The Greatness and Legacy of Yogi Berra

We may know Yogi Berra by his quotes. That’s how I paid tribute to him on Twitter this morning (I woke up inexplicably briefly at like 4:00 this morning before falling back to sleep, explaining how early some of these tweets are):

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But then there is what comes after:

 

Those final facts are often the ones forgotten. Lost amongst the legend of his “Yogi-isms” is the fact that he was one of the greatest catchers of all time, as well as a an esteemed coach and manager (three of his WS titles came not as a player, but as a coach with the Mets and Yankees, and he was the manager of the 1964 Yankees team and 1973 Mets teams that lost their World Series).

He was a Forrest Gump of Baseball, seemingly involved in countless major events connected to baseball from the end of WWII (where Yogi served as a gunner’s mate on a navy ship, including during the D-Day invasion) until his death. He was the soul of Casey Stengel’s Yankees. Jackie Robinson played against him and had perhaps his signature moment- the steal of home in the World Series- off of him (to the end, Yogi claimed Jackie was out). When Don Larson had his perfect game, it was famously Yogi who leaped into his arm, leading Larson to say “Damn, Yogi, you’re heavy.” When Bill Mazeroski hit his walk-off home run, it was Yogi who watched it fly over the left-field fence. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record, Yogi was on deck. The “Miracle Mets’ had Yogi Berra as a coach.

And, perhaps above all, he was a hell of a player. As Tom Verducci pointed out in his article on Yogi, he never struck out more than 40 times in a season. He and Joe DiMaggio are the only players in history to have 350 home runs or more with fewer than 500 strikeouts. He was by most accounts a defensive catcher and pitch-caller of fine quality- at one point he held the record for consecutive games behind the plate without an error. One does not become a All-Star so many times being merely average.

In the end, perhaps Casey Stengel summed up Berra the best (it’s included in Yogi’s obituary), even though it was 1949 when he said it, very early in Yogi’s career:

“Mr. Berra,” Casey Stengel said, “is a very strange fellow of very remarkable abilities.”

 

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Ralph Kiner: A Great Player For Some Horrible Teams

Ralph Kiner, who passed away today, was a great player who played for some really bad teams. In his ten seasons, only twice was his team above .500. He never played in the postseason, and only once did he come close- when the 1955 Indians finished three games back of the Yankees in what was Kiner’s final year. He didn’t make the Hall of Fame until his final year of eligibility, and during his time with the Pirates, Branch Rickey held a grudge against him, scapegoating him for the team’s failures in an effort to make it possible to trade him for prospects*.

For those reasons, perhaps it isn’t surprising that when his death was announced, his obituary in the New York Times spent just as much time on his stint as the voice of the Mets as it did on his playing days, which were, admittedly, short.

And this is a shame, as in his ten seasons, nobody else hit more HRs than Kiner, and, what’s more, no World Series-era player with no postseason experience, not even Ernie Banks, had a better OPS for their career than Kiner.

So as you hear people on TV, in print and online talk about his radio days, just remember that he was truly one of the great players of his time.

*Interestingly, when he was finally traded, the Pirates didn’t get any good players back.