Yogi Berra: Baseball's Philosopher King

The legendary Yankees catcher, who died on Tuesday at the age of 90, left behind a legacy as both an athlete and a quotable speaker.

Tony Dejak / AP

Probably the most famous phrase associated with Yogi Berra is one he didn’t say: “To quote Yogi Berra…” The Hall of Fame Yankees catcher, who died Tuesday at the age of 90, is enshrined as one of the legendary philosopher kings of American sports, the kind of regular-Joe athlete fans have always gravitated towards, whose iconic malapropisms, whether misappropriated or not, are almost a more significant part of his legacy than his stat lines.

Berra played from 1946 to 1965, in the days when athletes made a fraction of the sums they earn now, but he was both an elite player and a canny salary negotiator, which made him one of the era’s best-paid stars. Still, in personality, looks, and language, he reflected a much earthier charm, playing in baseball’s most physically demanding position, and getting his point across in post-game interviews no matter how mangled his syntax was. “The lousy teams are good this year,” he grumbled once after losing to the Kansas City Royals. “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore,” he groused about rising prices. When told a Jewish man had been elected Mayor of Dublin, Ireland, he responded, “Only in America!”

Yes, there’s much debate over whether Berra actually said many of his most famous catchphrases. Maybe he didn’t exactly coin “It ain’t over till it’s over,” but he definitely said, “You’re not out until you’re out.” He claimed he didn’t invent “It’s déjà vu all over again,” but he certainly started using it at some point. Either way, newspapers started attributing these Zen koans by way of New Jersey to him, including “I didn’t really say everything I said.” This practice took off in the 1980s, by which point Berra was long-retired as a player, had already had a cartoon character named after him, and had turned into even more of a character himself: as a wise old ornery coach for the New York Mets, then the Yankees, then the Houston Astros. He finally said goodbye to pro baseball in 1989.

A veteran of World War II who served as a gunner’s mate on a boat during the D-Day landings, Berra returned to minor-league baseball after the war and was quickly called up by the Yankees. He was an All-Star 15 times, named the American League MVP three times, and was a seven-time World Series champion as a player. His offensive and defensive skills as a catcher were highly valued, and he caught the only perfect game in the history of the World Series in 1956, famously leaping into the pitcher Don Larsen’s arms for one of the sport’s most iconic photos. The same year, The New York Times photographed his battered hands, punished by years of catching fastballs—a perfect snapshot of his rugged appeal. Standing five-foot-seven, he was the squat, weathered lynchpin of teams that included superstars like Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Phil Rizzuto.

In his older age, Berra managed a museum in New Jersey devoted to him, ran educational events for children, and became a sort of lucky charm for the Yankees after burying the hatchet with owner George Steinbrenner (he had boycotted the team for years after Steinbrenner fired him as manager without warning in 1985). More than that, he represented an utilitarian ideal for America’s sport right down to every one of his famed one-liners. “Always go to other people’s funerals,” he wrote in The Yogi Book in 1998. “Otherwise they won’t go to yours.”