Yogi Berra: Peerless player, really funny guy

Story highlights

  • Mike Downey: Yogi Berra, known for his off-kilter quotes, was among the greatest Major League Baseball players of all time
  • Downey says Berra was a peerless catcher and home run leader for New York Yankees
  • He was loved by friends and fans for being humble and smart, Downey says

Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist and a frequent contributor to CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)You will be reading and hearing quite a bit about the noteworthy, quote-worthy things that a Mr. Yogi Berra of American baseball fame said or supposedly said.

Life isn't over until it's over -- and the wise, warm, wonderful, witty, sometimes half-witty Yogi was indeed silenced for eternity Tuesday at the ripe old age of 90, ending his reign as the greatest living New York Yankee.
Mike Downey
Yet his legend lives on, in both the Baseball Encyclopedia and in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, for everything that he accomplished on a baseball field (10-time World Series winner, three-time Most Valuable Player of the American League) and for everything that he said -- make that everything he was quoted as having said -- off that field, including, uh, well, possibly, "It ain't over till it's over."
    First and foremost, let it be recorded for posterity that Lawrence Peter Berra was not just a great Yankee, but among the greatest Major League Baseball players of all time. Up there with Yankees Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and up there with Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and all of the game's other greats, many of whom Yogi played with or against.
    Was he tall and handsome and built like a Greek god? No. Did he look funny, sound funny? Sure. But, oh, what a ballplayer this man was ... seriously.
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    By position, he was a catcher, squatting behind home plate, wearing a mask and shinguards and a chest vest, once mocked fondly in baseball lingo as "tools of ignorance" (a phrase sometimes attributed to Bill Dickey, a catcher for the Yankees who preceded Yogi in that spot). "He stopped everything behind the plate," another great player from that era, Mel Ott, once said of Yogi, "and hit everything in front of it."
    When it came to handling a pitcher's pitches, Yogi was peerless. This included that 1956 World Series in which teammate Don Larsen pitched a perfect game, whereupon Yogi ran to the mound and leapt happily into Larsen's arms, like a chimp clinging to Tarzan, an image immortalized by cameras that is among baseball's most iconic.
    When it came to hitting a pitcher's pitches, Yogi was a bear, not a chimp. Smarter than the average bear and frighteningly good. All those seasons he played with the likes of DiMaggio or Mantle, look it up, look to see which Yankee would lead the team in runs batted in, more often than not -- the one who rarely struck out (only 414 times in 2,120 career games), the guy who slugged a dozen home runs in World Series play.
    You want a laugh? Here is a laugh, and not one having to do with anything Yogi Berra said: His peak salary was $65,000 a year in 1957. There are players today who make that much in a single night, or perhaps in a single inning. Players who couldn't hold a candle to Yogi, and who never led their teams to a single World Series, let alone 14.
    The actual laughs that he gave us have been documented, celebrated, told and retold. To this very day, as the baseball community bids him a fond farewell, all the old familiar quotations are being hauled out again, unsubstantiated, unquestioned by some, uniformly amusing.
    "I want to thank everyone for making this night necessary," Yogi apparently actually did say at a 1947 night in his honor in his hometown of St. Louis.
    "Nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded," said Yogi of a St. Louis restaurant, except he apparently was not the first one to say this, just the one everyone quotes.
    "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," said Yogi, a piece of advice he later acknowledged as something he did really utter.
    "It's déjà vu all over again," said Yogi, they say, although historians and researchers can find absolutely no record of Yogi having actually said it.
    "You can observe a lot by watching," said Yogi after he retired and decided to become a coach and a manager, evidently actually uttering these words in 1963.
    "Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical," said Yogi, and, again, he said he probably did say that.
    "You should always go to other people's funerals. Otherwise, they won't come to yours," said Yogi, they say, yet that was a line from a book, long before Yogi supposedly originated it.
    Many believe his childhood chum Joe Garagiola came up with a lot of Yogi's best lines. Joe would become a popular broadcaster, author, TV quiz-show host and storyteller, but in the beginning, he and Yogi grew up in St. Louis on the same block; Joe was eight months younger. Both became catchers. Both wanted to be St. Louis Cardinals, but the team offered a $500 bonus to Joe and just $250 to Yogi in 1942, so one signed a contract, the other did not. Yogi ultimately became a Yankee, but his boyhood ambition had always been to be a Card.
    Joe was his gin-rummy buddy, best pal, best man at Yogi's wedding, BFF. If he came up with clever sayings and put the words in Yogi's mouth, neither man objected. Joe loved Yogi to death.
    He once was quoted, in the book "The Wit and Wisdom of Yogi Berra" by sportswriter Phil Pepe, describing his lifelong friend this way: "Not spoiled, not vain, just such a basic, simple, humble man. ... And let me tell you something else: Yogi is no dope. If he tells you something, he may not be able to explain it as well as somebody else, but you can go to the bank on it."
    People paid attention when Yogi Berra spoke. Oh, it came out cockeyed, more often than not, but they listened, that's for sure. Hank Aaron stepped up to bat in the 1958 World Series and suddenly heard Berra, behind the plate, telling him that the label on his bat should be turned the other way, so the bat wouldn't break. "Yogi," Aaron said that day, "I came up here to hit, not to read."
    He made everybody laugh. That goes for Carmen, his wife of 65 years, whom he met when she was a St. Louis waitress of 19. Oh, how Carmen loved to tell the tale of how she asked her husband where he would like to be buried someday, inasmuch as he was from St. Louis, played ball in New York and had a home in New Jersey.
    "Surprise me," Yogi told her.
    On that happy note, we might as well say so long to Yogi Berra, a man who made the world a happier place, once and for all. Off to heaven he goes, if it's not too crowded.