As winter wanes, Yogi Berra, the always-quotable New York Yankees icon, travels each year from his Montclair home to Tampa, Florida, for the team’s spring training. In recent years, another former Yankee great from a more recent era, the pitcher Ron Guidry, has adopted the role of Berra’s driver, valet and constant companion for the spring ritual. This arrangement has created an enduring friendship between Guidry, 61, and the venerable Berra, 86. Harvey Araton, a Montclair resident and New York Times sports columnist, explores the special bond between these two legendary Yanks in a new book, Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
You first wrote about Guidry and Berra in a front-page story for the Times. How did you convince them to participate in a book?
Yogi and [his] family understand that they want his legacy to be something greater than the guy who comes up with the “Yogisms.” They want people to understand that Yogi is a complex, multidimensional human being. It’s not a book that dwells on his playing days, like most of the others. It’s not a book that is about him saying silly things or clever things….This explores who Yogi is not only as an elderly person but also Yogi’s second life with the Yankees [after his 1999 reconciliation with George Steinbrenner].
What makes Berra so beloved by today’s players?
He’s the most unpretentious of all the sports icons I’ve ever come across in America…. You don’t find too many people needling [Derek] Jeter and getting away with it, but Yogi can. There’s a certain sense of him as a guy who a) has earned everything he’s gotten, and b) doesn’t have a malicious or mean-spirited bone in his body.
The concept of a sports team as a family, can that survive?
I think baseball has that advantage over the other sports. The players do get a sense of togetherness and family. But you know, the big money kind of erodes that, and it’s probably tougher in New York. I think, again, that’s why having Yogi around has been a reminder to these guys. Just when A-Rod’s head gets a little bloated or Jeter’s head, there’s a guy over there with 10 rings; we have nothing to be so proud about, because he did it 10 times.
In the book Berra is referred to by another former player as “everybody’s grandfather.” Is there anyone else in sports who can reach that state?
Magic Johnson is someone who comes to mind, who’s led a very different life than Yogi, obviously…. It’s hard to reach the status that someone like Yogi Berra has for a whole lot of reasons: who he is, what he represents, the success that he’s had, the lovable character that he is. It’s like the perfect storm of sports hero.
How important is Guidry to Berra?
I think [Guidry] understands that Yogi is not a guy who’s going to look at him and say, “I really love you,” or is going to even say things like, “I’d rather have you pick me up at the airport than any other person because of what you mean to me.” It’s not going to happen. It’s what Yogi asks for more than what he says…the fact that Yogi asks for him more than anyone else.
Why does Berra keep going back to spring training?
This is what keeps Yogi moving forward, and this is what he loves…. I really do think it’s a beautiful thing—the determination to go. All of us, with aging, elderly parents, grandparents, don’t want to reach that state where they give up or they’re incapable of doing anything. It’s inspiring for him to still show and make his rounds in the clubhouse and kibbitz with Nick Swisher and go into the manager’s office, and have his little shot of vodka at night.