Baseball legend Yogi Berra died yesterday at age 90. It was the same day that he first debuted in Major League Baseball 69 years earlier, playing catcher for the New York Yankees.
Berra had an incredible career, appearing in 14 World Series, including on 10 championship teams. He was an All-Star for fifteen seasons, and between 1950 and 1957 never appeared lower than fourth in the American League’s MVP voting. (He won in 1951, 1954 and 1955.)
But as talented a player as he was, what he’ll be most remembered for is the infectiousness of his joy. Yogi Berra seemingly always had a funny line on hand, usually a little bit ridiculous. “You better cut the pizza in four slices,” he once said, “because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.” “90 percent of this game is half-mental.” “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
He was someone who instinctively seemed to find the good in things. He had an eternal innocence to him, and in the midst of his brain twisters often could be found something quite wise. “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice,” he once said. “In practice there is.”
“You can learn a lot just by watching” is likewise a bit of wisdom we could all use to have on a sign above our desks. And while Robert Frost might cringe at the likes of “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” the underlying idea, to jump in with both feet, to leap—sings.
It’s a sad coincidence that Berra would die just days before the New York arrival of Pope Francis. Berra was himself a lifelong practicing Catholic, who used to cajole others to join him for Sunday Mass. His wife Carmen, whom he married in 1949, wasn’t religious before she met him, but she became a Catholic “because it seemed to me that a religion that had such a grip on Yogi must be a good one.” Berra once wrote, “I’ve always been a devout Catholic...I’ve always believed in brotherhood, redemption, and forgiveness.”
And in a lot of ways the two seem a lot alike—equally playful, transparent and their instincts always towards hope and joy. Yogi Berra saw a better world, a funnier world sitting right there in front of us. As with the pope's visit these days, we can only hope that glimpse he gave us is something that within us remains.