I could’ve observed a lot by watching him

He’s smart and gifted. Yet he’s best known for his oddball aphorisms.

He was one of the best baseball players in history. Yet people who know nothing about baseball, think they know all about him.

His is one of the most remarkable personal brands I know of.

Photo of Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra from a 1956 Baseball Digest cover

Today is Yogi Berra’s 90th birthday. I’m using a photo of him from about age 30 because, as he once said: “I looked like this when I was young, and I still do.”

I like Yogi for a lot of reasons.

First, we share a given name. Lawrence Berra got the “Yogi” nickname early in life when a baseball teammate, watching him sit cross-legged waiting for his turn to play, thought he resembled a Hindu yogi. I bet you thought he was named after the Yogi Bear cartoon character. It’s actually the other way around — a testament to how popular Yogi was during his playing career.

Second, I see something of myself in him. In school I was known as a brainy kid. To fit in with the more popular kids I “dumbed it down,” intentionally using poor diction or choosing the wrong word. After awhile I discovered that not only wasn’t I popular, I was proving myself untrustworthy by trying to be something I wasn’t.

To quote one of his aphorisms, I could’ve observed a lot by watching Yogi Berra.

Yogi wasn’t trying to “dumb it down,” and I don’t think he ever tried to be anything he wasn’t. But a funny thing happened soon after he joined the Yankees — then, as now, the most renowned baseball team in the country. Only 21 years old, in the glare of the spotlight, he no doubt became tongue-tied a few times. Before long the New York sportswriters couldn’t wait to quote the latest malapropism from the new kid named Yogi. (Sometimes, rather than wait, they evidently made one up for him. Or as Yogi put it, “I never said most of the things I said.”)

Yogi could’ve followed the example of his older teammate, Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio, like Yogi, had come to the Yankees from a working-class Italian neighborhood. As his celebrity increased, DiMaggio carefully cultivated an image that was reserved (some would say aloof) and urbane.

Instead, Yogi must’ve decided early on that he didn’t mind being perceived as a rustic. He didn’t change who he was. But he embraced the likeable, buffoonish persona the sportswriters bestowed on him.

By all accounts Yogi is likeable, but he’s no buffoon. He played the most intellectually demanding position on the field: catcher. (Paradoxically, the catcher’s gear — mitt, chest protector, shin guards — are often called the “tools of ignorance.”) He’s the only man to reach the World Series as manager of both New York teams — Yankees and Mets. This is one smart guy.

In terms of a personal brand, though, Yogi seems to break all the rules. I’ve written about how important it is to cultivate a personal brand. You build your brand by figuring out who you are and how you want to be perceived. Then you live it out — being true to who you are.

Or, if you’re Yogi Berra, you perceive that others are creating a personal brand for you. With a wink and a smile, you go on being who you are — earning respect from the coaches, teammates, and others who know you well; having enough confidence in yourself not to worry about what everyone else thinks.

He’s made a pretty good life out of it.

One more reason I like Yogi: those aphorisms — whether he really said them or not. Not only are they funny, but if you turn one over in your hand and let it catch the light, you’ll see that it contains a gleam of truth. Judge for yourself:

  • You can observe a lot by watching.
  • Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.
  • In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.
  • Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

Happy birthday, Yogi, and many happy returns.

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