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Alex Remington: Allen Barra on Yogi Berra: One of My Favorite Sports Biographies Ever

December 23rd, 2009, 09:12 am admin Leave a comment Go to comments

There’s no question that Allen Barra is one of the best long-form sports journalists working today. (One I’d put near him is L. Jon Wertheim, whose Running the Table, rating: 90, and Blood in the Cage, rating: 79, are among the best books ever written about billiards and mixed martial arts, respectively.) His 2005 book The Last Coach, a biography of Paul “Bear” Bryant, considered by many to be the greatest college football coach of all time, was simply masterful ()rating: 90); I loved it even though I have no interest in college football. His new book, a biography of his near-namesake Yogi Berra, is just as good. Yogi’s one of the most famous living athletes, author of numerous World Series highlights, a number of memoirs, and scores of half-remembered quotes, and Barra’s book is the first comprehensive biography of the man; it’s also one of the quintessential baseball biographies. Any Yankee fan, any baseball fan, will enjoy it.

Long-form baseball writing is harder than ever these days because of the widening rift in the baseball writing community over the merits and proper use of advanced statistics. It’s a generational thing: old-school sportswriters are still attached to newspapers, and are dwindling as newspapers shed staff, and they’re an aging bunch. They’re getting more and more outnumbered by internet professionals and bloggers like me who pontificate about sports in other media. This also frequently leads to disdain for advanced baseball research performed by fans and laymen. Barra gracefully tiptoes through this minefield. In deference to the sportswriting of the time, he characterizes Yogi’s year-to-year performances with standard stats like home runs, RBI, and batting average. But in an absorbing, thoughtful appendix, he quotes the work of well-known baseball researchers and sabermetricians like Bill James, Pete Palmer, Eddie Epstein, Rob Neyer, and more, to put Yogi’s career in proper context. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Barra is an old-school writer comfortable with the new world of baseball statistics.

The author starts the book with the audacious claim that his subject, one of the most famous men in America, is vastly underrated as a player — that his reputation as a quotable clown obscures his career as arguably the greatest catcher in baseball history. But he also gives a sense of Yogi the man. He was a shy, humble, devout Catholic who still carried photos of his late parents in his wallet well into his ’60s, who has been married to his wife for 60 years, and who is far happier to talk about his grandchildren than himself. But he was a fierce competitor supremely confident in his own abilities and self-worth. He threatened holdouts for a higher salary from the Yankees’ famously skinflint general manager, George Weiss, until he got the amount of money that he wanted. And, in 1985, after George Steinbrenner fired him as manager of the Yankees without telling him personally, he swore he’d never again set foot in Yankee Stadium as long as Steinbrenner was manager, an oath he kept for 14 years until Joe Dimaggio convinced Steinbrenner to personally apologize.

Of course, Berra’s era is the golden age of the Yankees — he won ten World Series from the late ’40s to the early ’60s, and was the undeniable leader of ten different World Champion teams. (That’s a record. By a lot.) It’s also the tentative, rocky, hesitant period of integration in baseball. Of course, the 1950s are perhaps the most-written about decade in baseball, so while Barra on Berra yields new, interesting details, the atmospherics of the era are a bit more warmed-over — so he often tends to fast-forward through the seasons to get to the parts that really matter, the World Series. And that’s fine. Barra’s obviously fond of his protagonist, so if you have a real problem with the Yankees winning every year, you’re not going to find much of a sympathetic voice on the page. Berra runs into a little more trouble after he retires, as political upheaval in the Yankee front office resulted in his being fired as Yankee manager on two different occasions, despite relative success with the team. He went through further drama, which Barra touches only lightly, when his son Dale Berra, also a major leaguer, was implicated in the 1980’s cocaine scandal.

Yogi’s a man who’s lived a full life and lived it well. The book doesn’t exactly read like a hagiography, but Barra clearly doesn’t have much bad to say about the man — nor does anyone else. I couldn’t help smiling while reading it. And I’m already hungry for Barra’s next.

Rating: 93

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.

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