Eight language lessons from Yogi Berra
Now it's over. Yogi Berra has died at the age of 90.
He leaves behind a legacy of baseball greatness, and a propensity for the memorable phrase. Those of us who quote people for a living can learn a lot from old number 8.
I was born into an Italian-American family on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1948, Yogi Berra's second full season as the catcher of the New York Yankees. My grandfather, Peter Marino, loved the Yankees, a team with many famous Italian ballplayers: Crosetti, Lazerri, DiMaggio, Rizzuto, and his favorite, Berra.
Next to Mickey Mantle, Yogi became my favorite too. The first package of baseball cards I purchased with my own money (five cents), Lawrence Peter Berra was the first card in the pack. When my dad took me to Yankee Stadium for the first time in 1958, Yogi hit the game-winning home run.
Yogi Berra had an astonishing baseball career. You can look it up. The statistic that stands out to me is that over 18 seasons Yogi hit 358 home runs, and struck out only 414 times. (By contrast, one of my favorite players for the Tampa Bay Rays, Carlos Pena, once struck out 182 times in a single season.)
His athletic prowess, his squat stature (perfect for a catcher), and his goofy demeanor, turned him into a New York icon. If that weren't enough, he was Mister Malaprop, a public figure whose mangled aphorisms conveyed a kind of folk wisdom. His most famous include:
- "It ain't over ‘til it's over."
- "When you come to a fork in the road take it."
- "It's déjà vu all over again."
Rather than perceive these as redundancies or non sequiturs, the product of an eighth grade education in a working class St. Louis neighborhood, fans accepted them with a smile, happy to see the stab of truth behind them. Sports Illustrated once wondered whether or not Mr. Berra might not actually be an Eastern mystic, a real yogi, of the type for which he was named.
Because Yogi wore uniform number 8, I will share my eight favorite Yogi-isms now, letting each one inspire some insight into the ways writers capture how people talk:
- "90 percent of the game is half mental." Lesson: Just because someone uses numbers in a quote does not mean that he or she is adhering to mathematical logic. Don't grab your slide rule. If the point has been made, let the inconsistencies slide.
- "If you can't imitate him, don't copy him." Lesson: There are no true synonyms. Yogi is not being redundant here. The American Heritage Dictionary makes this distinction between the two key words: "To imitate is to act like or follow a pattern or style set by another….To copy is to duplicate an original as precisely as possible." Yogi was manager of the Mets at the time and told his player Ron Swaboda that he might not have the ability to try to adopt the unusual hitting stance of the great Frank Robinson.
- "I really didn't say everything I said!" Lesson: This modest denial should be a reminder for journalists to check out the quote that is too good to be true, to see if it's apocryphal or carries a false attribution. Authors such are Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain are often cited as having said or written things which they never said or wrote. (The reason I am confident that Yogi said these things is that I am getting them from The Yogi Book with the byline Yogi Berra (New York: Workman, 1998).
- "If the world were perfect, it wouldn't be." Lesson: You could argue that Yogi doesn't know the meaning of perfect. Or that he has made a wise value judgment. To use a more common formula: "Perfect is the enemy of the good." It is not patronizing or condescending to argue that common wisdom can be as powerful as and more interesting than the stuff that comes from philosophers and kings.
- "Never answer anonymous letters." Lesson: Yogi offers clairvoyant wisdom in anticipation of the digital age. (Yogi would have been great on Twitter.)
- Yogi was a long time pitch man for the chocolate soft drink called Yoo-Hoo, which I loved as a kid. At a Yoo-Hoo convention a women asked him, "Is Yoo-Hoo hyphenated?" Yogi responded, "No ma'am, it isn't even carbonated." Who knew that Yankee catcher was the master of parallelism, ironic juxtaposition, and emphatic word order, where his key word often comes at the end – like a punchline?
- Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel." Lesson: Behind such an odd statement, there is usually some evidence to support it. Turns out, Yogi's teammates made fun of his beat-up luggage, but its bumps and bruises seemed almost built in. "You couldn't hurt my bags," he said, "but theirs could only get worse."
- "I'm as red as a sheet." Yogi said this after he flubbed his movie line in a Cary Grant/Doris Day movie "That Touch of Mink." Lesson: It always helps to tweak the predictable. Who would remember this if he said, "I'm red as a beet" or "white as a sheet." So did the blood rush to his face or rush from his face? In essence, Yogi doubles-down on his embarrassment, reminding us that a mash-up need not be a mix-up.
Thanks for the memories, Yogi. And say hi to my mom.