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Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask

Review

Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask

Players and teams are dispersed across America. The stadiums are empty, and the Major League Baseball schedule has been destroyed by the virus known as COVID-19. What are fans to do as they anxiously pause at home hoping against hope that something resembling a baseball season will still be played? Even world wars and the terrorists of 9/11 could not stop baseball from completing its season. Many sports channels are rebroadcasting games from previous years. Perhaps there is some ironic joy in those replays because in every North American city, fans are watching highlights of their team at its greatest, winning a pennant or perhaps even a World Series. It’s almost like the Opening Day wish of every fan has come true. This is our year!

But if games from past seasons are not your ideal way to pass the time, consider sitting down with a great baseball book. Jon Pessah’s YOGI is a wonderful biography of a baseball legend who, even today, 45 years after retiring as a player, remains under-appreciated. Most people remember Lawrence Peter Berra not for his world championships --- 10 as a player and two as a manager --- but for the long history of malapropisms that made him famous. So famous that when President Obama posthumously awarded Berra the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he reminded the audience, "One thing we know for sure: if you can't imitate him, don't copy him.”

"...a wonderful biography of a baseball legend who, even today, 45 years after retiring as a player, remains under-appreciated."

Berra’s career was extraordinary and unique on several levels. He was the son of Italian immigrant parents who lived in the St. Louis neighborhood known as The Hill. His father, Pietro, was a bricklayer devoted to his family and to the American dream, which in his mind did not include playing games. Berra had no use for studies or work; he only loved baseball. Eventually his father allowed him to pursue that dream. His best friend growing up was Joe Garagiola, a young prospect who was scouted and signed by the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals would pass on Berra, perhaps because he did not look like a ballplayer. He was only 5’7” with a big head and large ears. Throughout his career, he would be taunted by opponents because of his looks. He would often reply, “I haven’t seen anyone who hits with their face.” His career numbers tell the story. When Berra retired, he was the all-time home run and RBI leader among catchers and had won the American League Most Valuable Player Award three times.

Pessah covers Berra’s life, including his service in World War II, in chronological order, moving through season after season as a player, manager and coach, concluding with his post-baseball years. He uses newspaper accounts and reporters’ stories to detail many of these events. His baseball career coincided with the years that New York was the news capital of the world. Sportswriters who would become legends in their profession covered the Yankees. It was a glorious time for the media, and the source material presented here is a delightful reminder of that period.

The contemporary trend in sports biographies is to place the subject in the context of his times. Berra’s career coincided with the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the elimination of baseball’s reserve clause resulting in free agency, and an explosion in baseball salaries. Berra was not one to become involved with such historic events. He and his wife, Carmen, were focused on two things: baseball and money. Perhaps it was his lack of education or his family’s financial struggles, but for whatever the reason, Berra looked out for himself and his loved ones. The great social issues of the ’60s and ’70s were not his concern.

YOGI is a terrific reminder of baseball’s golden era, with a cast of players that included Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and dozens of others. Baseball will be back, hopefully sooner rather than later, reminding Americans once again that it is truly the greatest game of all.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on April 17, 2020

Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask
by Jon Pessah

  • Publication Date: April 14, 2020
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Sports
  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316310999
  • ISBN-13: 9780316310994