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Nostalgia November 2015

Social Insecurity

Well, Yogi, Looks Like It’s Definitely ‘Over’

By Michael J. Murphy

Early in his career, an umpire reportedly told Yogi that he was the ugliest player he’d ever seen. Yogi responded, “So I’m ugly. I never saw anyone hit with his face,” and that was the end of that.

The man that some experts have labeled the greatest baseball catcher of all time has passed away. Yogi Berra was a baseball icon and a philosopher for everyman. Yogi famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” but I would say that, along with the man, an entire era of America’s Game is over. They just don’t make baseball players like Yogi anymore.

Players in Yogi’s time were tough, compared to today when players miss games due to fatigue from filming underwear commercials. Yogi played for 19 seasons, and I cannot find any record of Yogi ever missing a game due to injury. And he was a catcher which, even if your baseball playing career peaked in little league, you know is one of the most demanding jobs in all of sports.

Baseball catchers are like bull riders in rodeo or a center in football as far as just plain toughness. Catchers are the pit bulls of baseball. They are the quarterbacks of the team, the stage director. My little league team’s catcher was the one guy no one would mess with. Every game he was the sweatiest, dirtiest kid on the team—and that was just after the warmup!

As a catcher, Yogi was right on when he said, “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.” This makes sense because during a game most of the players stand around for 90% of the time thinking about what they will do if the ball is hit their way. But not the catcher who, compared to his teammates, puts out a 140% effort during games. So Yogi’s calculation is quite accurate.

Early in his career, an umpire reportedly told Yogi that he was the ugliest player he’d ever seen. Yogi responded, “So I’m ugly. I never saw anyone hit with his face,” and that was the end of that.

If an umpire made a remark like that to a major league player today, you can just imagine the firestorm that would ignite in the sports media. There would be press conferences, players union calls for an apology, lawsuits, etc. Twitter would be all atwitter with tweets of “Off with his head” in regard to the ump. The Ugly People’s Lives Matter movement would hold rallies near ballparks.

Baseball was a pretty simple game back in Yogi’s playing days. The players had simple names like Duke, Wally, Mickey, Stan, etc. Pitchers generally had an arsenal of only three pitches, so the catcher signaled index finger for fast ball, first two fingers for curve ball, and middle finger for bean ball.

Today, these same aspects of the game are much more complicated. With players like Odrisame Despaigne, Kila Ka’aihue, Hisashi Iwakuma, etc., I pity sports announcers as well as the guys who print names on jerseys. It’s no wonder the Colorado Rockies misspelled his name on Tulowitzki’s free-jersey night.

When it comes to today’s pitchers, they have more options than a new Rolls-Royce. Why with just the fastball alone, there are the four-seam, two-seam, split-finger, or cut versions. Throw in your sliders, screwballs, spitballs, etc., and a catcher can easily run out of fingers. It also explains why he has that Rolodex attached to his arm.

Catchers’ equipment back in Yogi’s day was very basic. The mask looked like part of a bird cage while the chest protector and shin guards might fend off a pea shooter. Today’s catchers are so well padded from head to toe that they resemble hockey goalies or Star Wars Stormtroopers.

Pitchers were expected to pitch the entire game in Yogi’s time. None of this five innings, then comes the middle reliever, followed by the setup guy, who hands the ball to the closer — making today’s pitchers’ mound more like a relay exchange zone. Why, back in 1963, when Warren Spahn was 42 years old, he pitched a 16-inning, four-hour-long game.

Today they’ve turned batting into a real science with players studying different pitches on film and receiving instruction from professional hitting coaches. When he was told to think while at bat, Yogi asked, “How can anybody think and hit at the same time?” His philosophy was simple: “If I can hit it, it’s a good pitch.”

Guys back in the day played out their contracts. They made a deal and stuck with it. Just their word and a handshake would seal the deal. Modern ball players are just the opposite. It wouldn’t surprise me today if a player was to jump ship during the seventh-inning stretch in the first game of a double header and suit up for the opposing team to play in the nightcap!

Yogi even had some wise advice for today’s athletes to follow. For example, Alex Rodriquez, who just came off a year-long suspension for using performance-enhancing substances, could have benefitted from this sage tip: “If you’re going to cheat, it’s better if you don’t get caught.”


Mike Murphy retired after a 35-year teaching and coaching career. He has a master’s degree in English from the University of Nebraska and is an Associated Press award-winning columnist.

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