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Bob Lutz: There will never be another like Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra visits with former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter before a spring training game in 2008.
Yogi Berra visits with former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter before a spring training game in 2008. Associated Press

Hardly a week went by when Yogi Berra didn’t strike out.

It was like clock work. Once a week, or a little more, Yogi would whiff.

It got to the point that everybody knew it was coming. Oh, sure, Berra might go four or five games without striking out, but in that sixth one – bingo! Sure enough, he’d swing and miss for strike three or take a pitch that resulted in being rung up by the home-plate umpire.

I hope you’re catching my sarcasm here. For Yogi Berra, the legendary New York Yankees catcher from 1946-63 who passed away Tuesday night at the age of 90, was nearly impossible to strike out. He got his bat on everything.

Over the course of 8,359 career plate appearances, Yogi fanned 414 times. In 1950, when Berra statistically had his best season (.322, 28 homers, 124 RBIs), he struck out 12 times. In 151 games covering 656 plate appearances.

Berra struck out in just more than five percent of his plate appearances, once every 20.2 at-bats. For a comparison, Berra’s more celebrated teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle struck out 1,710 times during his career, once every 5.8 at-bats.

It made me sad to learn of Berra’s death this morning. I was too young to remember seeing him play much, but I did catch the tail end of his career with the Yankees. My most vivid memories of Berra come from when he was managing the Yankees in the 1964 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis won that series in seven games.

Berra got to the World Series against as a manager in 1973 with the Mets, but New York lost to Oakland in seven games. I spent some time this morning looking at YouTube and here’s a great look at Berra arguing a call from that World Series.

Berra practically lived at the World Series. He played in 14 of them and remains the career World Series leader in games (75), at-bats (259), plate appearances (295), hits (71) and doubles (10). He ranks second to former teammate and fellow legend Mickey Mantle in runs, total bases and RBI.

Berra caught Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game. He was an 18-time All-Star and three-time MVP in the American League. He started his career when Joe DiMaggio was the Yankees’ center fielder and ended it when Mantle was patrolling center.

And, of course, he was known as much for his quips as he was for his lethal bat.

Here are some of the best attributed to him, (although not all Yogi-isms are actually his quotes):

“It ain't over till it's over."

    "It's déjà vu all over again."

    "When you come to a fork in the road ... take it."

    "I usually take a two-hour nap from 1 to 4."

    "Never answer an anonymous letter."

    "I didn't really say everything I said."

    "I want to thank you for making this day necessary."

    "We made too many wrong mistakes."

    "You can observe a lot by watching."

    "The future ain't what it used to be."

    "It gets late early out here."

    "If the world were perfect, it wouldn't be."

    "If the people don't want to come out to the ballpark, nobody's going to stop them."

    "Pair up in threes."

    "Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel."

    At 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds, Berra didn’t look like a ballplayer. He was short and squatty, but athletic enough to play 260 games in the outfield – mostly in left – during his career.

    Berra was beyond famous because he played for the Yankees and he looked like he should be sitting somewhere in the upper deck. Fans adored him and so did Madison Avenue. Here are a couple of commercials Berra made.

    I’m a baseball lover and I found myself thinking about Berra a lot over the course of my lifetime. That’s partly because he was raised in St. Louis in the same neighborhood on The Hill as Joe Garagiola, which I found fascinating since I’ve visited that neighborhood numerous times.

    And it’s partly because he was such an interesting man and baseball player. Who doesn’t love Yogi?

    But when I heard earlier today how infrequently Berra struck out, I had to look it up to believe it. Sure enough, the guy put the bat on the ball. It irritates me that in today’s game, so many players strike out so often.

    It would bother Berra, I’m sure, to learn that the 17 highest individual strikeout seasons and 43 of the top 50 in baseball history have occurred since 2000.

    Hitters strike out too much these days. Mark Reynolds fanned 434 times in just the 2009 and 2010 seasons for the Arizona Diamondbacks, 20 more strikeouts than Berra had in his career.

    What might Yogi say about this trend? Maybe something like this: “You should never strike out to strike out.”

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