By PETE HAUSLERApril 29, 2008 11:50 a.m.
"Yogi: The Life & Times of an American Original" is biography as first-generation immigrant success story. And as such, biographer Carlo DeVito begins the story of Yogi Berra at Ellis Island in 1912, with one Pietro Berra, an Italian immigrant just arrived on an old passenger steamer. Pietro settles in St. Louis, marries an Italian girl and raises a family, including Lawrence Peter Berra, who would, in his teenage years, forever and anon become known as Yogi.
Mr. DeVito cobbled together this biography from over 4,000 sources, including books, magazine and newspaper articles, game programs and interviews. In sifting through this wealth of material, Mr. DeVito makes what seems initially like a strange choice: He includes many stories, anecdotes, and quotes that are now widely considered to be apocryphal (his word). Mr. DeVito, in good faith, states this fact whenever he's sure that the story is not entirely true. It feels like an odd strategy for a biography, but the more these incidents appear in "Yogi," the more it makes sense to include them.
Because, as Mr. DeVito makes abundantly clear, there are and always have been two Yogi Berras: 1) the public celebrity — a goofy, good-natured, strange-looking (sportswriters at the time used far-worse adjectives), malaprop-spewing simpleton from the Italian slums of St. Louis and 2) the real person behind the public persona, a far more complex and intelligent character. Mr. DeVito mentions that one of the unwitting perpetuators of the Yogi Myth was his childhood buddy and lifelong-friend, Joe Garagiola Sr.
Mr. Berra and Mr. Garagiola grew up in a Depression-era, Italian immigrant St. Louis neighborhood called The Hill. For a long time, their two lives ran parallel; both were excellent athletes, both yearned to be professional baseball players, both were scouted, then signed to contracts as teenagers, and both broke into the majors in 1946. Mr. Garagiola eventually left baseball for a career in the broadcasting booth, and his amusing stories about his old friend Yogi from The Hill became a regular part of his shtick (like when Mr. Berra allegedly signed his first and last names to an anniversary card for his wife, Carmen).
Mr. Berra broke in with the New York Yankees, where he quickly morphed into a mainstay on one of baseball's great dynasties. Mr. Berra played with some of the most storied names in Yankee history, bridging the gap between the Joe DiMaggio era and the Mickey Mantle era. In Mr. Berra's early years in New York he was still learning the ins and outs of the catcher position. The book on him was that he was a good, raw, powerful hitter, but a liability on defense. Manager Bucky Harris's approach was to move him around to where he could do the least damage. He played nearly 40% of his games in the outfield in 1947 and 1948, the rest at catcher.
Rud Rennie of the New York Herald-Tribune told Mr. Harris, "He doesn't even look like a Yankee." Arthur Daley once wrote, albeit jokingly, "Yogi Berra is barred from baseball for life because he isn't photogenic enough." Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the scribes' mob-like vitriol is its casual insidiousness. Even when writing about Mr. Berra's 1950 contract negotiation, John Drebinger of The New York Times can't help himself in describing Yogi thusly: "The gnome-like backstop never has, and likely never will, look like a ballplayer." And this ad hominem attack came after Mr. Berra had proven himself, as he was becoming a popular standout in the Yankees lineup and in baseball.
Mr. DeVito particularly shines in his depictions of Mr. Berra's yearly ritual of the contract negotiation. The multi-year deal is such a given nowadays, it's hard to image a time when it didn't exist. Mr. Berra's annual scenes at the proverbial bargaining table are usually played for laughs here, in a "ha-ha, here we go again" kind of way. But they serve to show a determined and financially shrewd Mr. Berra whom money men would underestimate at their own risk.
Mr. Berra's dogged approach to his contract negotiations were a product of both a hardscrabble childhood and a perceived contractual slight early in his professional career (a minor-league signing bonus that never materialized, due to small-print technicalities). The negotiations grew more cordial over time, as Yogi's importance to the Yankees, and his popularity with fans, became more apparent. But his first three or four contracts were contentious (including a couple of hold-outs), with Mr. Berra often feeling he was being low-balled by George M. Weiss, the Yankees' notoriously thrifty general manager. And through this repetition, Mr. DeVito depicts an era where every player negotiated without agents, going mano a mano with management every year, whether you were Mr. DiMaggio or a utility infielder.
This astute-businessman aspect of Mr. Berra meshes with a recurring thread of "Yogi," that there is far more to the man than the veneer of his affable, water-off-the-back persona. Mr. DeVito excels at depicting the success of Yogi Berra the Product Pitchman. He has touted dozens of products over the years, but perhaps his most fascinating was his deal with the chocolate drink maker Yoo-hoo. Mr. Berra wasn't merely a paid celebrity talking head. He actually invested in the company (both personally and as a go-between for other interested investors), pitched the product, and convinced his Yankee teammates to do the same. With Mr. Berra as the celebrity face of the drink, Yoo-hoo became in the late 1950s, "one of the most famous product launches in American advertising and snack-food history."
Today, the name Yogi Berra transcends baseball, and the face that was once cruelly mocked, is now beloved and recognized worldwide.
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