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Remembering Yogi Berra — and sports’ life lessons

A championship win as underdogs at age 15 remains one of the most instructive moments and proudest achievements of my life.

Yogi Berra, who was 90 when he died, never got beyond eighth grade, as he had to work and make money for his family in St. Louis.
REUTERS/Steve Nesius

I can’t say my wife woke me on Wednesday morning to tell me Yogi Berra had died, but she did tell me seconds after I woke up. Consider it a sequence metaphorically akin to the vital, although less than life and death, role played by sports in American lives, mine very much included.

Mitch Pearlstein
Center of the American ExperimentMitch Pearlstein

I moved to Minnesota in 1974, and with the exception of a few years in Washington, I’ve lived here ever since. The Twin Cities are very much home. But I grew up in New York, where Yankee Stadium was a figurative home. I didn’t go to a great many games there, but I do remember details such as how top-of-the-line box seats were $3.50, reserve seats were $2.50, and bleacher seats were 75 cents. The $3.50 seats were beyond my father’s budget so, along with my brother, we were always reserved.

I also recall getting close to weepy on those relatively few occasions the Yankees lost back then. All of which is to say I was a pretty big fan who still vividly remembers Yogi playing leftfield, not catching, in the ninth inning of the seventh and final game of the 1960 World Series when the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski hit a home run over the very wall behind him to beat the Yankees. I was 12 at the time and felt lousy. But I also felt lousy for Yogi, whose body language, as he turned around and jogged back to the dugout, seemed to subtract from what already was a questionable body for a Hall of Fame athlete. If you’re not familiar with his physique, think of Kirby Puckett when he first joined the Twins.

Lessons and spooky moments

One risks getting carried away when writing about sports, imagining too many life lessons and spooky moments. But how else to explain how, when I have to overcome some ordeal, I almost always think back to when, at 15, I pitched and won a championship baseball game, 6-3, despite my team being underdogs, and despite my returning to the bench after every inning and entertaining thoughts about God taking me right then as it was that scary out there on the mound. But I steeled myself and finished strong – setting down the overdogs 1-2-3 in the last inning – and as silly as it may sound, it remains one of the most instructive moments and proudest achievements of my life.

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As for spooky moments, an hour after hearing about Yogi’s passing, I was driving when Classical MPR played Marilyn Horne singing an aria from Bizet’s “Carmen.” For those of you who don’t know, Yogi’s late wife was named “Carmen.” Coincidence?

And then about an hour later, a vehicle right in front of me had a sticker with pinstripes in the background and the number “16” in the foreground. Yankee home uniforms have pinstripes and “16” was Whitey Ford’s number, the pitcher Yogi possibly caught more often than anyone else. I’m really not making any of this up.

By the way, one of the great moments in Twins’ history is when Harmon Killebrew hit a two-run home run on a 3-2 count with two outs in the ninth inning of a key game against the Yankees at Metropolitan Stadium in 1965, the Twins’ first pennant-winning year. That was nine years before I moved out here, but I’ve heard many recitations about how Minnesotans were joyous that night and giddy for months. I remember Harmon’s home run as well, having watched it on WPIX-TV in New York. Let’s just say I was south of giddy in Queens that night.

But enough of adolescent recollections. Center of the American Experiment is a serious institution. So let me close with a couple of game-hardened thoughts about American sports and culture.

Success without much formal education

Yogi Berra, who was 90 when he died, never got beyond eighth grade, as he had to work and make money for his family in St. Louis. It was a far different age, with radically different job markets and requirements. But somehow, despite not having an academic credential, not even a ninth-grade diploma, he managed quite well. More specifically, in addition to being a terrific player, Yogi went on to manage two teams that went to the World Series.

Point of it all? I’m all for people earning large doses of formal education. But it’s important to keep in mind that while formal credentials have their essential place, they also have their fundamental limitations. I suspect Yogi wouldn’t have done very well on the SAT or ACT. But he did great nonetheless.

Might there be ties between Yogi’s meager schoolhouse learning and his famous Yogi-isms, as in “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”? Or, “People don’t go there anymore. It’s too crowded”? Sure. But I don’t recall Yogi repeating “you know” after every fourth phrase, as seeming thousands of far better educated, latter-day athletes habitually do. For this alone, my thanks to the late wordsmith are prodigious.

When it comes to the preoccupations of so many in all manner of sports, I would suggest there is exculpatory evidence in our very DNA – or at least something metaphorically like our DNA. Can some fans’ athletic DNA be offensively and dangerously NUTS? Needless to say, and that’s why stadiums and arenas are well-advised to have rubber rooms. But Yogi Berra’s death is being deeply felt by many not only because he was a special ballplayer, but also because sports themselves – at the risk of both overstatement and sacrilege – are deep within many of us. Is this genetic? Or is it environmental? Yes, I say definitively.

Which leads to a final question especially for middle-aged and older men and women who are now suffering from various physical ailments such as bad knees and other joints precisely because they played sports as a kid or young adult:

If you had a chance to live it all over again, knowing and feeling what you now know and feel, would you still have played and competed as hard as you did? I’m confident a good-sized majority would say “yes.” Personally, and speaking from vast orthopedic experience, there is no question about the answer. Without hesitation, yes – albeit sometimes with a limp.

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment.

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