David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO - In honoring a life well-lived, the highest compliment is also the simplest. Yogi Berra, who died Tuesday night at the age of 90, was a D-Day hero, a Yankees' icon and, incredibly, the most quotable speaker of his generation.
And yet, standing next to Yogi, enjoying his company as countless people did, sharing a laugh with him, you'd never know it.
At the height of his baseball powers, Berra stood all of 5-7. An ordinary Joe in physical stature, perhaps, but nothing else. When seen during his visits to Yankee Stadium, Berra was as assuming as your grandfather. For those of us who never had the privilege of watching him play, and never met him until his managing days were long over, we couldn't help but think, "That's Yogi Berra?"Story'Yogi-isms' fit perfectly, even if Yogi didn't say themStoryAthletes, celebs react to Yogi's deathStoryYogi Berra, 90, transcended baseball
It was a natural reaction, and hardly uncommon. Because a person like Lawrence Peter Berra was too big to fit on a movie screen, too accomplished to fully appreciate on the written page. The best authors, with vivid imaginations, couldn't have scripted such a personality. And if they came close, would they have nailed it so perfectly with the nickname "Yogi?"
No chance. Berra was an American Original, truly one of a kind, whose influence radiated outward from the Bronx, where he was the stocky anchor of 10 World Series champions, from 1947 to '62. To put that in contemporary terms, Derek Jeter -- the Yankee who had everything -- ended his career envying him, saying how his goal was to "catch" Berra's two-handed haul of championship rings. Jeter got only half as many.
"I think the players in the clubhouse are always trying to live up to that, the mark that Yogi set," Joe Girardi said before Wednesday night's game against the Blue Jays. "You heard Derek talk about how he wanted 10."
It was a rivalry Jeter brought up for Berra's benefit, as the two often joked together on the occasions Yogi would swing by his locker, either during spring training or Old-Timers' Day. Like Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle and DiMaggio before him, Berra served as the bridge to a Golden Era in Yankees' history. Larger than life on the field, but in a cuddly, personable, comical package outside the lines.
"We've lost Yogi," Joe Torre said on Wednesday in a statement, "but we will always have what he left for us: the memories of a lifetime filled with greatness, humility, integrity and a whole bunch of smiles. He was a lovable friend."
That was the human side to the Hall of Famer, the ballplayer-next-door quality that made this 15-time All-Star, and three-time MVP, the guy that would invite you to pull up a stool for a chat. And many were fortunate to have that opportunity, from five-star generals to movie stars to the clubbies picking up the dirty laundry.
"He was kind of like walking into the family Italian restaurant," Brian Cashman said. "And all of a sudden, the kitchen and the bar opens up for you, and you have a seat. Just a very warm, welcoming guy."
The numbers are the numbers, and few people to ever play the game can touch what the St. Louis born son of Italian immigrants was able to do after returning from World War II. But for someone to jump off their Cooperstown plaque, and leave a legacy like Berra's, the statistics tell only a fraction of the story.
"I don't know how many pinstripes are in the uniform, from top to bottom," Cashman said. "But one of them would be in his name."
As much as Berra adored the Yankees, his 14-year, self-imposed exile from the old Stadium reflected the personal values he held most sacred. Yogi felt disrespected by George Steinbrenner when the owner refused to tell him personally of his firing in 1985 after only 16 games. It wasn't until Steinbrenner apologized for the treatment that Yogi finally showed up for the Opening Day festivities in 1999.
That repaired the relationship, and all felt right with the Yankees Universe again. How could it be that the greatest champion of the most storied franchise in professional sports was the undersized everyman Yogi Berra?
Because when people saw him, maybe they saw themselves. From a modest upbringing, to serving his country, to succeeding in a way that was never boastful -- just admired. And with a slogan as American as apple pie, paired with a cold glass of Yoo-hoo.
"It ain't over 'til it's over," Berra famously said.
And even though he's gone, in our hearts and minds, Yogi ain't going anywhere.