For Lindsay Berra, the granddaughter of legendary New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, the moment of truth arrived like a fastball over the heart of the plate.
The broadcast of the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Cincinnati featured the introduction on the field of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, and Sandy Koufax – the four greatest living baseball players as determined by a fan vote.
Berra looked at Grampa Yogi sitting next to her on the couch and knew that wasn’t right.
“I’m thinking, Wait a second,” Berra says in the opening moments of “It Ain’t Over,” a new documentary on Yogi Berra’s life and career playing in select theaters. “He’s got more MVPs than any of these guys. He’s won more World Series rings than all four of them combined.
“And I look at him and I said, ‘Are you dead?’” she says. “And he said, ‘Not yet.’”
“It Ain’t Over,” for which Lindsay Berra was executive producer, seeks to set the record straight on Berra, whose remarkable feats on the field as a catcher for 19 seasons and a manager for seven more never received the respect they were due.
“He was a giant,” actor-comedian Billy Crystal says of Berra in the film. “He was the most overlooked superstar in the history of baseball.”
It’s a sentiment shared by everyone interviewed in director Sean Mullin’s film, a cast of baseball royalty that includes Yankee legends, such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Don Mattingly, players and managers Joe Madden and Joe Torre, and the late Dodger broadcasting legend Vin Scully.
The records are in the record books. The problem in some measure was that Berra’s modest, self-effacing nature, his unusual way with words, and his successful second act as a TV pitchman obscured his greatness on the field.
Mullin says that juxtaposition between perception and reality was a big part of what drew him to the project, which he’s been working on for the past five years.
“I jumped at it, because the more I read about Yogi, the more I learned,” he says on a recent video call with Lindsay Berra. “I was like, ‘Oh, there’s a tremendous amount of tension that’s going to exist between the perception and the reality of who this person was.’
“And that allows me as a director then to build on that,” Mullin says. “To dig into that tension and really get the audience behind somebody to root for.”
Berra by numbers
Let’s establish a baseline of baseball greatness before we go any further: Berra won three MVP awards in his career. He won 10 World Series titles. He was an all-star in 18 of his 19 seasons.
But there’s much, much more as Mullin and Lindsay Berra demonstrate when asked about their favorite Yogi achievements. Like the time in 1962, when Berra, then 37, caught all 316 pitches in the Yankees’ 22-inning win over the Detroit Tigers.
“At the time, it was the longest game in history,” Lindsay Berra says. “Could you imagine any catcher today catching 22 innings? No way.”
Apparently, that wasn’t uncommon for Yogi, she says, noting that 117 times he caught both ends of a doubleheader for a total of 18 innings on the day.
Growing up a Yankees fan in New Jersey near her grandparents Yogi and Carmen Berra, Berra says the Yankees’ Mount Rushmore was always Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle.
“Nobody ever puts Grampa on the Yankees’ Mount Rushmore – or even in the same sentence as Joe DiMaggio,” she says. “So one of my favorite stats is that there are only two players in the history of baseball to have more than 350 homers and fewer than 500 strikeouts. And it’s Grampa and Joe DiMaggio.”
About those strikeouts: Berra simply didn’t miss. In 1950, he went to the plate 656 times, hit 28 homers and 124 RBIs – and struck out only 12 times all year.
Mullin’s favorite baseball factoid has a Southern California connection.
“There’s only two players in history to finish Top 4 in MVP voting for seven years in a row,” he says. “Yogi and the only other person is Mike Trout (of the Angels).
“To excel at that level for that long, sustained period, it’s just really incredible,” Mullin says.
The team player
Yogi Berra grew up in St. Louis, playing sandlot baseball with broomsticks and bottle caps. He served in the Navy during World War II, including time on a rocket boat during the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Yet at home, as Lindsay Berra was growing up, the oldest of the grandkids, he was just Grampa Yogi, she says.
“When I was young, I didn’t know Grampa Yogi was any different than anybody else’s grandpa,” Berra says. “His job was to manage the Yankees and I thought that was the same as being an accountant or a tailor. It was just a different thing to do for a living.
“And by the time I was old enough to realize he was Yogi Berra, they stayed as two separate people in my mind,” she says. “Grampa Yogi is the guy that I grew up with playing Wiffle ball and Yogi Berra is the guy that did all the amazing things on the baseball field.”
Sure, sometimes strangers would approach and ask for his autograph. But in every other way, he was as down-to-earth as any other grandfather on the block.
“My grandfather didn’t think of himself as famous, so I think that went a long way to all of us not thinking he was a big deal,” Berra says. “His entire life, he never had a personal assistant or an agent. He picked up his own dry cleaning, went to the grocery story. Was in church every weekend.
“He just went about his life as if he was not famous,” she says.
If you did get him talking about baseball, which wasn’t easy, Berra says, he was more likely to talk about his teammates than himself.
“You’d say, ‘Tell me about 1962,’” Berra says of the year the Yankees won their 20th World Series.
“Like, what about?” Yogi would reply.
“You’d really have to ask him a pointed question,” Berra says. “He was always more comfortable talking about what Mickey (Mantle) had done, or this homerun Moose Skowron hit, or a play Phil Rizzuto had made.
“He was very proud of the team accomplishments, what they were able to accomplish together,” she says. “He had 10 World Series rings; he only ever wore the 1953 ring.”
That one represented the fifth consecutive World Series the Yankees won. The 13 players who’d been on all five winning teams had a special ring made for themselves.
“He wore that one because it was super important to him as a team accomplishment.”
In the end
While Yogi Berra, who died in September 2015 at 90, never enjoyed talking of his exploits on the diamond, “It Ain’t Over” had no trouble finding people to do that for him.
Some share funny stories about things Yogi said – the so-called Yogi-isms – such as, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” and “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
“I love the philosophical ones,” Mullin says. “Like, ‘We’re lost but making great time’ is great. ‘Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore. It’s too crowded.” Those are two of my favorites.”
Lindsay Berra had her own picks.
“I like, ‘If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be,” and ‘The future ain’t what it used to be.’” There’s one that’s not in the film that’s one of my favorites. It’s 1959-ish and he’s doing a press conference for Yoo-hoo.
“A female reporter in the front row raises her hand and says, ‘Excuse me, is that hyphenated?’ And Grampa Yogi said, ‘Lady, it ain’t even carbonated.’”
But the old-timers who played with Yogi or saw him play make the best case for the paradoxical idea that Berra was both a superstar and underappreciated.
“Vin Scully was just so enamored with Yogi in every single way,” Mullin says of the 30 minutes he spent with Scully in the owner’s box at Dodger Stadium not long before Scully’s death. “Yogi was a hero to Vin, this kind of stickball kid in the street.”
Lindsay Berra said all of the players who shared a bench in the dugout with Yogi were special interviews. That’s a group that includes older Yankees such as Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek and younger ones such as Don Mattingly, Willie Randolph and Ron Guidry.
But it’s former Yankee Bobby Brown who felt most special to her.
“He was my grandfather’s roommate with the Newark Bears in 1946 and they broke into the big leagues on the same day,” Berra says of Brown, who in addition to his Yankee career became a cardiologist and eventually the president of the American League for a decade.
“He was able to talk about being Grampa’s roommate when he was reading comic books after World War II and they were playing in Newark,” Berra says. “I mean, that’s pretty incredible.”
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