It Ain’t Over
DOCUMENTARY | Yogi Berra wasn’t just a cultural icon. He was one of baseball’s greatest players.
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➤ Rated PG
The opening ceremony of the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game honored the four greatest living baseball players as determined by 25 million fan votes: Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Sandy Koufax, and Willie Mays. And sitting at home watching the game on TV with his granddaughter was 90-year-old Yogi Berra, who had more MVP awards than any of those players and more World Series rings than all four of them combined.
Yogi’s granddaughter, Lindsay Berra, was stunned that baseball fans across America had forgotten her grandfather’s accomplishments. That moment sparked the documentary It Ain’t Over, which explores how Yogi Berra’s status as a cultural icon came to eclipse his legacy as one of the greatest baseball players ever to play the game.
Yogi started life as Lorenzo Pietro Berra in the Italian section of St. Louis. His immigrant father wasn’t excited about his son’s obsession with baseball, but the boy proved to be a slugger. His teammates gave him the nickname “Yogi” because he would sit cross-legged on the ground as he waited for his turn at bat.
A bit of intrigue led to Berra’s signing with the New York Yankees in 1943 rather than his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, but before he could play a game with the Yankees, the then 18-year-old Berra signed up to fight in World War II. He manned a rocket boat during the D-Day invasion of Normandy despite not knowing how to swim. It Ain’t Over situates Berra within the Greatest Generation, emphasizing that the virtues and values he learned during the war gave him a sense of what’s important. He said, “Baseball isn’t hard. War is hard.”
Having a proper perspective on sports didn’t keep Berra from working hard at baseball. He didn’t start out as a catcher, but he learned the position from the legendary Bill Dickey. He was also one of the best hitters on the Yankees, hitting a home run in his first game and then another in his second. He would swing at everything, and still managed to have one of the lowest strikeout rates in the league.
Despite his heroics on the field, the media tended to portray Yogi as a clown. With his rounded shoulders and 5-foot-7 frame, Berra didn’t resemble a baseball player, and he didn’t have the classic good looks of other Yankees players, like Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle. The good-natured Berra was only too happy to play along with the media’s mockery, and his famous malapropisms furthered his image as a comic figure. Who could forget “You can observe a lot by watching” or “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him” or most famously “It ain’t over till it’s over”?
Yogi might have spent much of his career as the butt of the joke, but he was a smart player who knew how to run a game. He kept every player’s strengths and weaknesses in his head, allowing him to call for the right pitch for each batter. When Don Larsen pitched his perfect World Series game in 1956, Berra sat behind the plate calling the pitches. Larsen didn’t shake off his catcher a single time.
The movie is rated PG, but it includes a little bad language at one point. It features vintage footage from baseball’s yesteryear and plenty of endearing interviews from the self-deprecating Berra. Children and grandchildren offer personal glimpses into Berra’s life, and I appreciated the stories about Berra’s love for wife Carmen with whom he shared a 65-year marriage. The documentary also includes numerous interviews with friends and fans including Vin Scully, Bob Costas, Billy Crystal, and Derek Jeter.
It Ain’t Over successfully makes the case that Yogi Berra was one of baseball’s greatest players, but in some ways it confirms that America’s collective consciousness was right about him all along. Yogi really was bigger than baseball. He became an institution—a humble, quirky man of integrity embraced by Americans regardless of region or political persuasion.