Yogi Berra’s death failed to make the news in Israel, which is understandable. Except for the Americans who have moved here, Israelis don’t follow baseball and care not a whit about Yogi’s playing career or his place in American lore as a preeminent philosopher. Which is a shame, because they could learn a lot from what Yogi had to say.
Most of the obits for the Hall of Famer and longtime Montclair resident fell into two categories: The sports pages talked about the New York Yankees legend behind the mask, an unpretentious three-time MVP and 15-time All Star. Whether you are a fan or a foreigner, you need know only one thing to put his 18-year occupation as catcher in perspective: Yogi won the most pennants (14) and most championships (10) of any player.
The sports obits also referred to his beloved cartoon caricature appearance and his affable personality. But don’t let those jug ears and simian posture fool you: Yogi, a baseball savant, understood the national pastime intuitively. Contrary to his own insight — “In baseball, you don’t know nothin’” — Yogi always knew what to do on a ball field, smart enough to win pennants as a manager in both the American and National Leagues, one of only seven to do so. Yogi was a winner.
The second manner of obit focused on his fortune-cookie philosophies. “Yogi-isms” they’re called, the witty, self-contradictory or redundant malapropisms, proverbs, and cryptic aphorisms that tumbled out of his mouth and became famous.
As Joe Garagiola, his friend of 80 years, wrote in the forward to The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!: “Fans have labeled Yogi Berra ‘Mr. Malaprop,’ but I don’t think that’s accurate. He doesn’t use the wrong words. He just puts words together in ways nobody else would ever do.”
- “Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.”
- “Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel.”
- “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
Despite his gnarled syntax, Yogi’s insightful social philosophy assured him iconic status in cultural Americana. Yogi should be buried on the front lawn of the Smithsonian.
Where he fails to receive credit, however, is his work as a political theorist and pundit. Yogi was not just serving up endless and eternal truths as a social philosopher; he could sound like a neo-conservative scholar with an innate understanding of geo-political reality. Yogi may not have known it, but his profound aphorisms perfectly apply to foreign policy, especially of the Mideast variety.
- “It was hard to have a conversation with anyone; there were so many people talking.”
Welcome to the peace talks.
- “There are some people who, if they don’t already know, you can’t tell ‘em.”
And there’s no point in arguing with ‘em. That’s the real reason it’s hard to have a conversation with anyone on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- “I wish I had an answer to that, because I’m tired of answering that question.”
The thought that goes through the mind of every minister, diplomat, and functionary at every news conference in Jerusalem. When was the last time any of them admitted an original thought (or heard an original question)?
- “You can observe a lot by watching.”
What Yogi meant to say was: Watch. Listen. Pay attention. Israelis have been watching and observing, and they understand what they see. They observed how leaving Lebanon in 2000 yielded Hizbullah, and war in 2006; they observed how leaving Gaza in 2005 led to war in 2008 and 2014, and they know war is coming again on both fronts. And on the horizon they watch ISIS, and Iran going nuclear.
- “It gets late early out there.”
Yogi might have been talking about the left-field shadows at Yankee Stadium, but he was also mimicking what everybody pushing the peace process pronounces: this is the best time to make the deal because the status quo is unsustainable, and it’ll only get later and darker faster, from here on out. It is, they like to argue, getting late very quickly.
- “We made too many wrong mistakes.”
Sitting around the kitchen table, the only debate among Israelis is choosing between the lesser of two evils: do we go for the bad option, or the worse one? And if that’s the choice, then either pick is a mistake. In hindsight, perhaps it was too many bad choices, and not enough worse ones.
- “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Those were the bad choices taken.
- “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”
Yogi’s explicit warning.
- “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
Once upon a time the future held out hope. A new summit, a new plan, a new president, a new prime minister – everybody hustling to push the “peace process” forward. But that’s all it ever was: motion, not movement, and motion without movement means doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Wasn’t that Einstein’s definition of insanity? Or was that stupidity? Yogi, of course, said it simpler:
- “It’s deja vu all over again.”
Yogi understood how hard, how impossible, the whole thing is: “In the Middle East, you don’t know nothin’.”
Finally, for the absolutely unversed, his most famous tautology:
- “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
This speaks to the frustrations in all of us. Yogi, the eternal optimist, the endearing and enduring philosopher, calls to us from his grave not to lose hope. For Yogi, it’s over. For us, it ain’t.