April 1, 2023

Driving Mr. Yogi

May 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

In the recently released book, Driving Mr. Yogi by Harvey Araton, the front seat is occupied ably by Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry, but the back seat is filled with the Pantheon of modern day Yankee heroes. Characteristically, George Steibrenner spills over into the front and tries to take the wheel. But Yogi Berra is too much for him and it is the story telling of the classiest act ever to don the Yankee pin stripes that makes this book worth reading.

Yogi Berra is a New York Yankee from start to finish and this book is about the storied franchise at every level. Yet Berra is loved by baseball fans regardless their loyalties and it is the insights into the complexities of Yogi Berra, the grand old man of the game, as brought out by his friend Ron Guidry, that give Driving Mr. Yogi the same special status as its main character. The relationship between Guidry and Berra is a warm and compelling story, but around it New York Times writer Harvey Araton skillfully wraps so many others.

There is the story of Berra as modern day coach and counsel to players like Mariano Rivera, Nick Swisher and Jorge Posada. The relationship between Yogi and Jorge Posada provides a wonderful point of entry. There is Posada talking about the value of Yogi Berra as a mentor during Spring Training of 2000: “maybe the most important thing he helped me with was his view of the game, knowing how hard it is, but that you really need to keep a positive attitude every day.”

Many fans know Yogi Berra as the origin of fathomless sayings like, “Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel.” And then there are more knowledgeable fans who still remember Yogi Berra as a failed manager of the Yankees and Mets. But Yogi the master of the game emerges as well, whose homespun witticisms, serve to bring him closer to those around him and put his vast knowledge of the game of baseball within easier reach.

The best story in the book is that of Berra and his simple approach to baseball and to life. How even at age 85, Yogi can make himself hugely relevant to both is worth the knowing.

Harvey Araton presents a picture of both Guidry and Berra as men whose expertise extends beyond baseball, but who are unparalleled savants of the game. The charm of the book is watching two relatively different human beings, from different backgrounds geographic and ethnic who bond so completely over the game, and of course the Yankees. Their friendship is like the spice in Guidry’s Cajun cooking: it flavors everything to perfection.

As someone alien to the culture of what Marty Appel calls the Pinstrip Empire, I thought Araton at times tried to dance me down an aisle of what is palatable for Yankee fans. Those who exist outside that universe have long admired Yogi Berra not only for his remarkable career, but his ironclad integrity as exemplified by his principled disdain for George Steinbrenner–for whom many non-Yankee fans reserve a special and none-too-dear place in their hearts. But Steinbrenner is lionized by Araton in a way that only Yankee fans can truly embrace.

Resolving the bitter feud between Steinbrenner and Berra is almost as central to the book as the friendship with Guidry. It is an emotional tale. Araton deserves credit for handling it artfully and it certainly belongs in this book. However, Steinbrenner, as presented by Araton, is judged only on the grounds that he won championships for the Yankee faithful. Whether non-Yankee fans are willing to walk away with such a superficial analysis of Steinbrenner is a personal decision I will leave to the reader.

Red Sox fans may have their own problems with the book. The red meat served up for Yankee fans may make accessing the rest of the story difficult. In the opening pages of the book there is a description of the brawl between the Sox and Yankees that was part of Guidry’s first game. “Nettles body-tossing of Boston’s flaky left-hander Bill Lee,” is followed gratuitously by the triumphant, “Nettles separated Lee’s shoulder.”

Yogi Berra is as Yankee as it gets, but his value to the game is his ability to transcend those class distinctions. Yogi is an every man who values his friendships with Red Sox players like Bobby Doerr, and Dodgers like Campanella and Koufax. It is not about team at the end of the day for Yogi, but about the game and the person. Yogi and Ron Guidry are two of the finest and it is their friendship that at the end of the day makes this story. Whatever may have been sacrificed to appeal to Pin Stripe Nation, missing this little splendid little splinter of a book would be a huge mistake.


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