Book review: “Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry and Baseball’s Greatest Gift” by Harvey Araton

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Book review: “Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry and Baseball’s Greatest Gift” by Harvey Araton

“Driving Mr. Yogi” by Harvey Araton is a fun book for a Yankee fan. I suspect it wouldn’t be much of a read for anyone else.

Not that there aren’t elements here of what could be rich, compelling books for general readers.

For instance, this book, published in April, sets the friendship of Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry — Yankee heroes, from different eras — within the context of the team’s highly successful history and its studied use of that history.

The Yankee organization employs the team’s past as a marketing strategy, trotting out former players for the annual Old Timers game (the only one still left in the major leagues), hiring them as broadcasters and keeping them on hand as special spring training instructors and as team representatives.

Team executives, going back to George Steinbrenner and earlier, have consciously worked to build the image of the Yankees as “a storied franchise.” There is, as they’re framed it, a Yankee tradition of winning and a cathedral-like aura to Yankee Stadium, past and present.

This effort is aimed at attracting fans — it’s enriched my experience as a Yankee fan — and over-awing opponents.

The most important target

Yet, the most important target is probably the players, coaches and executives of the organization itself. What other team in sports says at the start of each season that the only measure of success is to win the championship? Anything else is a failure?

I wonder just how different the Yankees are than other teams in this use of history and of former players. Does it help to have someone such as Yogi Berra or Ron Guidry walking around the clubhouse? And not just a handful of guys from the winning past, but dozens?

A book that delved deeply into this could, like “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis (2003), tell a story larger than the Yankees, larger than sports.

That, however, is a book that would be virtually impossible to write. To get to the heart of the story, a writer would need deep access and the full cooperation of the Yankee pitchers, batters, managers, coaches and executives over a span of decades.

And that ain’t gonna happen.

Everyone talking about everything

In 1985, Daniel Okrent published “Nine Innings,” a wonderful book that took a single baseball game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Milwaukee Brewers (then in the American League) on June 10, 1982 and wrote about every batter who approached the plate, every player who took the field and nearly every pitch that was thrown. And that was the skeleton he used to examine with great depth, insight and eloquence seemingly every aspect of Major League Baseball.

It worked because, in a small-market city like Milwaukee and in a more media-naive era, pretty much everyone talked to him about pretty much everything.

Baseball players today, just as celebrities in general, have become so guarded and calculating in their dealings with reporters that fresh, honest, open communication is not in the cards. And nowhere is this more pronounced than in New York City, especially Yankee Stadium.

(This isn’t a criticism of the players. Media scrutiny is so intense that it’s simply an act of self-preservation to clam up, either literally or by building a fortress wall around yourself with cliché after cliché.)

In “Driving Mr. Yogi,” Guidry opens up to Araton in a way that is unusual. Still, he has long been retired, always seemed to follow the beat of a different drummer and has little to lose. Also, he’s talking about his friendship with Berra, who has been retired from the game even longer. Both are far removed from the day-to-day questioning and intrusions of reporters.

There is very little in the book from today’s Yankee players and others in the organization that goes beyond the level of platitude.

I wonder, for instance, what a Latin American player such as Robinson Cano thinks about all this Yogi veneration. Not that I think Cano would look askance at it. But I wonder how it appears from his perspective and if the team’s emphasis on history has much of an impact on the way he plays the game and how he thinks of the game.

The Guidry-Berra friendship

Another element of this book that might have been developed for a broader audience is the Guidry-Berra friendship which, of course, is the subject of “Driving Mr. Yogi.”

The problem is that, while Guidry talked fairly openly with Araton, it appears that Berra did not say much, if anything, to the writer. Also, it is not clear how much time Araton was able to spend with Guidry and Berra when they were together. It certainly doesn’t appear that he witnessed many of the incidents he reports in the book.

This goes back to the cocoon-like world in which professional athletes — and those around them — exist. Reporters are not insiders, and so there is little that Araton, a New York Times reporter, is going to be permitted to see beyond the usual media opportunities.

It would be much easier — though far from easy — to tell the story of a friendship between two men of different generations if neither were a celebrity. It would be possible in that circumstance to spend time with the two men, individually and together, so that each was comfortable enough to talk about deep-felt thoughts and emotions.

With sports figures, such as Guidry and Berra, what you get instead is a sports book, as limited in its genre restrictions as a romance novel.

Approaching death

A third element of this book are the glimpses it gives the reader into the aging of Berra, his physical decline and his approach to death.

Araton deals with these glimpses as best he can, given his limited access and his goal of writing a book that keeps Berra’s status as a baseball legend front and center.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating to wonder what it is like for a high-performing athlete to go through the deterioration of age. Berra is particularly attractive since he has always come across, amid the glitz and pizzazz of New York and the Yankees, as a salt of the earth kind of guy. Solid, simple, self-aware, humble.

While teammates Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were out gallivanting through New York bistros into the early morning hours, Berra was sleep in the suburbs where he lived quietly with his wife Carmen and their children. He seemed, to borrow a phrase, that he had his head screwed on straight.

His essential self

“Driving Mr. Yogi” hints at a biography that could be told about Berra as something of a normal guy in the midst of celebrity who, through the decades, has held his own and held onto his essential self and is now facing the final chapter we all will face.

These various elements — the Yankee use of the team’s history, the Guidry-Berra friendship and the glimpses into Berra as he is shuffling offstage — give “Driving Mr. Yogi” a bit more edge than the usual sports book.

That said, it is a book steeped in hero worship and hamstrung by the limitations of dealing today with celebrities.

A fine book for a Yankee fan. For general readers, probably not.

Patrick T. Reardon
5.15.12

1 Comment

  1. j reardon says:

    i enjoyed the book but read it without the book cover on

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