Think “Yogi Berra,” and you’re likely to conjure up one of the baseball legend’s “Yogi-isms” — that is, one of his famous sayings like, “You can observe a lot by watching.” Sean Mullin’s documentary, “It Ain’t Over,” even takes its title from what is perhaps the most beloved Yogi-ism, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
You might remember one of the numerous products he pitched on TV, from Miller Lite to Yoo-hoo to Aflac; or maybe one of his television interviews, where he joked with everyone from Edward R. Murrow to David Letterman.
What folks may not remember — or even know — is that Berra, as catcher for my beloved New York Yankees, played in 75 World Series games and won 10 championship rings, more than any other player in MLB history. As a coach, he led the Bronx Bombers and the New York Mets to World Series appearances, making him one of seven managers to earn pennants in both leagues. When Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history in 1956, his catcher was Yogi Berra.
And yet, when the public voted on the greatest living franchise baseball players before the 2015 All-Star Game, the results of 25 million fan votes were Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Johnny Bench.
No Yogi Berra.
“All absolutely amazing players in their own right,” Berra’s granddaughter Lindsay tells us at the beginning of “It Ain’t Over.” She had watched the announcement with her grandfather. After noting he had more accolades than any of those other players, she recalls asking Berra if he were dead. That would be the only logical reason for the omission. “And he said, ‘not yet.’”
As far back as his earliest playing days for the Yankees, the press portrayed Berra as a comedic figure, a clown of sorts, a persona the documentary says he was all too willing to go along with. He always smiled and was quick with a retort that was as honest as it was amusing.
Berra’s larger-than-life persona outbalanced his astonishing baseball achievements. “It Ain’t Over” beautifully recalibrates the scales. It re-establishes him as an honorable, skilled, and intelligent man both personally and professionally. And it does so by telling the story through the game he loved so much.
One of the highlights is the occasional title card that quotes brilliant minds like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, then supplies a Yogi-ism with the same gist. For example: Einstein’s quote “The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion” is followed by my favorite Yogi-ism: “It’s deja vu all over again.”
“It Ain’t Over” isn’t just for Yankees fans. Anyone who wants to know baseball history will enjoy this film. Those of us with baseball in our blood, who see the diamond as a sacred place that radiates the chance for redemption, will be profoundly moved. I haven’t cried this much during a documentary in years.
Talking heads include comedian Billy Crystal, players Willie Randolph and Derek Jeter, and sports announcers Bob Costas and the late Vin Scully.
The baseball clips are plentiful, including a shot-by-shot analysis of the famous home plate battle between Berra and Jackie Robinson, the latter of whom stole home on Berra’s watch. “He was out!” Berra would argue for decades to come. “It Ain’t Over” presents a montage of people expressing both “safe” and “out” verdicts. (Sorry, Yogi, Jackie was safe.)
Mullin documents the highs and lows of Berra’s life, building “It Ain’t Over” to a series of emotional crescendos that hit harder than Berra’s bat. Then he appropriately ends the film with the Lenny Kravitz song “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.”
IT AIN’T OVER
Written and directed by Sean Mullin. Starring Yogi Berra, Billy Crystal, Willie Randolph, Derek Jeter, Bob Costas, Vin Scully. 99 minutes. At AMC Boston Common and suburbs. Rated PG (a few instances of a certain bovine waste)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.