Yogi Berra, RIP

Yogi Berra died yesterday. As the site’s designated baseball guy, I feel I should address this. Berra is known for three things. First he was a baseball player, but for those not conversant with baseball stars of the 1950s, he is better remembered for Yogisms: amusing malapropisms that, at their best, are profound.

I am going to start with his ball playing. The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that he was really good. No, make that he was really really good. His being in the Hall of Fame is not one of those cases where you have to squint and tilt your head and consider how well he was liked by the voters. His being there is a no-brainer.

His batting line was .285/.348/.482 with 358 home runs. This is amazing for a catcher. When we talk about how good a hitter some guy was (or is) we typically specify what position he usually played. This mystified me when I was a kid, because I hadn’t figured out the hierarchy of defensive positions. Not all positions are equally difficult. For the harder positions a team is willing to tolerate a weaker hitter if he brings the defensive skills to the field. For the easier positions you expect stronger hitting. This is why home run leaders tend to be corner outfielders of first basemen. These are comparatively easy positions to play. This is also why there is the stereotype of the soft-hitting shortstop, that being one of the more difficult positions.

The most difficult, however (and not counting the pitcher, which is sui generis), is the catcher. Catcher is such a tough position that teams often have to accept it as a black hole in the lineup. The difference between the guy who catches four games out of five and the guy who catches that fifth game is that the first guy has a semi-respectable batting average. The second guy is hired because it is physically impossible for the first guy to catch every game, so the second guy is there to give the first guy a break. He isn’t expected to hit the ball, though it is nice when he does. If he starts doing it consistently, he will be hired away at a much higher salary to be some other team’s first guy.

Which brings us back to Berra’s batting line. If your left fielder has that line, you are happy to have him on your team, but he isn’t going to get elected to the Hall of Fame. But your catcher? He is in the top three of all time. (Who are the other two? Johnny Bench, .285/.348/.482 with 389 HR, and Ivan Rodriguez, .296/.334/.464 with 311 HR. Bench of course has long been in the Hall of Fame. Rodriguez isn’t eligible until 2017. Make your Cooperstown hotel reservations early!)

Berra is one of the all-time greats, but that isn’t why most of us talk about him. It is why guys from my father’s generation talk about him, but for us young’uns, it is Yogisms. Here is a representative sampling, with no judgments made as to their authenticity:

If you come to a fork in the road, take it.

He hits from both sides of the plate. He’s amphibious.

Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.

It’s like deja vu all over again.

You should always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise, they won’t come to yours.

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

Etc., etc., etc.  I wrote above that Berra is known for three things. As a kid, I didn’t know or much care about baseball stars of the 1950s, and I did not yet appreciate the humor of Yogisms. This is why I knew about Yogi Berra:

yogi bear

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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19 thoughts on “Yogi Berra, RIP

  1. I’ve read that when he was young, nobody thought he had any talent or aptitude for baseball. Except for him. He thought he could do it and worked to make it so. It’s an example of the learning mindset vs. the fixed mindset.

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      • Speaking of whom, why isn’t Piazza in your list of top offensive catchers? .308/.377/.545 with 427 HRs. That might get an outfielder to the HoF. (If it were combined with brilliant defense; Piazza was a pretty terrible catcher, of course.) Piazza’s not in the Hall yet only because the guardians of all that’s moral in baseball don’t much care about the ninth commandment.

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  2. That’s a shame, but I have to admit that I would have been somewhat sadder about this if I had known that he was alive the day before yesterday.

    Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.

    Related.

    You forgot the one about how he didn’t really say all those things he said.

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  3. There’s a pretty good case for Gary Carter being in that top 3 catchers of all-time discussion instead of Yogi. Being on Montreal instead of the Yankees makes it hard to crack the conversation. Yogi’s definitely in the top 5 one way or another, so it’s a pretty minor point.

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    • I had not thought about the question, but pulling up the stats their careers were the same length. Berra’s averages were slightly higher and he had a bit more power. On the other hand, Carter’s WAR is higher. The difference seems partly to be that Carter played in the 162 game season era, while Berra was in the 154 game era. WAR being a counting stat, this favors Carter. The other part is that baseball-reference thinks that Carter’s defense was better than Berra’s. I won’t say it wasn’t, but I am skeptical of sabermetric’s command of fielding stats.

      So let’s say it’s a wash and go get a beer.

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      • I think there’s just as good an argument for Carter over Rodriguez than Carter over Berra. Very similar overall WAR, but Pudge gets even more credit for defense, inviting the same skepticism. On the gripping hand, unlike Carter and Berra, Rodriguez was able to stay behind the plate basically full-time for his whole career. But overall, if you throw a rock, I figure you’ll hit all three of them.

        My solution is: don’t name a top three. I’m comfortable with Bench as GOAT, otherwise it’s a top four in my book – Cochrane and Campanella didn’t play long enough, Fisk is directly comparable to Carter, and Dickey is an illusion.

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          • Perhaps I’m overly glib. From what I remember when Bill James first looked at it – and at the time Dickey was regarded as #1 – his home/road was unusually high (which doesn’t change the value of what he actually did, but might say something about his skillset, when you’re comparing all-time greats), his raw numbers get hit really hard by era adjustments, and his defensive reputation was probably better than actually justified – certainly not a gloveman on par with Bench/Carter/Pudge. I think you can certainly justify separating Dickey out of the group as much or more than including him in the group.

            “Illusion” might be too strong. #2 all-time – a half-step behind Berra – at the time James wrote, with the three more recent players (Carter was still playing, and Bench had only just retired) sneaking in ahead?

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              • Very much so. I think you just made an argument for including him with the others. And the same argument holds for Gabby Hartnett as well, who I’m even more surprised to see near the top. More’s the pity that Schalk was the prototypical defense-first catcher, or this wouldn’t even be a conversation…

                Unfortunately, for catchers, I doubt we’ll ever solve defense even for current players – for example, some of the results they’re getting from PitchFX regarding pitch framing might throw all our intuition out the window if they hold up.

                And for the old-timers, so much has been lost or never was collected. And that’s even before looking at differences in the game. Everyone ran in the 1910s, even when they shouldn’t, and no one ran in the 1930s, even when they should – so how does that affect the actual value of being able to throw someone out? Not to mention the early days – Richard’s territory – when even catching the ball regularly without becoming a physical wreck was a major accomplishment.

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  4. You know, he played well before my time, but when I was a kid, he did appearances all over the place, including on SNL and late night talk shows, and I believe he managed during my lifetime (in the 70s and 80s, right?), so I always thought of him as part of the baseball scene of my childhood.

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    • Also, his 4-season run from 53-56 was pretty friggin’ incredible for a catcher.

      And he played with how many Hall of Famers? Rizzuto, Gordon, DiMaggio, Ford, Mantle, Slaughter, Mize, Ruffing, Dickey, who else? Is there a stat for the most Hall of Famers played with?

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      • Unfortunately, I think the answer might be “Frankie Frisch”. Due to the fact that he was so involved in the process during his post-playing career and did a lot to get some barely-qualified former 1920s Giants/1930s Cardinals teammates inducted.

        Berra’s a legitimate candidate, though – although he only played for one team, it was a darn good one, and his career basically perfectly overlaps three generations of talent.

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