On the advent of Yogi Berra's passing this week at the age of 90, it seemed fitting for me to pay tribute to him here. Not so much for his being a sterling, Hall of Fame catcher who helped lead his beloved Yankees to no fewer than ten World Series victories, as for his so “winning” malapropisms—which over the years have delighted millions. Which includes myself, who, as a former English professor was trained to be highly critical of anyone’s misusing (or outright abusing)—our native tongue. And doubtless it can be argued that Yogi may be without peer in mangling the English language (sometimes almost beyond recognition!). Nonetheless, I—and just about everyone else, I think—would much prefer viewing this baseball great in more positive linguistic terms: as contributing an intriguingly novel, even “enriching,” flavor to American English.
So what, exactly, constitutes the curious “anti-literary” charm embedded in the statements he became so renowned for uttering? As fundamentally ridiculous, self-contradictory, confused, platitudinous, or tautological (as in, “wrong mistakes”) as they might initially seem, we have no difficulty relating to them. And when we laugh at them, part of us may actually be laughing at ourselves. For his endearingly inept vocalizations aren’t anything we're not altogether capable of ourselves.
What I’d like to do in this post is to “group” the hilarity of many of Yogi’s best quotes, so that we may better understand the different parts of our funny bone that, however accidentally, he repeatedly demonstrated such expertise in tickling. For some of the things he famously said would seem exquisitely contrived to make us giggle—though inducing such glee in us was never his intent. As Yogi himself put it: “A lot of guys go, ‘Hey, Yog, say a Yogi-ism.’ I tell ‘em, ‘I don’t know any.’ They want me to make one up. I don’t make ’em up. I don’t even know when I say it. They’re the truth. And it is the truth. I don’t know.” (Well said, Yogi—for that retort, too, sounds like a “Yogi-ism”!)
Certainly not a conscious humorist like Mark Twain or Will Rogers, Yogi and his inadvertent wit can yet be expected to remain one of our “national treasures.” For his astonishingly contradictory assertions, (as in, “Pair up in threes”) or his ludicrous redundancies (“We have deep depth”) reflect a most endearing innocence. Gene Wilder—talking about what Charlie Chaplin’s silent movies taught him about the essence of comedy—once remarked: “If the thing you’re doing is really funny, you don’t need to ‘act funny’ while doing it.” And Yogi seems to have taken this one step further by not in the moment being able even to recognize that what he was saying fell headlong into the realm of the hilariously absurd.
That is, Yogi never tried (or contrived) to make us laugh because his native talent was never that of a comedian. His verbal efforts merely endeavored to spontaneously, and sincerely, convey his viewpoints while, unawares, he was doing strenuous battle with the English language (whose idioms and nuances seem to have utterly escaped him). And the fact that his slips of the tongue were unintentional only induced us—in their very unexpectedness—to be all the more amused. What, unawares, he couldn’t help but say, we ourselves couldn’t help but be “tickled” by. And what makes this whole phenomenon as strange as it is singular is that though we’re laughing at Yogi, at the same time we can’t but secretly admire his surprisingly bizarre originality.
So let’s take a closer look at some of the most enjoyable, and memorable, quotes he “bequeathed” to us. And let me try to account for the particular elements in his heedless humor that can’t help but make us chuckle—quite as much by (unconsciously) reminding us of our own occasional linguistic missteps) as at Yogi himself. Categorically speaking, Yogi’s so-entertaining verbal gaffes reflect his unique tendency to employ (destroy?!) language by unknowingly—and rather weirdly—
Employing the wrong word (i.e., manufacturing malapropisms) [and the italics here are my own]:
“Even Napoleon had his Watergate” [meaning, of course, Waterloo].
“Bill Dickey is learning me his experience” [meaning, teaching . . . ].
“He hits from both sides of the plate. He’s amphibious” [i.e., ambidextrous (!)].
“I’m a lucky guy and I’m happy to be with the Yankees. And I want to thank everyone for making this night necessary” [meaning, given the context of its being “Yogi Berra night,” possible. Regrettably, “necessary” suggests something almost punitive].
“I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia Let them walk to school like I did” [a really laughable substitution—presumably, for the word bicycle].
“Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets” [no doubt he meant children!].
“Take it with a grin of salt.” [and you can surely figure this one out yourself!]
Being comically redundant:
“We made too many wrong mistakes”
“It’s like déjà vu all over again” [unfortunately, this statement has been taken out of context, for what Yogi meant when he said it was that Mickey Mantle and Roger Marris repeatedly hit back-to-back home runs!].
“We have deep depth.”
Obliviously contradicting himself:
“I really didn’t say everything I said” [what Yogi meant to say here was, “I really didn’t say everything that’s been attributed to me].
“Slump? I ain’t in no slump. . . . I just ain’t hitting.”
“No one goes there nowadays. It’s too crowded.”
“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”
“Pair up in threes.”
“I usually take a two-hour nap from one to four.”
“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical” [and at this point let’s just assume that math wasn’t one of Yogi’s strengths—and, after all, he was an eighth-grade drop-out].
Saying something that’s actually true—at times profoundly so—but articulated in such a way that it sounds inane or preposterous (i.e., here, too, his words must be translated, or “recast,” to make any immediate sense to an auditor):
“It ain’t over till it’s over” [At first blush, we can’t but think, “Well, of course, and this needs saying, WHY?! . . . But Yogi was referring to the team he was managing (the Mets at the time) being so far behind in the standings that most everyone concluded that they couldn’t possibly contend for the pennant—which they actually ended up doing . . . and winning (!). And also, consider a situation in which a team is behind—or, for that matter, ahead—by 7 or 8 runs late in a game. It’s foolhardy to think that the game is already decided. For how many times has a team come back from what seemed overwhelming odds to win a game that most people had already determined to be lost? Again, it’s Yogi’s seemingly simplistic “languaging” that can make even his considerable baseball wisdom seem redundant or platitudinous.). And perhaps here I might quote Shakespeare's Polonius, who declared: "Brevity is the soul of wit."
“How can you think and hit at the same time?” [really meaning that if you’re too analytical, too self-conscious, or totally “in your head” when the ball comes zooming toward you you’ll never be able to make adequate contact with it.]
“In baseball, you don’t know nothing” [as stated, this sounds pretty ridiculous, but what I think Yogi meant was that you can’t be certain of anything in the sport, or that whatever you say about it is basically speculative].
“It was impossible to get a conversation going—everybody was talking too much” [alluding, I’d guess, to the superficiality, incoherence, and meandering quality of everyone present simply running off at the mouth].
“So I’m ugly. I never saw anyone hit with his face” [an almost grotesque (freakish?) way of saying what should be axiomatic: namely, that one’s looks in no way relate to his batting skills].
“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be” [sounds kind of “off the wall,” but what Yogi doubtless is trying to point out is that we live in a world of imperfection. If this weren’t the case, we’d indeed be occupying a different planet altogether.].
Making statements that at first blush seem to make sense but. upon the slightest reflection, devolve—tautologically—into utter nonsense. That is, Yogi’s sentiments, however earnestly expressed, don’t finally say anything—not, at least, that anyone else would imagine was worth saying. Somehow, their “end point” ends up as virtually indistinguishable from their “starting point,” or his jumbled thought process seems to circle back to where it began, so that what's being asserted appears—ultimately—to be nothing at all:
“You can observe a lot by just watching.”
“Congratulations! I knew the record would stand until it was broken” [yeah, well, so . . .?].
“You wouldn’t have won if we’d beaten you” [ditto].
“If the people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them” [huh?].
“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there” [and again, huh?].
Saying things that, taken literally, are undeniably absurd. My last selective group of Yogi-isms is closely related to the one just above. My perhaps arbitrary distinction here simply lies in my sense that these quotes, as stated, move from the logically questionable or nonsensical to the downright absurd (though some readers might think that I’m splitting hairs between the two intimately linked categories):
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it” [no space to go into it here, but in its proper context Yogi’s assertion actually made sense!].
“Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours” [as corpses?!]
“You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six” [and there’s that math problem again].
“The future ain’t what it used to be.” [what?!!]
“It gets late early out here.”
“Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel.”
To conclude, which one of us won’t miss Yogi Berra—as the outstanding catcher, coach and manager, and unintentional master of linguistic peculiarities that he was? Still, because he left us with such a treasure trove of the most amusing linguistic unorthodoxies, what made him so endearing to us in the first place will not have been lost at all. Wondrously memorable as these verbal errors are, his deservedly famous (mis-)quotes will help us to remember him indefinitely. And with much fondness and appreciation.
. . . And we might even look up to him, for our own inevitable mistakes in expressing ourselves only rarely can measure up to his own uniquely charming and captivating malapropisms.
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© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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