In 1962, Dick Rowe made arguably the biggest entertainment blunder of the 20th century. As the head of Decca Records, he passed on signing The Beatles, reportedly telling band manager Brian Epstein “guitar groups are on the way out”, adding the Fab Four had “no future in show business.”
Branch Rickey evidently owes Rowe a debt of gratitude for sparing him the top spot on that ignominious list. In July 1941, the architect of the Cardinals’ farm system—and one of the best talent evaluators in baseball—whiffed on a tryout assessment. He low-balled an offer to Lawrence “Lawdie” Berra, nearly breaking the 16-year-old’s spirit when projecting his future.
“Son, what I’m going to say to you is for your own good,” he explained. “I don’t think you’re going to the majors. You’ll be a minor leaguer, no more than Triple-A. We’re looking for a player who can go all the way.”
The awkward, unshapely teenager would not only make it to the majors, but he would go all the way to Cooperstown, collecting ten World Series rings as a player along the way. Berra authored a career .285/.348/.482 batting line with 358 home runs (124 wRC+), earned 18 All-Star berths, and won the American League MVP Award three times. His personality proved larger than the game, and while often presented as a caricature, that solidified his status as a global celebrity.
Now, five years after his death, he’s the subject of a new biography, Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask, by Jon Pessah. The book explores Berra’s childhood on The Hill in St. Louis; his contributions to the Yankees’ dynasty run of the early 1950s; his managing career with the Bombers and Mets; his contentious relationship with George Steinbrenner; and his emotional return to the Bronx in the late 90s.
While others have presented these storylines, none peel back the layers quite the way Pessah does. He paints the portrait of a gentler Yogi, one whose drive for excellence is tinged with self-consciousness. This is made painfully clear when he recalls an encounter between Berra and J.G. Taylor Spink, the legendary sportswriter, in 1951. Berra asks Spink about a particular headline:
BABE RUTH HAD HIS LOU GEHRIG, JOE DIMAGGIO’S GOT HIS YOGI BERRA
“Sometimes it’s tough to tell what these guys write about me,” he confesses, unsure if the piece is complimentary or in jest. “My wife, she don’t like stories which make me out to be a dope. I don’t like them myself.”
Pessah provides a gripping account of the Yankees’ postwar dynasty, but he also generates excitement for Berra’s stint with the Mets, most notably the 1973 Amazin’s. Where he excels, however, is in probing the relationships in Berra’s baseball career. Stories of how he established a brotherly bond with Joe DiMaggio, formed an odd-couple friendship with Dr. Bobby Brown, and mentored an occasionally combative Mickey Mantle stand out the most. That’s not to mention the glimpses into friendships with Elston Howard, Phil Rizzuto, and Joe Garagiola.
The book also expertly situates Berra’s life in historical context. Pessah delivers a gripping account of D-Day, where Berra loads a rocket launcher on Utah Beach. He makes a point to present the cultural milieu of each era covered in the book, from the Cold War to Civil Rights to Watergate. While others would give these moments a passing treatment, Pessah takes the time to give readers a more complete experience.
The biography is not without pitfalls, though. At times it can read more like a hagiography, a point that Pessah overtly acknowledges by naming the concluding section “Saint Yogi”. He does mention some of Berra’s lesser moments—such as threatening to sue Hanna-Barbera over the Yogi Bear cartoon and unleashing on the Pirates after the 1960 World Series—but a more critical analysis would have added to the book, by presenting a more relatable character.
That said, Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask lives up to a Herculean task, offering a fresh look at a player ubiquitous in American culture. It will fit nicely on any Yankees fan’s bookshelf. I recommend placing it next to Jane Leavy’s biography of Mickey Mantle, or Marty Appel’s treatment of Casey Stengel. You can find it through your favorite bookseller today.