The Secret Meaning of Yogi Berra's Life

The baseball great was a businessman who busted his ass and embodied his immigrant parents' American Dream.


Baseball great and the malapropism mullah Yogi Berra has died at the age of 90. He was arguably the greatest catcher in the sport (sorry Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza fans) and despite his clownish persona was a team leader who played on 13 World Series teams and was a 15-time All Star and a three-time MVP. He might be the only manager to be fired each time he led his teams improbably to the World Series (an aging, injury-addled Yankees in '64 and the "You Gotta Believe!" Mets in '73).

He is of course best known now for "Yogisms," or funny, gnomic statements such as "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded" and "it ain't over 'til it's over." When asked where he wanted to be buried when he died, he supposedly told his wife, "I don't know, surprise me." 

To me, what's most interesting about Berra—and possibly to the non-sports fans among Reason readers—is his life as a businessman and as the son of Italian immigrants. 

From a 2012 profile of him:

"I can't tell you how many times people told me they would go to Yogi's racquetball club in Fairfield, N.J., and he would be there handing out towels to guests," said Dave Kaplan, director of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center.

That image in a nutshell sums up the business career and ideals of Lawrence Peter (Yogi) Berra.  Although he is best known for his celebrated career spent behind the plate for the New York Yankees from the late 1940's until the early 1960s, Berra was also a successful businessman thanks to qualities that were instilled in him by his parents.

If you grew up in the New York area anytime between the 1950s and the 1990s, you also probably associated Berra with Yoo-Hoo, the chocolate drink that he hawked relentlessly. If you were born anytime after 1960, Berra was an anachronism, a throwback from a different era.

More on his business ethics:

"His story really is a great American success story," Kaplan said. "He was the son of immigrants. His father worked in a brickyard, but he developed his values of hard work and discipline through his family."

The importance of integrity and hard work became guiding principles not only throughout Berra's baseball career, but in his business career as well.

More here.

Imagine that: Immigrants come to America and have kids in whom they instill work ethic. That used to be the story we told about immigrants as country, at least when we weren't vilifying them as polluting the gene pool and stealing jobs from deserving Americans.

The immigrants haven't changed, of course. They overwhelmingly still come to provide a better life for themselves and their kids. Even when undocumented and hence "illegal," they almost always live honorable lives on the straight and narrow and add to the country's wealth and possibilities. They continue to define the American experience in important ways, both by betting on a future in a country built upon immigration and by facing toxic attitudes from natives.

Well, as Yogi used to say, "The future ain't what it used to be."