Documentary Review: Remembering the Great Ball Player behind the Yogi Berra “image” — “It Ain’t Over”

It’s a common condition for longtime baseball fans, especially those who don’t live in New York.

Hate the Yankees. LOVE Yogi Berra.

Who doesn’t love Yogi? That distinct mug, that smile, those “Yogi-isms,” more of which have entered American conversational common currency than any poet you can name.

“It’s like deja vu all over again.”

“You can learn a lot by just watching.”

“Baseball is 90 percent mental, and the other half physical.”

And then there’s this one, probably adapted by something else he said by people tidying up his thoughts.

“It ain’t over till it’s over.”

As the great Dodger announcer Vin Scully said of the Yankee all-star, “Everything about him was kind of funny.”

The problem, his granddaughter Lindsay Berra says, is that this TV commercial pitchman, the comical chat show guest, the “clown” that the media made her short, squat and goofy-not-great-thinker grandpa out to be has long overshadowed one of the greatest baseball players ever.

People forget, she argues in the new documentary “It Ain’t Over,” his two fistfulls of World Series rings, his three MVP awards, his canny calling of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series, his unmmatchable home-runs to strikeouts ratio.

In the 1950s, his peak years, he averaged 27 home runs a year, and just 24 strikouts per season while batting .295. “Durable,” he was behind the plate for almost 1700 games as a catcher, the most grueling position on the field. Nobody today will ever catch 117 double-headers — two games the same day — over the course of a career.

Lindsay Berra was the impetus behind writer-director Sean Mullin’s documentary, a chance for her and scores of baseball players, managers and journalists to “set the record straight” about this “overlooked” aspect of one of the most colorful figures ever to come out of his sport.

And Lindsay, along with Berra’s sons and nieces, also help us remember Lorenzo Pietro Berra, a runty St. Louis kid from the Italian neighborhood disparagingly named “Dago Hill” who earned the nickname Yogi for the way he sat on a teen baseball league’s sideline, one that had no benches. He served on a rocket bombardment boat in the U.S. Navy on D-Day. He was a loving husband who sent his wife adoring, Yogi letters on every road trip. And he was a father who led an intervention when the one son to make it to the big leagues let cocaine ruin his career.

It’s a sweetly sentimental documentary, acknowledging Berra’s own role in leaning into the “cartoon” image that the sporting media built around him and the confusion that created.

No, he had nothing to do with the TV cartoon “Yogi Bear.” He even took legal action to stop it, to no avail. And when he died in 2015, the Associated Press committed the ultimate boner, paying tribute to “Yankees Great” and “Hall of Famer” “Yogi Bear.”

The thesis here, that generations of fans may have forgotten how good he was at his job, is sound. But after admitting that she’s “self-serving” early on, Lindsay Berra comes off less generously as we spend screen time hearing about her efforts to get her grandfather extra honors, post mortem.

And the film can’t help but remind us of how and why he earned a prominent place in “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” and in American culture, which is how he’ll really be remembered. That’s why I’d always make a beeline for Yogi while covering the retired athletes who played in Bryant Gumbel’s Celebrity Golf Classic at Walt Disney World in the late ’90s.

Yogi was always good for a quote.

Mullin breaks the documentary up with famous quotes by Plato, Churchill and Robert Frost, who rhapsodized about “The Road Not Taken.” And after each of their quotes, we get a Berra variation that has, in many ways, become the one we all remember.

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

Rating: PG, a little profanity

Cast: Yogi Berra, Lindsay Berra, Roger Angell, Don Mattingly, Joe Maddon, Whitey Herzog, Joe Torre, Vin Scully and Bob Costas

Credits: Scripted and directed by Sean Mullin. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:39


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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