Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Barra touches all the bases in Berra bio

Book 41: Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra

Let's trot out the compulsory sports metaphor early in our post on Allen Barra's biography of Yankee great Yogi Berra: Allen Barra touches all the bases in his biography of Yankee great Yogi Berra.

Barra touches those bases, not with a walk here and a base hit there, but in a single grand promenade. The chief strength of his biography is that he treats Berra, not -- as many view him -- as a loveable, word-twisting buffoon, a comic interlude, but as one of the greatest Yankee ballplayers of all time. 

And -- this from someone who is definitely not a Yankee fan -- to rank among the greatest Yankees ever is to rank among the greatest baseball players ever.

Larry Berra grew up in "the Hill," an Italian-American section of St. Louis, where he enjoyed a idyllic childhood and honed his athletic skills. Before he picked up the nickname "Yogi," he was known as "Lawdie" because his mother couldn't pronounce Larry.

In 1941, Berra and childhood friend, Joe Gargiola, tried out for the Cardinals at Sportsman's Park. General Manager Branch Rickey offered Gargiola a contract and a $500 signing bonus. He reluctantly offered Yogi a contract and a $250 bonus. Yogi, who figures he's as talented as Gargiola, turned Rickey down.

A year later Yogi signs with the Yankees.  Such are the fortunes of baseball made.

Yogi professional debut is with the Norfolk Tars in the Class B Piedmont League, but his career is slowed by World War II. After receiving his draft papers, Yogi joins the Navy. He goes on to become a decorated sailor who participated in the D-Day invasion.

By 1946, Berra is back in professional ball. Now with the Newark Bears. He makes his major league debut with the Yankees in September of that year and hits a home run in first game.

That home run speaks volumes about Berra's talents as a player.  Most people today know him for his odd nickname and all those Yogi-isms -- "Half the game is 90 percent mental." "It ain't over till it's over." "If you can't imitate him, don't copy him." "You can observe a lot just by watching."

Rightfully, Barra asks, "Do we take Yogi seriously enough?"

Barra builds the case that the Yankees should observe a "Yogi Berra Era" much as there is a DiMaggio Era and a Mantle Era and a Gehrig Era.  He also argues that Yogi must be considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, catchers in the game.

I won't devote this post to a recapitulation of Barra's arguments on Berra's behalf.  Sufficient to say, he's convinced me of Berra's stature as a player.  He hit with power and consistency, developed into a superb defensive catcher and handled a pitching staff with elegance and insight that left the pitchers with brimming with confidence and wins.

Barra provides us with a lively and insightful biography, even the appendices demand to be read. Like the battery of Ford and Berra, Barra and Berra are a match made in baseball heaven.

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