Happy birthday to an American literary original

Yogi Berra/Googie Man/Wikimedia CommonsToday is Yogi Berra’s 84th birthday, and it’s a good question whether baseball fans or lovers of language are lighting the most candles in celebration. If you’re both, line up for a slice of the cake.

Yogi was, of course, one of baseball’s greatest. Some people who know a lot more about the game than I do say he was the best defensive catcher ever, with cat-quick feet and a shrewd intelligence that belied his public image as a lovable knucklehead and linguistic heir to Mrs. Malaprop, the syntax-mangling heroine of Richard Sheridan‘s 1775 stage comedy The Rivals. In truth, despite that image as a free-wheeling zany Berra’s always been a pretty careful man, highly selective in his decision-making: In 7,555 lifetime big-league at-bats, he struck out only 414 times. A few modern sluggers can whiff that often in two seasons.

It’s a fair question how much of the Yogi myth is actually based on fact and how much was simply laid at his feet by sportswriters and other denizens of the cultural deep. As Yogi is reported to have declared, “I never said most of the things I said.”

Still, some of the things he either did or didn’t say are humdingers. And like Shakespeare, they can be adapted to the times. “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore,” Berra supposedly groused. And, once asked what he’d do if he found a million dollars, he displayed a keen grasp of the theory behind governmental bailouts of train-wreck private companies. “I’d find the fellow who lost it,” Yogi said, “and, if he was poor, I’d return it.”

A lot of Yogi’s real and supposed sayings have a sly twist that goes beyond mere flub-a-dubbing to a canny second level of meaning. And like jazz, that other great expression of the American spirit, it revels in the delight of the unexpected, the little rhythmic jump that reinvents. Here, culled from www.brainyquote.com and www.rinkworks.com, is a selection of Yogi-isms. Mrs. Grundy wouldn’t approve. I trust you will:

“Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true.”

“It was impossible to get a conversation going. Everybody was talking too much.”

“The towels were so thick there I could barely close my suitcase.”

“I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.”

“Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”

“Even Napoleon had his Watergate.”

“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

“So I’m ugly. So what? I never saw anyone hit with his face.”

“You wouldn’t have won if we’d beaten you.”

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”

“It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”