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Baseball is not a team sport in the way that basketball and football are team sports. One player cannot impose his will on each and every game. There is no question that Bill Russell was the lord of rings in basketball because he could (and did) control the rhythms of every game he played in. It is not hard to sum up what made Otto Graham or Joe Montana or Emmitt Smith such indomitable forces in football.
But baseball ... winning is more subtle. A pitcher starts only once every five or six days. A batter comes up only a handful of times, and not always in a position to make a difference. A fielder can get to only what is within his reach. Berra played in his first World Series in his first full year, 1947. And he played miserably, hitting .158. He struggled defensively. (This was before Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey, in Yogi's words, had "learned me all his experience.") He blamed himself for costing Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens the first no-hitter in World Series history. Bevens had the no-hitter going with one out in the ninth when he walked Brooklyn's Carl Furillo. One out later, pinch runner Al Gionfriddo tried to steal second base, and Yogi Berra threw high. After an intentional walk, Cookie Lavagetto hit a game-winning double, and Berra never stopped blaming himself for that high throw.
Still ... the Yankees won the Series in seven games. Two years later Berra hit .063 in the Series, but the Yankees won again. They won again the next year. Again the next. And the next. And the next. In Berra's 17 seasons the Yankees reached the World Series 14 times. Berra won 10 championships, more than any player ever. He won so many World Series that after a while he stopped requesting World Series rings. Who needs all those rings? There were other options back then; winning the World Series in those days was not unlike getting credit card bonus points. One year Yogi Berra got a cigarette box for winning the World Series. Another year he got a watch. Another, he got something nice for Carmen.
What made Yogi Berra the greatest winner in baseball history? His favorite manager, Casey Stengel, used to say two things about that. One, he said, no player he ever managed had a better understanding of what a team needed to do to win games. It's always something different, and Berra intuited that. He did so many subtle things. He knew how to coax a pitcher through a jam. He knew the weaknesses of every hitter in the game. He knew how to inspire his teammates and how to challenge them.
And he often grabbed the moment himself. He had a reputation throughout his career as a man who came through in the clutch, and it is true that he hit about 30 points higher with men on base. He hit more home runs with men on than with the bases empty. At his best, he was a nightmare to pitch to because he was so good at hitting bad balls. Teammates would remember him getting hits on pitches that bounced and others he had to jump just to reach. Like Roberto Clemente and Vladimir Guerrero, a legend can build around great bad-ball hitters. When Yogi Berra was hitting, he was inescapable.
Take the 1956 World Series. Many people forget that when Don Larsen threw his perfect game in that Series, it gave the Yankees only a 3--2 lead in the best-of-seven. The Dodgers—making a statement about how momentum doesn't carry over in baseball—won 1--0 the next day when pitcher Clem Labine suffocated New York for 10 innings.
The seventh game was the following day. Everything seemed tilted in Brooklyn's favor. The game was played at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers started Don Newcombe, who had won 27 games, the Cy Young and the MVP award. In the first inning, with a man on, Yogi Berra blasted a long homer to right to give the Yankees a 2--0 lead. Two innings later Berra hit his second home run. Baseball players don't win games single-handedly ... except when they do.
So what was the second thing Casey Stengel used to say about Yogi Berra's ability to win? Well, he said that Berra was the sort of person who could fall into a sewer and come out wearing a gold watch.
In other words: Yogi Berra is the luckiest son of a gun to ever play the game.
Luck? What is luck anyway? Take two men. They live in Northern Italy in the early part of the 20th century. They decide to set off to America where they can start families and better lives. Separately, they find their way to St. Louis, where they get jobs working in the kilns making bricks. They buy small houses on Elizabeth Street across from each other in a place that, in those crueler days, people called Dago Hill. The two men care nothing for sports but their sons love baseball.