To a generation of Americans, maybe two, the whole idea of Yogi Berra was always confusing. Was he a cartoon character or a baseball player? Turns out, he was both.
The legendary Yankees catcher, who died on Tuesday at the age of 90, was a Hall of Fame backstop who played or coached in an astounding 21 World Series. He was also a playful showman who let people think he was a rube as he got rich off the persona. A living cartoon character is there ever was one. And no, millennials on Twitter, he wasn't a cartoon bear — though he was its inspiration.
Depending where your interests lie, Berra is either best remembered as a power hitting catcher or a catchphrase-spewing goofball. As both, he was one of the best.
For the Yankees, Berra played 18 seasons, amassing 358 home runs and a career OPS+ of 125. Berra’s career caught stealing percentage is 49 percent, a full five percentage points better than today’s king of caught stealing, Yadier Molina. He rarely struck out, rarely committed an error and even swiped the odd the bag himself, with 30 career stolen bases.
Then there were the witticisms, which were often less witty than nonsensical. Phrases like “When you come to the fork in the road, take it" and “Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded,” make no sense and all the sense at the same time.
This was by design. Berra played up the persona of the idiot athlete and, as the Times notes in its obituary, this, along with his electric bat, accounts for following. "That he triumphed on the diamond again and again in spite of his perceived shortcomings was certainly a source of his popularity." But so too was his face. Berra looked like an Italian garden gnome, making him a relatable everyman. He was genial and approachable. Mickey Mantle he was not.
When Berra retired, his legend was solidified and his personality well-known, leading to a busy career as a pitchman, which produced some of the most enduring images of his post-playing career. He did spots for Yoo-Hoo, Stove Top Stuffing, Visa and Aflac, among others. His best though, was this ad for Puss n Boots cat food, which aired in the 60s but looks ready make for the today’s internet. I mean, it’s got a talking cat!
Ninety years after he was born in St. Louis and nearly 70 after making his debut for the Yankees, Berra remains one of baseball's most enduring figures. The game has seen better players and it's seen better managers, but it's unlikely to ever see a better character than Berra, whose most famous quote is now more apt than ever: "It ain't over till it's over." For Berra, it's over.
Photos by Rogers Photo Archive / Getty Images