Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask

Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask by Jon Pessah. Little, Brown and Company, 577 pages, $25.99 (Hardcover), Review by R. Zachary Sanzone.

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Yogi Berra one way or another. Baseball fans know him as the loveable and sagacious Hall of Fame catcher who played for the New York Yankees through the 1950s and 60s. Most other people know him as a spokesman for Yoo-hoo, Aflac, Visa, and many other products he endorsed throughout most of his adult life. Then there are his famous “Yogisms” that he may or may not have said such as “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over,” “It’s like déjà vu all over again,” and “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” Whether you know a lot or a little about Berra, there’s something for everyone in Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask by Jon Pessah, a Pulitzer-Prize nominee and a founding editor of ESPN the Magazine. There’s no lack of biographies on Yankee greats—Berra alone has several biographies and autobiographies. So what new information does Pessah give readers about Berra’s life and career? More than one might think. When I first started reading Pessah’s biography, I was reminded of the many great accolades Berra accumulated in his career: an 18-time All-Star, a 13-time World Series champion, and a 3-time American League MVP. There were many aspects of Berra’s life, however, that Pessah expanded on with painstaking detail. Pessah covers the origin of Yogi’s nickname (his real name was Lawrence Peter Berra), his upbringing in St. Louis, and service in the Navy during World War II—details with which I was not as familiar before reading the book.

One of the strengths of the biography is its readability. Pessah’s bestselling book The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball's Power Brokers, clearly shows that he can break down complex information in ways that makes it easy for readers to effectually digest. Yogi is no different. One of the particularly strong aspects of the book’s prose is its ability to pace itself. Pessah does not dwell on a topic for any longer than he has to. While I would have liked to read more about Berra’s role in some of the more historic events in baseball history, I cannot blame Pessah for not going into more detail. At 577 pages, the biography is longer than most baseball biographies. In fact, if Pessah had covered all of the intriguing aspects of Berra’s life, the book’s length would have rivaled Norman L. Macht’s three-volume biography of baseball manager Connie Mack.

While the biography is filled with intense details, I found Pessah’s discussion of Berra’s personal life to be the strongest aspect of the book. Pessah delves into some of the darker aspects of Berra’s family life, including watching Dale, his son, struggle with drug abuse during his own brief Major League career. While Dale Berra’s struggles with cocaine use are well known, it was humbling to read about how Yogi handled his son’s struggles—with tough love. Pessah’s details of the longstanding feud that had lasted for years between New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Berra are particularly well told in a way that reflects careful detail and research. Steinbrenner fired Berra as the Yankees’ manager sixteen games into the 1985 season, kicking off a fifteen-year boycott during which time Berra refused to go to Yankee Stadium, a feud that finally ended when the two reconciled in 1999. Pessah also details the personal and professional challenges that Yogi faced when the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center opened on the campus of Montclair State University. Again, Pessah’s discussion of that particular topic, done with proficiency and without any hint of sensationalist undertones, stands out as one of the strongest parts of the biography. Readers won’t feel as though they are invading the privacy of a revered man, as much as they will feel they are getting a better understanding of a man who sometimes found it challenging to live a humble and unpretentious life.

Pessah succeeds in crafting a biography that readers, no matter how much or how little they know about the beloved Yankee catcher, will find enthralling. Fans will not only enjoy a journey through Yogi Berra’s life and career, but will end that journey with a stronger understanding of the important role he played, and continues to play, in baseball history.