Yogi Berra — how a legendary athlete relates to Jewish values
One reason that so many people across international, political, or religious lines enjoy sports so much is because of the people who play them and their unique qualities. Although some athletes have a reputation for not being friendly or the best role models, one legendary sports figure who is especially beloved is and known for his kindness is former Yankees catcher, Hall of Famer, 10 time World Series champion, and 3 time Most Valuable Player, Yogi Berra.
I can tell you from personal experience that Yogi really deserves his reputation as a great guy. I once was in Tampa, Florida for Yankees Spring Training, and I spotted him sitting in his car at my hotel parking lot. A diehard fan who has memorized so many Yogi-isms — and who also plays his little league and school softball position of catcher that made Yogi so famous for the Yankees — I approached him to request an autograph, and he was kind enough to oblige even though he was in a rush to return to other responsibilities. True to his reputation, Yogi was a man of few words who did the right thing at the right time and set an important lifelong example by his actions to a little kid. This caring experience touched me so much that it even led me to name my dog Yogi four years later. (See photo at beginning of post)
Later this month, on May 12th, Yogi will be celebrating a big personal milestone: his NINETIETH birthday. If fans have any birthday wishes for him, they can be sent to him through the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center. I highly recommend that you visit the Yogi Berra Center sometime as it gives visitors amazing tours of Yogi’s life and also the values that he stands for.
As a thirteen year old, I am not fortunate enough to say that I have seen Yogi Berra play. However, I reached out to Rabbi Michael Schmidman, Rabbi Emeritus at my Shul, Congregation Orach Chaim, who did see Berra play, to ask about Berra as a player and a person. He told me that the quality that he most admired about Berra was the fact that even while being such a legend for his baseball skills, Berra was always able to stay humble and kind to all. You never caught him saying a bad thing about anyone, and every press story regarded him as being a good guy, which I can confirm he is. He also keeps his family front and center, and he showed total devotion to his wife Carmen until the day she died last year.
Nowadays, star athletes are not always as generous and kind to us fans like in the days when Berra played in the 1950s and 1960s with other legends like Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. Rabbi Schmidman also reminded me that Pirkei Avot, which is a custom to read between Passover and Shavuot because it sets the tone for being ready to accept the Torah, says that once a person turns ninety, we must start to honor his opinion even more than we had between years zero and eighty nine. This is because people at this life stage have been around the block so many times, and they have so many valuable lessons to share about life. This gift of learning experiences and so much wisdom to share with all of us is especially important when it is given by someone as legendary and modest as Mr. Berra. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that ninety is divisible by chai or 18, the number that represents life.
Another thing Berra is quite famous for are his endless hilarious quotes that may not sound like a college professor said them but that really hit the spot, called by many of his admirers “Yogi-isms.” Among my favorite quotes, I would include, “You can observe a lot by watching” and “Nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded,” just to name a couple. Even these quotes find a way to relate to Judaism. And it is true that Judaism encourages us to observe and watch, not just to act by our own instincts. Perhaps the most well-known Yogi-ism is “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.” This is similar to a quote that led to the founding of the state of Israel, Theodore Herzl’s “Im Tirtzu Ain Zo Agada,” which means “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Each of these quotes, whether said by Yogi, Pirkei Avot, or Theodore Herzl, remind us of the importance of never giving up, and always sticking to a dream that you set for yourself. We have to honor these messages and pass them down to others. This also relates to how Pirkei Avot starts off talking about how Moses passed on the Torah from Sinai to Joshua, to the Elders and Prophets,and onward all the way down the to the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, The Great Assembly. Perhaps this is why parents often pass on their love for baseball or a specific team as a real tradition, with the same excitement that some parents or rabbis share their love of Torah and Jewish History. They want to make sure that that love continues through generations until their children are ready to pass it on to the following generation.
From hearing Rabbi Schmidman speak, I have learned that many people consider Berra great not only on, but also off the field, and the fact that even the silliest aspects of him relate to Judaism just show us how fitting it is that he is turning ninety. Let’s keep Yogi’s words alive in our actions, by quoting him at just the right time, and celebrating the milestone of a man whose words and actions teach us so much about not only sports, but life as a whole.