Perception VS Reality

I recently watched a movie, “It Ain’t Over,” about the famous major league baseball player Lawrence Berra, known as “Yogi” to everybody who knew of him.  His granddaughter, Lindsay Berra, wondered why Yogi was excluded from a collection of baseball’s four greatest living players at the 2015 Major League Baseball Allstate game.  They recognized Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, and Johnny Bench, all great stars, but not Yogi.  Lindsay wondered why. And that was the movie’s genesis, in which many speak of Yogi’s greatness as a baseball player.

Yogi Berra was an incredible catcher who excelled both offensively and defensively.  He played for the New York Yankees and was a 10-time winner of the World Series (he played in 14, coached in 5, and won 2 pennants as a manager.)  He was an 18-time all-star.  He was the most valuable player in the American League 3 times.  Defensively, he led the league in assists three times and eight times in putouts and was recognized as a great handler of pitchers. Yogi hit with power (385 home runs), yet rarely struck out. I don’t believe there is another player in significant league history that compares to him.  Yogi was a “one of a kind” and has been unappreciated as a baseball star.

So, why was Yogi not considered one of the best players of the game at the 2015 All-Star game? Billy Crystal said he “was the most overlooked superstar in the history of baseball.” Why was he overlooked?

I think there are 3 reasons for this:

  1. His personality reputation for saying deadpanned, impromptu non-sequiturs or malapropisms, sometimes called “Yogi-ism’s,” which made him an iconic character.
  2. The cartoon character of Yogi Bear, and
  3. The sportswriters did not give him enough respect for his outstanding baseball skills.  His accomplishments and records can fill pages.

Yogi became famous for saying witty comments like “It ain’t over ‘till its over.” “When you come to a fork in the road take it,” “you can observe a lot just by watching,” and “it’s deja vue all over again.” Yogi did not say these comments to be funny; they came naturally to him.  But they were amusing, and people laughed when they heard them. Yogi said he did not say all the quotes attributed to him. As Jeremy Stahl noted, “Sportswriters and other journalists felt free in those days to exaggerate, or even fabricate, facts to fit a storyline.”1 Some were made up by his lifelong good friend and broadcaster Joe Garagiola. In addition, Yogi Berra did several television commercials that capitalized on his funny sayings. Perhaps they made Yogi more famous (and were financially rewarding), but I think they exaggerated his special wit and helped diminish his greatness as a baseball player.

Yogi Bear was a children’s cartoon character created by Hanna-Barbera in 1958 and named after Yogi Berra. But the cartoon character was vastly different from the real person. Yogi Bear was mischievous and lived in Jellystone Park.  Although Yogi Bear was not a cartoon of Yogi Berra, the names were similar, and perhaps some people thought of Yogi Berra as a funny character (which he could be at times), like the cartoon.  Which he wasn’t.

Lastly, although Yogi was a very likable and cheerful person, he was not glamourized by the national or New York baseball sportswriters, nor did he promote himself, like some others, such as Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, or even Joe DiMaggio. Phil Rizzuto promoted himself into the Hall of Fame.  Yogi didn’t need to; he received over 85 percent of the vote from sportscasters in his first year of eligibility. (It should have been 100 percent.) And Yogi was truly humble, letting the others receive more attention. Yogi was also a family man when others were out on the town.

Ty Cobb, another famous baseball player, has been labeled as a racist largely because of one biography.  The reality is that he and his father were abolitionists.

This perception versus reality also applies to other things, such as politics and entertainment.  We all know or have seen and heard of individuals who were not the same as their real personalities, such as Bill Cosby and Jeffrey Epstein.  Let’s try to get to know the real people instead of the ones the media tries to get us to believe.