At the MLB All-Star Game in 2015, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays made a special appearance. As they came out onto the field, thousands of fans roared. One of the people in the stands was Yogi Berra.
But why was he there instead of on the field with the stars? Why wasn’t he being saluted as a living legend?
That’s when his granddaughter Lindsay Berra leaned over. “Are you dead?” she asked sarcastically.
“Not yet,” Berra answered.
The legendary player did pass away later that year, at 90. But his proud and protective granddaughter remembered that slight.
And now she and the rest of Berra’s family — along with director Sean Mullin — are righting that wrong with a hugely entertaining new documentary, “It Ain’t Over,” that gives the baseball icon, and longtime Montclair fixture, the respect he deserves. (The movie officially opens May 12; on May 11 and May 14, tickets are 2-for-1 at Regal, AMC and City Cinemas theaters.)
“I think what’s at the heart of the documentary is making sure we reclaimed his position as a player,” says Mullin. “In society, it’s hard to be viewed as both funny and talented. Comedies don’t win Oscars, right? You’re either the jester or the king. But Yogi was both.”
“He deserves to be remembered for the great player he was,” says Lindsay Berra, a longtime sports journalist. “I mean, when Yadi Molina got his 1000th RBI, I remember seeing a composite picture saying ‘Now he belongs with the greats’ — and they had photos of Pudge Rodriguez and Johnny Bench. And I was like, yeah, they both have over 1000 RBIs. But Grandpa had more than them. He had 1430. And he literally was not in the picture.”
Yet, she says, her grandfather probably would have just “thumbed his nose at it and moved on.” He resolutely refused to let things get to him, even when the joking got a little pointed or insulting.
“When he joined the big leagues, people said he looked like a fire hydrant,” she says. “Like an ape. People wrote he was ‘too ugly to be a Yankee’ — can you imagine someone writing that today? And Grandpa’s response was, ‘Well, I never saw anyone hit a ball with his face.’ And that was him. He didn’t care what anyone said about him. Really, as great a player as he was, he was an even better person.”
Besides, he knew the stats were there — and although they’ve sometimes been overlooked, the film is happy to repeat them. In his 19 seasons on the field, Berra was an 18-time All Star, and won 10 World Series championships — a record. He was named MVP three times, and was the catcher for Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Those are impressive numbers, and the film cites many more.
There are the images, too. Like Jackie Robinson stealing home, and Berra failing to tag him out. (Or maybe not — Berra always insisted, politely but firmly, that the ump made a bad call.) Or the giddy climax to that historic World Series perfect game, with Berra jumping into Larsen’s arms afterwards like a happy kid. (Berra’s wife, Carmen, was pregnant and in the stands that day; they ended up naming the child Dale after Dale Mitchell, the last batter Larsen retired.)
But his baseball career isn’t the only reason Yogi Berra is still beloved.
“My grandmother, God bless her, she and Yogi were very progressive thinkers,” Lindsay Berra says. “When they first came East, they lived in the Bronx, and my grandmother really loved the ethnic diversity — the people, the food, the whole multi-cultural scene. Afterwards they rented in Bergen County for a while, but Montclair seemed a lot more diverse and they wanted to raise their kids in that kind of community, so they bought there. Of course, Montclair was also closer to my grandfather’s favorite bowling alley! But they really loved the town. And their children were all born there, and their children were raised there — the Berra footprint in New Jersey is very firmly planted!”
In fact, directions to the original Berra homestead gave rise to one of the most famous Yogi-isms – “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Actually, the advice makes sense (whichever way you went at that fork, the winding road led to the Berras’ house). Which is true of a lot of Berra’s famous sayings — there is a kernel of wisdom if you dig deep enough. Like “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” Or “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Or “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Or “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
“My favorite Yogi-isms are the almost existential ones,” his granddaughter says. “Like, ‘If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.’ ”
The movie makes room for plenty of those cracked quotations, as well as covering Berra’s years as a manager, and second career as a TV-commercial pitchman (and the uncredited inspiration for a certain smarter-than-average cartoon bear). And in addition to film clips from classic games, there are also tributes to the man from other greats, some recently passed, as well as the details of Berra’s long, long feud with George Steinbrenner. (And — no surprise, by the way — Berra was in the right.)
The one thing you won’t find is anyone with a word to say against the legendary catcher. Most documentaries like this have a pivot point, a moment where someone pops up to say “But on the other hand …” and suddenly a long list of dark secrets and ugly transgressions are revealed. That never comes here. And there is a reason for that.
“The only bad thing I ever found written about Grandpa was one of the players complaining that one day in the clubhouse Grandpa came out of the coaches’ locker room and went over to this table where they had a big deli spread and made himself a sandwich. Except he was naked,” Lindsay Berra says. “And that’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen someone say about him: That he made a bologna sandwich with no pants on.”
It’s also one of the few moments in Berra’s life that isn’t onscreen here.
“I think a lot of people are probably glad about that,” Lindsay Berra says, laughing.
The movie packs a lot into about an hour and a half, chronicling a life in baseball that began in St. Louis, where poor kids played with a bottle cap and a broomstick, and ended in a New Jersey suburb with two fistfuls of World Series rings. Yet for all the information it provides, it also encourages a question: What would Yogi Berra make of baseball today?
“Honestly, I think he would be a little confused and a little shocked,” his granddaughter says. “I remember when they were first talking about the rule where you could not take out the catcher anymore, and he did not like that at all; he thought you should be a good enough of a player to be able to get out of the way. You know, ‘I’d like to see someone try to take me out, they’d get my glove in their face,’ he’d say. The idea of bigger bases, he’d find that somewhat preposterous. All the talk about players being bigger, stronger, faster — oh really? So why do we have to make so many concessions?
“But being his granddaughter, you know, I’m an old-school fan … There used to be a saying, the only things that never changed are baseball and the paperclip. Well, now it’s just the paperclip.”
And yet, she adds, some things haven’t changed.
“What he really loved about the game is still there,” she insists. “The camaraderie, the joy of being out there with your buddies, playing on a nice summer afternoon — that stuff’s still intact.”
“It’s Ain’t Over” begins screening May 11. For more about Yogi Berra, visit the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center at Montclair State University; visit yogiberramuseum.org.
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