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Berra has little inclination to dwell upon the past. "I'm sure glad I don't live in them days," he once said, after watching a bloody movie called The Vikings. Or he may have said that. He's said to have said it. Trying to establish which of Yogi's famous sayings he actually said is an interesting, but hopeless, endeavor.
Sometimes diligent research pays off. For instance, there's the story about what Yogi told a young Met hitter who had adopted Frank Robinson's batting stance but still wasn't hitting. "If you can't imitate him," Yogi is supposed to have advised, "don't copy him."
But on Jan. 11, 1964, right after Berra had been named Yankee manager and a year before he got to the Mets, a long tape-recorded telephone colloquy between Berra, Casey Stengel and reporter Robert Lipsyte appeared, in transcript, in The New York Times. In it Stengel says to Yogi, "If you can't imitate anybody, don't copy him. That's the best advice I can give a new manager." Conceivably, Berra later passed that adage on to a Met, but because Berra spent several minutes one morning this spring chuckling over the kind of things Stengel used to say and wishing he could remember even a few of them specifically, that seems unlikely.
Why not just ask Berra himself whether he said various things he's supposed to have said? Well, I did that. It confused matters. For instance, if I hadn't consulted Yogi, I'd be able to report that I had pinned down the origin of "Nobody ever goes there anymore; it's too crowded" once and for all. I'd always been told that Yogi said that about a place called Charlie's in Minneapolis. On the other hand, I read somewhere that back in the late '40s Dorothy Parker had said it about Chasen's in Beverly Hills. Then I read that John McNulty had written it in a short story. And sure enough, in the Feb. 20, 1943 issue of The New Yorker, in a McNulty story entitled Some Nights When Nothing Happens Are the Best Nights in This Place, there occurs this passage:
"...a speakeasy, you could control who comes in and it was more homelike and more often not crowded the way this saloon is now. Johnny, one of the hack-men outside, put the whole thing in a nutshell one night when they were talking about a certain hangout and Johnny said, 'Nobody goes there any more. It's too crowded.' "
Because in 1943 Yogi was 18 and playing in Norfolk, Va., we can assume that neither McNulty nor some New York cabdriver stole the line from Yogi.
However. Before I tracked that short story down I discussed Yogi. Berraisms with Yogi and Carmen. We were relaxing over vodka on the rocks in their nicely appointed parlor in Montclair, N.J. After their three boys grew up, the Berras sold the enormous Tudor house about which Yogi once said proudly, "It's nothing but rooms," and moved into a smaller but still substantial gray-shingled house a few blocks away. It's a home filled with fine antiques, with dropping-by children and grandchildren and with Berraisms, which, however, the Berras don't preserve as carefully as they do furniture.
"The kids are always telling me, 'There you go, you said another one,' " Yogi said with a chuckle.
"He said one the other day," said Carmen. "I thought, 'That's a classic. I've got to write that one down.' But I forgot."
"How about the one I said, 'If I didn't wake up, I'd still be sleeping,' " said Yogi. "I was almost late someplace," he explained. "Another one...," he added, and he said something else that I didn't quite catch.