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BOB RYAN

Don’t forget how great a player Yogi Berra was

Yogi Berra was a superb defensive catcher — and belted 358 career home runs.
Yogi Berra was a superb defensive catcher — and belted 358 career home runs.1962 AP file photo

What’s your favorite Yogi-ism?

I have a tie for first between “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded,” and “It gets late early out there.”

The former was in reference to a restaurant, and the latter to the late-afternoon situation in the Yankee Stadium left field during day games. We all know what he meant with the first. It makes perfect sense. As for the second, he could have simply said, “The sun and the shadows make it hard to see the ball,” but hey, he was Yogi, and that’s just the way his mind worked.

At any rate, he was inherently profound for someone who quit school after eighth grade.

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The quips and malapropisms made Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra into an American curiosity, so much so that far too many people came to think of him strictly in that context. But never forget that Yogi Berra, who died at the age of 90 Tuesday evening, was a truly great ballplayer, and in the forefront of any discussion concerning who was the greatest catcher in major league baseball history.

Still, you must love the quotes. A partial listing:

“You can observe a lot by watching.”

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

“It’s deja vu all over again.”

And, of course, the most quoted one of them all . . .

“It ain’t over till it’s over.”

He was a one-man Bartlett’s, for sure. What we will never know for sure is just how much that celebrated Yogi persona was real and how much was created by his boyhood friend from “The Hill” in St. Louis, that being Joe Garagiola. As Yogi frequently reminded us, “I didn’t really say everything I said.”

So let’s talk about the ballplayer, the Hall of Famer, the backstop who is one of the five greatest Yankees of all-time, and, in my opinion, ranking behind only Johnny Bench as the greatest catcher ever.

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Start with this. From 1950 through 1956, here is how Yogi finished in American League Most Valuable Player voting: third, first, fourth, second, first, first and second.

We could end the discussion right there. Ted Williams famously said that the Yankee he feared the most wasn’t Mickey Mantle; it was Yogi Berra.

He was impossible to figure out, simply because he violated Williams’s sacred precept of getting a good ball to hit. Yogi was 5 feet 7 inches and a sturdy 185 pounds, and he really had no strike zone. Any ball that left a pitcher’s hand was fair game for him.

I can still see him stepping into the batter’s box with those preliminary uppercut swings, which would lead you to think that the pitch he most wanted to see was down and in, the bread-and-butter location for so many lefthand hitters.

But that was meaningless. Yogi may have led all of baseball in homers hit on pitches at the eyebrows during a career that began with a September cup of coffee in 1946 and ended as a Met playing again for Casey Stengel in 1965.

The baseball world was different then; we all know that. But some numbers are so startling that we might as well be talking about a completely different sport. For here was a man who had a lifetime batting average of .285, who hit 358 home runs, who drove in 1,430 runs, and who had a career OPS (not that anyone knew there was such a thing in his day) of .830, and who, in 8,359 career plate appearances, walked 290 more times than he struck out. As a free swinger!

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Seriously.

Yogi Berra’s high-water strikeout total was 38 (in 521 plate appearances) in 1959. In 1950, he came to the plate 656 times and walked back to the dugout after striking out — gulp — 12 times.

Seriously.

We are not talking about an annoying, pitch-taking, foul-balling, crafty leadoff man. We are talking about someone whose general intention when he strode to the plate was to hit the baseball a long way. This, I suggest, attests to a hand-eye coordination that is almost incomprehensible for any of us to grasp.

Funny-looking as he was, Berra was clearly an athlete. When the Yankees brought up a catcher named Elston Howard in the late ’50s, it was clear the young man was going to warrant playing time. Yogi made it possible by becoming an outfielder. He was, in fact, the left fielder over whose head the famous Bill Mazeroski World Series-clinching home run was struck in 1960. The wonderful description of Yankee Stadium left field in twilight was born out of personal experience.

But it was as a catcher that Yogi Berra should be remembered. Those MVPs were not solely the product of his bat. He was a superior defensive catcher, in part, as he explained, because of the tutelage provided him as a young man by Hall of Famer Bill Dickey.

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This, naturally, leads us to yet another gem from the mind and mouth of Yogi Berra.

“Bill Dickey,” he pointed out, “learnt me all his experiences.”

What a baseball life. Yogi Berra participated as a player, manager, and coach, in 21 World Series. He played in 14 and was a winner in 10 of them. He had 12 postseason home runs. Oops, excuse me. In his day, the “postseason” consisted of the World Series, and only the World Series. None of this ALDS stuff.

“Beloved” is probably the best word to describe his stature as both a Yankee and a baseball icon. Everybody loved Yogi Berra. We are fond of declaring when someone passes that “There will never be another like him.” Usually it’s empty hyperbole.

Not this time. It’s over for Yogi, and absolutely, positively, without a doubt, there will never be another like him.