Home Book Reviews Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra

Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra

by Matt Smith

Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra (Norton, 2010), 451 pages

YBEYFew players in the history of baseball have left a legacy quite as successful and colourful as Lawrence ‘Yogi’ Berra.

Yogi is synonymous with the New York Yankees, as the subtitle and pinstriped cover of this biography by Allen Barra attest  Former Major League pitcher and coach Ron Guidry once even went so far as to say “Yogi is the Yankees”.  Yet it is the measure of the man that despite being so engrained in the Yankee legacy, his popularity extends to baseball fans of all persuasions.  There’s no ‘Evil Empire’ stigma surrounding Berra: he’s the Yankee it’s okay to love.

Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee was released in hardcover in 2009, with this paperback version following earlier this year, and was immediately hailed as the biography that Berra’s outstanding career deserves.  Every great player should have at least one great book documenting their life.  Such books don’t just tell you the story of that individual, they invariably open a window on a whole era of the sport because the great players define their period.  That’s certainly the case with Berra. 

The book takes you step-by-step through Berra’s life: his childhood in an Italian-American neighbourhood in St. Louis, his epic playing career including ten World Series triumphs and three MVP awards, his coaching and managerial career and his continuing popularity of recent days, including his appearances in those memorable Aflac duck adverts. 

Berra has always appealed to fans, writers, broadcasters and advertisers because of his likeable image and tendency to come out with sayings that have a logic to them, but leave your head spinning.  “When you come to the fork in the road, take it”, “He learned me all his experience” and “You can observe a lot just by watching” are just a small selection of the many ‘Yogisms’ that baseball fans have come to love.  However his image to some as a bit of a clown has frustrated Yogi at times and it certainly frustrates his biographer.

Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee is partly Allen Barra’s attempt to steer people away from that impression of Berra and to direct their focus instead onto his extraordinary playing ability and baseball acumen.  That’s a worthy objective and he is successful in conveying just how good a player Berra was and what an essential role he played on some legendary Yankee teams, as well as his achievements as a manager and coach. 

However, there are a few occasions when Barra’s desire to redress the balance strays slightly into a tone of defensiveness.  In one case he questions why the phrase “the Yogi Berra era” is rarely employed despite other Yankees (Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle etc) having been so honoured.  It’s a perfectly reasonable point to raise,  but he does lay the sense of injustice on a little thickly.  Similarly his analysis of the infamous ‘Harmonica Incident’ (a confrontation on the Yankees’ team bus, started by Phil Linz’s harmonica playing, during Yogi’s year as manager in 1964), comes off as a bit precious and protective, especially when he chides veterans Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle for their part in the saga

Yet maybe that’s what happens when you study Yogi Berra to the level of detail that Barra clearly has for this comprehensive book.  Perhaps it’s difficult not to take Yogi to your heart and fight his corner on every perceived slight against the man.  For other subjects of an autobiography that could lead to the charge of a lack of balance, a stubborn refusal to accept they had any faults or failures (like writing an autobiography on Mantle and feeling it necessary to claim he would have only had a drink on special occasions were it not for others leading him astray).  In Yogi’s case, there are no deliberate cover-ups or gross exaggerations because they are not necessary to paint him in a good light. 

The one British angle in the book involves the startling story that the British Navy very nearly ended Berra’s life before his baseball career and journey into American popular culture history began.  Berra was part of the Allied invasion of Southern France in 1944 and the vessel he was on narrowly escaped being hit by a stray British shell.  He dropped the rocket he was cradling at the time and thankfully for us all it didn’t go off. 

Biographies often are not  the most absorbing read from cover to cover as they can tend to be dragged down by detail in a year-by-year account of a player’s career and life.  Yogi Berra had such an incredible career that there are no pedestrian passages in this book to slow things down.  The level of detail is also one of its strengths because the best biographies serve as an authoritative reference source for the individual, becoming the tome that you pluck from the bookshelf when you want to look up something about them. 

This is unquestionably the book that fulfils that role for Berra and, considering his place in baseball history, that makes this a significant piece of work.

Have you read “Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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