Berra spoke with players at Yankee Stadium or in spring training, he probably knew more about them than they did about him, because he was an avid fan of the game, his knowledge always current. One of the last times I talked to him in person, he spoke about what a great hitter he thought Victor Martinez was, how controlled his at-bats were, how he rarely swung and missed.
None of the players he spoke with probably realized or cared that his success could be a model of the American dream; he was raised in modest means in a neighborhood of immigrants in St. Louis but rode his skill and effort to achieve renown.
No, the players just enjoyed seeing him, and hearing him. Now he's gone, but he's unforgettable.