Remembering Yogi Berra, Baseball Player Extraordinaire … and Economic Philosopher

Published 8:03 am Sunday, September 27, 2015

By Mark W. Hendrickson

The word “icon” is overused these days, but it surely applies to Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, who passed away yesterday at age 90. His playing career was iconic, and he transitioned into a cultural icon in his role as amateur philosopher and author of droll malapropisms.

Yogi was a key part of the New York Yankees dynasty that dominated Major League Baseball in the 1950s and early 1960s. On a personality-rich team that included fellow Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, Berra was the most colorful and arguably the most accomplished, having won three American League Most Valuable Player awards (compared to two each for Mantle and Roger Maris), an all-time record of 10 world championship rings as a player (he won three more as a coach), and the distinction of having caught the only perfect game in World Series history—Don Larsen’s gem in 1957.

As a boy growing up in metro Detroit, I watched Berra and his teammates demonstrate repeatedly their superiority of my beloved Tigers. The games when the Tigers managed to prevail in this spirited rivalry were highlights for us Tiger fans.

I saw Yogi play catcher—the position he played full time when he won those MVP awards—once or twice, but most of the games I saw him play were late in his career, when he patrolled left field, having ceded the demanding position of catcher to Elston Howard and Johnny Blanchard. As a kid sitting in the left field bleachers, I have vibrant mental images of Berra in front of me, the number 8 on his gray visiting uniform standing out vividly. Yogi was the last player to wear number 8 in Yankee pinstripes, the club retiring it in 1972. Berra had a distinctive posture in the outfield, settling into a semi-crouch (still a catcher at heart), positioning his body at an angle to the infield with his hips lined up with right field, and resting a hand on each bended knee.

As a batter, Yogi, a right-handed fielder, hit from the left side. He was only 5’7” and thus had a naturally small strike zone, but Yogi loved to hit and was famous for swinging at balls outside of the strike zone. Normally, such bad habits would work to the pitcher’s advantage, but Yogi was a clutch hitter who hit 358 home runs and accumulated 1,430 RBIs. Those totals could have been higher had not the start of his career been delayed by serving in the Navy in World War II, where he bravely took park in the landing at Normandy.

As a major league manager, Berra’s achievements were more modest, although he is one of a fairly small number of managers to take teams to the World Series in two different leagues, losing seven-game series as manager of both the Yankees and the Mets.

Perhaps Yogi’s most enduring legacy will be the sayings he coined. Although he dropped out of school in the eighth grade, some of Yogi’s adages offer wisdom to today’s economists. As an economist myself, I can’t resist:

  • “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” I wish our Keynesian economists could grasp that simple fact of life. I think of that every time Paul Krugman et al. insist that the key to restoring prosperity is to incur more indebtedness.
  • “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” That’s a message for Janet Yellen and the FOMC to heed. The Fed seems frozen in place, like deer caught in the headlights—a situation that doesn’t have a happy ending.
  • “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” Similarly, in economics the profession is haplessly confused about how much analysis should be micro and how much macro, and equally confused about how much government should intervene into the economic activity of the nation.
  • “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” This one is screaming a warning to the American people to stop and ask ourselves where colossal federal overspending and debt is taking us. We really don’t want to go there.
  • “We made too many wrong mistakes.” This pithy pleonasm could serve as an epitaph to America’s detour into Big Government economic planning and social engineering.
  • “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.” Has anyone ever summarized the ongoing depreciation of our fiat currency more succinctly?

Thanks for the memories and the thought-provoking witticisms, Yogi. You will always be fondly remembered.

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.