RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Yogi Berra died last night at the age of 90. In remembrance of his passing, let's go back 10 years and listen to a commentary Frank Deford delivered in honor of a man who was both a baseball legend and one of the game's truly great characters.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: I suppose folks would say Muhammad Ali is the most famous living athlete in this country, or possibly Michael Jordan. But then when I saw a certain someone the other day, it occurred to me, you know, there may be another American sportsman who keeps coming back into our consciousness more than any other. Think about it when I say the name - Yogi Berra, right? Listen up, I've got nothing to say, so I'm only going to say it once. Yogi just recently had his 80th birthday. I want to thank you for making this day necessary. But he's part of our culture, isn't he, in ways that other great athletes never manage.
Yogi remains the ultimate in athletic Americana. It isn't just that he succeeded Gracie Allen for being the best at saying perfect things so imperfectly. Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded. Neither is it that he's that rarest human being to have had a cartoon character named after him, the irrepressible Yogi Bear. No, Yogi was so endearing from the first, even before we heard him mangle the language, because we could identify with him. He was the Yankee you rooted for even if you hated the Yankees. So many athletes are so tall and handsome, buffed. Berra was no more than 5-feet-8, a blocky 195 pounds with a countenance that, well, left even the most generous beholders hard-pressed to find beauty.
So what? I never saw anyone hit with his face. He was just as fabulous behind the plate catching as he was beside it swinging. He knew the game intuitively, smart enough as a manager to win pennants in both the American and National Leagues. So what if he said goofy things? It gets late early out here. Probably too, he didn't utter quite all that's been attributed to him. Or, as Yogi himself explained it, I didn't really say everything I said. But hey, it took Sheridan to make up Mrs. Malaprop and give us malapropism. Lawrence Peter Berra gave us Yogi-ism all by himself. But you knew that already, didn't you? So of course, excuse me - it's deja vu all over again.
Yogi was back at Cooperstown last week, one of the oldest living Hall of Famers. It ain't over till it's over. As he enters his 80s, nature's noble man, he's trimmer than when he played - balding, bespectacled, wizened. Who would believe that this little old man, schmoozing with all the sturdy big guys, came out of World War II, bobbing in the waves, dodging the artillery in a little 36-foot boat off of Normandy, to become one of the finest athletes of his era? Not to mention then going on to become something of a national treasure.
Good to see you again, Yogi, still being Yogi. Or, if you do say so yourself, if you can't imitate him don't copy him.
MONTAGNE: That's Frank Deford honoring Yogi Berra with a commentary that first aired 10 years ago. Yogi Berra was 90 when he died last night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.