DRIVING MR. YOGI
By Harvey Araton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $26)
Driving Mr. Yogi began as a 1,500-word story in the New York Times. Sportswriter Harvey Araton has greatly expanded the story for this book, and he hasn’t done himself any favors.
In sum, it’s about the friendship between Yogi Berra, the aging but game old Yankees catcher and mascot, and Ron Guidry, the Louisiana left-hander who was a pitching mainstay of the club in the ’70s and ’80s and serves as Berra’s valet and driver during spring training.
It’s also about Berra’s renewed relationship with the team he boycotted after George Steinbrenner indulged in one of his characteristic displays of ugliness and fired Berra in 1985.
Berra and Guidry became friendly in the mid-’70s, when Guidry joined the varsity. “Don’t think too much,” he told Guidry, the same thing he told several hundred other pitchers. “Figure out a batter’s weakness and throw him that pitch over and over. And if he learns to hit that pitch, then throw him some other pitch that gives him trouble.”
The problem with the book is that Araton has little emotional distance from the Yankees or, I suspect, athletes in general. The rapprochement between Steinbrenner and Berra — Steinbrenner, for one of the few times in his life, admitted he had been wrong and apologized to Berra in 1999 — is given all the dramatic weight of Roosevelt meeting with Churchill at Yalta. And Steinbrenner’s boorishness is excused as a passion to win.
After Berra and Steinbrenner kiss and make up, the book gets better. Berra begins attending spring training and helps out Jorge Posada, just as Bill Dickey helped him. (Berra describes what Dickey did for him as “Learn me his experience.”)
Berra is a great character, the kind of grandfather you wish you had. “Getting fired didn’t really bother me,” he tells Araton. “You work for George, you know the deal. He changes managers all the time. What bothered me was the lack of respect. To me, that was unforgivable.”
If the book is hamstrung by a general air of worship, at least Berra is worthy of it. He is utterly modest, somewhat shy, and a little cranky, as befits an 86-year-old hall of famer, and the book has some amusing stories about his mania for punctuality and early-bird dinners.
Guidry has marginally more cosmopolitan tastes, and every once in a while he needs to have somebody else take Berra to dinner so he can sit in his hotel room and eat room service.
Berra’s take on his contemporaries is interesting. When Guidry asks him who was better, DiMaggio or Ted Williams, Berra answers quickly: “Joe D.”
“Williams was the best hitter I ever saw. Joe was the best player.”
And there are even some prime Berra-isms, mostly revolving around golf.
When confronted with a shot over a water hazard, Berra complained to a partner that he was likely to hit it in the pond.
“Yogi, don’t think like that; think positively,” the friend said.
“OK, Berra said. “I’m positive my shot is going into the water.”
Araton goes into Berra’s increasing physical frailty — he now uses a cane, and by his own choice he no longer wears a Yankee uniform during spring training.
These sections are among the book’s most touching, as Guidry, a hale and hearty 60, begins to contemplate the aging process that excuses no one, as well as the possibility of life without Berra.