With the latest report of the NFL’s negligence in addressing its brain injury problem, I turn happily to my sport. The 21st Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference is just a week away. It used to happen across the hall, a few steps from my office door. This year it’s going to take a little longer to get there, at its new venue 600 miles away in Kansas. But I wouldn’t miss it, my surest sign of Spring. I’m especially looking forward to revisiting the Negro Leagues Museum.
In my presentation I’m going to talk about the under-appreciated sagacity of the game’s greatest wits, mostly Satchel Paige (who, like Yogi, didn’t say everything he said) and Buck O’Neil (who did).
That’s a lot of Kansas City, for an old St. Louisan like me, so I’m adding Yogi and his pal Joe Garagiola to the program. He just died at age 90, following his friend who also checked out at 90 in September. I’d love to believe they’ll both go on cracking wise on a heavenly Hill somewhere.
It was Joe, to whom Yogi instructed: “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
It was Joe who stoked the legend of Yogi. “Not only was I not the best catcher in the major leagues, I wasn’t even the best catcher on my street.”
Unlike Yogi, Joe played for lots of teams (“I went through baseball as a player to be named later”) including, naturally, the Cubs. “One thing you learned as a Cubs fan: when you bought you ticket, you could bank on seeing the bottom of the ninth.”
His debut in the Cardinals broadcast booth with Buck and Caray was a couple of years before my time, but I caught him later on countless Games of the Week, and on the Today show. He came across as a regular guy, genuine, self-effacing, and deceptively simple, an ideal complement for Vin Scully’s florid style. “Scully will describe the azure blue skies and the fluffy clouds and Old Glory blowing in center field, and he makes you feel like, ‘Let’s have a parade,’ ” he said. “He can put words together, and I’d come in and say, ‘All I know is the wind is blowing, and if the pitcher doesn’t have a good fastball or can’t spot it, he’ll be backing up third all day.’ ”
He received the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. He might have echoed Yogi’s pithiest Socratic truth – “In baseball you don’t know nothin'” – but he knew plenty.
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