May 2, 2009


It Ain’t Over: a review of YOGI BERRA: Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra (JONATHAN MAHLER, NY Times Book Review)

[Allen Barra] is out to prove that Yogi Berra is underappreciated as a ballplayer and misunderstood as a human being, that Yogi’s image as an “amiable clown” created “a pseudo-Yogi that took on a life of its own, a caricature of the real man.”

Like Richard Ben Cramer’s memorably unflattering biography of Joe ­DiMaggio, this book too is aimed at shattering the popular perception of a Yankee great, only instead of demythologizing his subject, Barra aims to elevate Yogi to baseball immortality — and then hoist him a few notches higher. Yogi’s life and career, the author boldly writes, leaving nothing to inference, “transcend fashion, pointing to something indelibly good in the American character.” [...]

Yogi’s rise through the minor leagues was interrupted by a stint in the military during World War II, and his service was by no means limited to running baseball clinics for the troops on the home front. He was in the thick of the D-Day invasion, on a small craft assigned to spray rockets in advance of the troops landing on Omaha Beach. (Years later, a sportswriter would quip that Yogi had survived D-Day and George Steinbrenner, the source of his aforementioned exile from Yankee Sta­dium, “and all in 40 years.”) Here and elsewhere, Barra sticks to the facts, relying on other writers, in this case Cornelius Ryan, to set the scene for him. The book suffers as a result; as deeply immersed as the author is in the life and times of Yogi, one can’t help feeling that he never takes full possession of his material.

Yogi tends to be seen as a sort of bridge between two golden eras of Yankee baseball, DiMaggio’s and Mickey Mantle’s. But as Barra convincingly establishes, his subject is well deserving of his own era: Between 1947 and 1958, with Yogi anchoring the defense and hitting in the heart of the lineup, the Yankees won 10 pennants and 8 World Series.

Barra’s recaps of those seasons and postseasons, in particular his chronicle of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, make for some of the book’s best reading. Unfortunately, Barra can’t resist a good debate. He intrudes frequently into the story to tussle with Yogi’s detractors — managers like Leo Durocher, who derided his lack of discipline at the plate, and sportswriters who lambasted his erratic arm. Each time, the author’s evaluation of the facts leads him to the conclusion that Yogi’s critics were wrong. No doubt, Barra felt an obligation to set the record straight — and he may well be performing an overdue service to obsessive Yogi fans — but these pedantic digressions can make it difficult to get absorbed in the narrative.

Similarly, Barra’s discussion of Yogi’s career as a manager — he did two stints with the Yankees and one with the Mets — reads as much like a brief defending ­Yogi’s record as it does a historical account. Barra is a first-rate sports analyst. His articles for Salon and The New York Times, among other publications, are reliably original and persuasive, and he has written two terrifically entertaining books (“Brushbacks and Knockdowns” and “Clearing the Bases”) in which he attempts to settle some of baseball’s greatest debates. But his argumentative style and its predictable conclusions grow weary­ing in this lengthy biography.

Barra’s love for Yogi also seems to work against him. There is nothing inherently wrong with writers becoming enthralled with their subjects: Look no further than Jane Leavy’s “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” one of the finest baseball books of the last decade and a loving portrait if ever there was one. Barra doesn’t manage to achieve the same level of intimacy in “Yogi Berra.” It’s almost as if his admiration for his subject caused Barra to keep him at arm’s length.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 2, 2009 6:49 AM
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