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Honoring Yogi Berra-What He Really Said

By Paul Dickson, September 28, 2015

When Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra died at age 90 on September 22, 2015, he was one of baseball’s most famous figures, known as much for his memorable quips as for his excellence on the field. But the origins of many of these so-called Yogisms (or Berraisms if you prefer) are murky—and some he never said at all. In the aftermath of his passing, many quotes were attributed to him which were not his.

Sorting out the real quotations from the bogus is no easy task. In the March 17, 1986, edition of The Sporting News, Yogi Berra put it bluntly, “I really didn’t say everything I said.” It is at once the glory and dilemma of assembling Berra quotes. The line is both a perfect Berraism and yet a repudiation of Berraisms.

But his ability to get quoted is remarkable. The New Yorker observed, “Hardly anybody would quarrel that Winston Churchill has been replaced by Yogi Berra as the . . . favorite source of quotations,” and The New York Times proclaimed him the most commonly quoted American in graduation speeches.

What follows is a major annotated collection of Berraisms, presented as a memorial to one of the most beloved baseball players ever.

“A lot of guys have that many all by themselves.
          —On his 1974 Mets bullpen, which saved a scant 14 games.

“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”
          —Quoted in Baseball Digest, June 1987.

“Anybody who can’t tell the difference between a ball hitting wood and a ball hitting concrete must be blind.”
          —In an argument with an umpire, who ruled that a ball hit a concrete outfield wall and was thus in play, while Berra said it hit a wooden barricade beyond the wall and was thus a home run, quoted in Sports Illustrated, April 30, 1979.

“Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”
          —One of the most often stated “Berraisms,” Berra stood by this one. “It may be 95 per cent or it may be only 80, but anybody who plays golf, tennis, or any other sport knows what I mean,” is how he put it in Yogi: It Ain’t Over.

“Bill Dickey learned me all his experiences.”
          —When as a young Yankee catcher he was instructed by Coach Bill Dickey.

Coach Bill Dickey gives Yogi some tips in 1949. 

“Boy, I’m glad I don’t live in them days.”
          —Impromptu review of the bloody movie The Vikings, quoted by Leonard Koppett in The Sporting News, July 18, 1970.

“Come over here and show me how to work this thing!”
          —Calling a teammate about his new piano, widely attributed.

Dr. Zhivago, again. What’s the matter with you now?”
          —After his wife came back to the hotel where the Mets were staying and mentioned that she had just seen Dr. Zhivago for the second time. Almost certainly a joke into which Berra’s name has been inserted, it has been widely retold as gospel.

“Don’t know, they were wearing a bag over their head.”
          —When, after seeing his first streaker, he was asked if the person was male or female, quoted by Ron Luciano in Strike Two.

“He can run anytime he wants. I’m giving him the red light.”
          —As Yankees manager on the acquisition of Rickey Henderson, quoted in Sports Illustrated, March 25, 1985.

“He is a big clog in their machine.” 
          —On Ted Williams (although he allegedly also said it about Tony Perez with the Reds).

Yogi is behind the plate as Ted Williams slaps his 2,000 career hit in 1955.

“He must have made that before he died.”
          —On a Steve McQueen movie, 1982.

“He was a hard out.”
          —Speaking of the late Jackie Robinson, quoted in The New York Times, October 25, 1972.

“How did yours come out?”
          —After laying down his comic book, to infielder Bobby Brown, later an M.D., who was reading Gray’s Anatomy. If this seems bogus, consider the fact that Brown confirmed the story at a dinner on June 24, 1981, at the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

“I don’t know if we’re the oldest battery, but we’re certainly the ugliest.”
          —When brought back by the Mets to catch for Warren Spahn, widely quoted.

“I don’t know. I’m not in shape yet.”
          —When asked his cap size by the clubhouse man when he checked into spring training as a coach for the Houston Astros, quoted in Baseball Digest, August 1986.

“I don’t see how he lost five games during the season.”
          —On Sandy Koufax during the 1963 World Series. Koufax’s regular-season record for the year was 25–5.

“I got a touch of pantomime poisoning.”
          —Why he couldn’t play in a game for Yankees Manager Casey Stengel, from a collection of Jimmy Powers Berraisms in the November 6, 1957, Sporting News.

Yogi enjoys clowning around with manager Casey Stengel during spring training in 1953.

“I knew my record would stand until it was broken.”
          —Line in a telegram sent to Johnny Bench on July 16, 1980, when Bench passed his home run record.

“I love movies—if you like them.”
          —On his role as critic in the short-lived Yogi at the Movies television feature, Newsweek, December 14, 1997.

“I tell the kids, somebody’s gotta win, somebody’s gotta lose. Just don’t fight about it. Just try to get better.”
          —Latter-day quote on advice he gave to youngsters visiting his museum in Montclair, N.J.

“I want to thank you for making this day necessary.”
         —As hometown fans in St. Louis were throwing a “Day” for him in 1947 at Sportsman’s Park. He revived the line at his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 (The Sporting News, August 19, 1972); and again in giving the commencement address to the class of ’96 at Montclair State (USA Today, May 17, 1996).

“I usually take a two-hour nap, from one o’clock to four.”
          —When asked what he does the afternoon of a night game. From The Wit and Wisdom of Yogi Berra, by Phil Pepe.

“I wish I had an answer to that because I’m getting tired of answering that question.”
          —When asked about the sad record of his 1984 Yankees, quoted in Sports Illustrated, June 11, 1984.

“If the fellow who lost it was poor, I’d return it.”
          —In response to Casey Stengel’s question of what he would do if he found a million dollars. This story was told by Jimmy Powers in 1962 in the New York News after this introduction. “Most of the stories attributed to Yogi are the products of the fertile minds of witty correspondents traveling with him. It goes without saying that they are extremely fond of him. Casey himself added to the Berra legend.”

“If the people don’t want to come out to the park, nobody’s going to stop them.”
          —Explaining declining attendance in Kansas City, SABR collection.

“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
          —From The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.

“If you ain’t got a bullpen, you ain’t got nothin’.”
          —As Mets manager as his relievers failed him during the 1973 season when he was on his way out.

After managing the Yankees in 1964, Berra joined the New York Mets where he would serve as a coach and manager for the next decade.

“If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”
          —When Ron Swoboda told Yogi, then a Mets coach, that he liked to crowd the plate like Frank Robinson, quoted in the August 1961 issue of Baseball Digest.

“If you’re going to cheat, it’s better if you don’t get caught.”
          —On the New England Patriots and the “deflategate” scandal, reported by his granddaughter on his 90th birthday.

“In baseball, you don’t know nothing.”
          —This quotation was first collected in the 1970s and has shown up in many places, including books by Roger Angell and George Will.

“In one of his salary disputes with George Weiss, Berra contended he would be named the league’s most valuable player. ‘That isn’t official yet.’ Weiss said. Some of the papers say there were players more valuable than you. That didn’t register with Yogi, who merely shook his head and replied, ‘I read only them papers which say I’m the most valuable.’”
          —Also from a collection of Berraisms that appeared in the November 6, 1957, Sporting News.

“It ain’t like football. You can’t make up no trick plays.”
          —When asked in 1964 if he had new plans for the World Series.

“It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
          —Talking about the 1973 pennant race when the Mets were bouncing all over the place and finally won their division by winning 82 games and losing 79. There are many versions of this quote as there are of other important quotations. One early version has Yogi saying, “It’s never over till it’s over.”

“It could only happen in America.”
          —On being told about Robert Briscoe, the first Jewish mayor of Dublin, on his first visit to the United States, quoted in Herman L. Masin’s Baseball Laughs.

“It gets late early out here.”
          —While explaining why the Sun makes Yankee Stadium’s left field difficult to play during day games in October.

“It was hard to have a conversation with anyone, there were so many people talking.”
          —On a White House dinner he attended, quoted in Sports Illustrated, April 8, 1985.

“It’s déjà vu all over again.”
          —One of his most popular lines, despite the fact that he insists in Yogi: It Ain’t Over that he didn’t say it. Berra also told The New York Times language columnist William Safire in 1987 that he never said it, but later in life he was known to take credit for the quotation. Berra supposedly said this as he reacted to back-to-back home runs by his teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. “Makes perfect sense to me,” he said decades later.

“It’s so crowded nobody goes there anymore.”
          —On Toots Shor’s restaurant in New York City.

“Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.”
          —Quoted by Bob Uecker in Catcher in the Wry.

“Slump? I ain’t in no slump. I just ain’t hitting.”
          —Quoted in Sports Illustrated, March 17, 1986.

“So I’m ugly. So what? I never saw anyone hit with his face.”
          —The classic Berraism, which was his response to Red Sox bench jockey Mike Ryba on his first visit to Boston as a Yankee. Ryba accused Berra of having the ugliest face in baseball.

“That restaurant served the biggest shrimp I ever saw.”
          —When Dave Kaplan, head of the Yogi Berra Museum, asked Berra what he remembered of his lunch with Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio after the two had gotten married. Quoted in the Times-Picayune, September 2, 1999.

“The knee is not for sale. It’s going in my museum.”
          —Before knee-replacement surgery at age 74, from the Chicago Sun-Times, November 18, 1999.

“The other teams could make trouble for us if they win.”
          —As Yankees manager, widely attributed.

“They asked me to take it for a year and see if I liked it. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t.”
          —After he had managed the Yankees one season, won the pennant, and was fired, quoted by William B. Mead in The Official New York Yankees Hater’s Handbook.

“Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?”
          —On being told as a young Yankee by Bucky Harris to think about what was being thrown to him as a batter. An early article on Berra in Sport (“The Fabulous Yogi Berra”) by Ed Fitzgerald shows that Yogi never said this but was put in his mouth by a sportswriter. Despite this and denials from Berra, it is still widely attributed to him.

After hitting a home run in the 1956 World Series, Yogi is greeted at the plate by teammates Joe Collins, Bobby Richardson and others.

“Third ain’t so bad if nothin’ is hit to you.”
          —On Casey Stengel’s experiment using him as a third baseman, Sport, June 1960.

“This ain’t the way to spell my name.”
          —From the old tale in which it was claimed that Berra was handed a check reading, “Pay to bearer”; widely attributed and probably apocryphal.

Tom Seaver: “Hey, Yogi, what time is it?”
Yogi Berra: “You mean now?”
          —From Jon Winokur’s Zen to Go. Berra himself did not deny that he said this, but the question is whom he said it to. As he put it in Yogi: It Ain’t Over, “So many people claim that they have asked me what time it was and I said, ‘Do you mean now?’ that if I listed them all, this would be a very fat book.”

“Wait a minute. These people came all the way from Texas.”
          —Holding up his party after a banquet in Houston so that he could sign a program for a Dallas couple. This line has been quoted in several issues of Baseball Digest.

“We don’t throw at .200 hitters!”
          —Said in a game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox during the 1957 season. Jimmy Piersall in the midst of a batting slump said to Berra, “If you tell that blankety-blank pitcher to throw at me I’ll bash your head with this bat—and plead temporary insanity,” quoted in the August 1972 Baseball Digest.

“We made too many wrong mistakes.”
          —His reason for the Yankees losing the 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates. George Bush used this quote on various occasions, saying that the nation can ill-afford “wrong mistakes,” from The Wit and Wisdom of Yogi Berra, by Phil Pepe.

“Well, who’s in it?”
         —On being asked by a reporter if he wanted to go see a dirty movie, quoted by Leonard Koppett in The Sporting News, July 18, 1970.

“Well, I used to look like this when I was young and now I still do.”
          —As a Mets coach explaining how he has kept his youthful appearance, The Sporting News, July 11, 1970.

Yogi in 1965—his first season with the Mets.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
          —Berra said this as advice to graduates in a speech at Montclair State’s commencement in 1996, although he had used it before in giving directions to his home in Montclair, New Jersey, to his friend Joe Garagiola, a baseball player and announcer. Originally, he meant that since either path around a commons in the middle of the road led to his home, it did not matter which way Joe took to get to his final destination. It has become an oft-used bit of advice at graduations.

“We’re not exactly hitting the ball off the cover.”
          —When asked what was the problem with New York Mets hitters.

“What for? The only time I ever use it is when I travel.”
          —In response to the question of why he didn’t buy himself a new suitcase, quoted by Bennett Cerf in his Good for a Laugh when Berra was a young World War II veteran. Over time the quote was restated as: “Why buy good luggage, you only use it when you travel.”

“When we followed Detroit into a city, we could always tell how Hutch fared. If we got stools in the dressing room, we knew he had won. If we got kindling, we knew he had lost.”
          —On the late Fred Hutchinson of the Tigers, quoted in Baseball Digest, March 1965.

“Why, they was as close as Damon and Runyon!”
          —Describing two Yankee infielders, quoted in Bennett Cerf’s The Life of the Party.

“Yeah, for what paper?”
          —On someone’s remark that Ernest Hemingway was a “great writer,” widely quoted.

Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle at spring training in 1953.

“You can observe a lot by watching.”
          —Explaining why, on being appointed rookie Yankees manager in 1964, he would do well despite a lack of full managerial experience (he had assisted Stengel the previous year). First quoted in The New York Times, October 25, 1963.

This line has been re-quoted by people in all walks of life. For instance, when pressed for comments after the 1985 Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown, then-Vice President George Bush said, “As Yogi Berra once said, you can observe a lot by watching. I want to watch.”

“You don’t look so hot yourself.”
          —When told by Mary Lindsay, wife of then New York Mayor John Lindsay, that he looked nice and cool, although some claim that this never happened, Berra said it did.

“You guys make a fine pair.”
          —On approaching a group of three players, quoted by Alan Truax of the Houston Chronicle in Baseball Digest, June 1987.

“You’d better make it four. I don’t think I can eat six pieces.”
          —When asked if he wanted his pizza cut into four or six pieces.

“You can’t win all of the time. There are guys out there who are better than you.”
          —From “More Yogi-isms,” USA Weekend, July 8-10, 1988.

“You dead yet?”
          —Concerned about reports that Whitey Ford had a recurrence of cancer, he asked this question of his former Yankee batterymate when reaching him by phone. “I’m still here,’’ Ford assured him, The New York Times, May 10, 2000.

Manager Yogi Berra and General Manager Ralph Houk congratulate Whitey Ford on being named the Yankees 1964 pitching coach.

“You give 100 percent in the first half of the game, and if that isn’t enough in the second half you give what’s left.”
          —As a Yankees coach in 1982.

“You guys are trying to stop Musial in fifteen minutes when the National League ain’t stopped him in fifteen years.”
          —His comment on an All-Star pregame meeting designed to analyze strengths of National League batters.

“You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”
          —From Yogi’s own 2010 collection What Time Is It? You Mean Now? Advice for Life from the Zennest Master of Them All.

As we continue to quote Yogi in the years to come we should occasionally remind ourselves that beyond these quotations he was a man with a deep knowledge of the game. As the late Commissioner Bart Giamatti once said, “Talking to Yogi Berra about baseball is like talking to Homer about the gods.”

In 1952, Columbia Records launched a sports educational series on 45 discs. Yogi—one of the first baseball stars to be featured—offered youngsters tips on the art of catching.



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