Yogi Berra was a sports dad: Three lessons we can learn from his influence

Stephen Borelli



“Little League baseball is a good thing ’cause it keeps the parents off the streets and the kids out of the house!” – Yogi Berra

Lindsay Berra loved baseball but she hated hot dogs. When she used to go watch Grampa Yogi manage the New York Yankees in 1984, her grandmother would make fried chicken they carried in a picnic basket and brought into Yankee Stadium.

Yogi’s oldest of 11 grandchildren would sit straddling the concrete wall by the dugout. She had her glove on her left hand and a chicken leg in her right. She would watch batting practice, catching balls and tossing them back onto the field, all without dropping the leg.

“But Grampa wouldn’t let me sit there if I didn’t have the glove on my hand,” Lindsay Berra says. “He had full faith that I could catch the foul balls. I just had to have the glove on.”

When he stopped coaching in the major leagues about five years later, Yogi was the one watching Lindsay and his other grandkids at their sports. He would sit at one end of the hockey rink, “trying to be unassuming but as unassuming as someone who looks like Yogi Berra can be,” she remembers. He was quiet and cordial. In short, he was Yogi.

“He didn’t think of himself as a big deal,” Lindsay says, “so while people certainly did seek him out to talk to him and whatnot, he was just so normal that he made everybody else sort of feel normal around him.”

Lindsay, 45, spent a lot of her first 40 years with Grammy Carmen and Grampa Yogi. Carmen, who died in 2014 at 85, was one of her best friends. Yogi, who lived until 2015 (when he was 90), provided a compass for her life in sports and sportsmanship and for so many other values she still feels she needs to illuminate. 

She is the executive producer of the documentary, “It Ain’t Over,” that debuted nationwide in June. In it, with the help of celebrities and historians from baseball, Hollywood and the White House, she hopes to guide people to not only a greater appreciation of Berra’s playing career, but of his humanity.

“As great as he was as a baseball player he was an even better human being,” she says.

During an interview with USA TODAY Sports, she also remembered how Berra was a sports dad, and, of course, a sports grampa, a constant, reassuring presence at his grandkids’ games who provides an example today’s parents can follow.

Those parents, as Lindsay has learned through her work with pitching savant (and parent) Tom House, can also be a kid’s biggest deterrent. Perhaps we all just need a little more Yogi in our lives to put our children’s games into a fresh perspective.

Here are three lessons we can learn from his influence to guide us through our kids’ sports, and through their lives.

COACH STEVE: Why major leaguers don’t push their kids to follow in their footsteps

Lindsay Berra celebrates the career and the man of Yogi Berra in “It Ain’t Over.” He was also an active sports grampa.

1. Sports is play

Growing up as a poor boy in the Italian neighborhood of The Hill in St. Louis, Yogi played street hockey with newspapers taped to his shins and hit bottle caps with a broomstick.

“It’s just kids out having fun and competing with each other and seeing how many bottle caps they can hit in a row,” Lindsay says. “And by the way, have you ever tried that? It is totally impossible. So you learn why Grampa was so good at putting the bat on balls that were out of the strike zone because he could literally hit a bottle cap with a broomstick.”

Lindsay began her sporting life roaming streets of her north Jersey neighborhood similarly blissful and unorganized. Her father, Larry (Yogi’s oldest son), and her mother Francine divorced when she was 5. Francine, who was a racquetball player, butterfly swimmer and cyclist, kept her daughter playing outdoors. Lindsay wasn’t allowed into the house until the street lights came on.

She and her friends rode scooters and bikes, played Wiffle Ball across the intersection, football in the schoolyard and “butts up” with a Pinky Ball and a wall. Larry and his brothers Dale and Tim Berra were all pretty serious athletes, too. Larry played in the New York Mets organization; Dale was a major league infielder over 11 seasons; Tim played football for Massachusetts and the Baltimore Colts. But Lindsay remembers holiday front yard activities at Yogi and Carmen’s house as carefree: Tossing a football; hitting a Wiffle Ball; playing croquet, horseshoes or tag or just doing somersaults down the hill.

Such activities, she would learn from House and his study of sports and its players, bring out what he refers to as “the power of play.” This sensation is something we learn and feel as kids and it drives us forward when we become high school, college and even professional athletes.

When they take the field, House says, 35-year-old athletes become 12-year-olds again. They enjoy the play of the competition more than the work of it. Yes, elite athletes are often paid handsomely, but they generally don’t go to the ballpark for work.

“You play sports,” Lindsay says, “you don’t work sports.”

House says parents are the ones who introduce the “work” component to sports. They reward their kids for outcomes – wins, pitching performances, grades – from an early age, becoming helicopter parents without realizing many great athletes are late bloomers.

It’s the process we must trust, not the results. Yet, for many kids, it’s too late. They don’t make it to when their bodies reach their peaks in high school and beyond because sports has become work. The kids find something else to do.

“When you focus on the process, it’s fun,” Lindsay says. “When you focus on the things that you’re not doing and how you lost or didn’t achieve what you wanted to achieve, that becomes less fun and kids don’t want to do things when they’re not fun.”

COACH STEVE: 10 tips for parents to keep youth sports fun

Lindsay Berra visits her grandfather, Yogi Berra, when he managed the Yankees during the summer of 1984.

2. There is always another season

Yogi might have been as good at soccer as he was at baseball as a kid. As an adult, he liked to play golf in the baseball offseason. When kids would tour his museum at Montclair (N.J.) State University that opened in 1998, he might sneak up them and say, “Hey, stop touching my stuff,” but then talk to them about playing the sport that’s in season. Come back to that sport later on, he would say, and your body will be better off for it.

When she got older, Lindsay played softball, soccer, basketball and, eventually, ice hockey. That skating motion, she says, was a difference maker in her becoming a more well-rounded athlete. She played varsity softball and men’s club hockey at the University of North Carolina.

“I think when you look at the guys who are the absolute best, like the Patrick Mahomes model, he didn’t specialize until he got to college and he is one of the most gifted athletes and the most resilient athletes we have,” Lindsay says. “So I just think that repetitive motion is the devil and you need to balance out your body in order to stay healthy and develop properly. All that neuroplasticity that they talk about where your nerves are talking to your muscles in different ways and in different situations … you get that from doing many different sports in many different planes. I just think as many that you can do is only gonna help you in the long run.”

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3. The world isn’t perfect

Sports were a luxury young Yogi indulged in when his father, Pietro, was at work. When Yogi came home with dirty pants or shoes, he feared punishment. Pietro Berra was from the old country. Yogi said his brother, Tony, was the best ballplayer in the family. Tony and Yogi’s two other older brothers had to talk Pietro into giving the youngest son shot at pro ball.

Soon after he signed with the Yankees, Yogi enlisted in the Navy at 18. He was aboard a rocket boat during the invasion at Normandy, an experience that would shape his life more than baseball.

“You don’t go through World War II and the real combat experience that Grampa had on D-Day and later on in the invasion of Southern France where so many men literally died in front of him, you don’t go through that experience without like a different kind of perspective,” Lindsay says. “I think that he was profoundly grateful to have made it home when so many other people did not. And then, to end up playing a kid’s game for a living … he knew how lucky he was and how blessed he was just to be there, so, as much as he loved to win, he really was just like happy in every moment there.”

If you got to watch him play baseball, you saw him revel in his successes and accept his setbacks, except maybe when the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson was called safe after stealing home on him during the 1955 World Series.

About four decades later, there was a New Jersey high school softball game Lindsay recalled in which her grandfather was sitting in the fourth row behind the fence. A newspaper photographer captured her teammate appearing to jump over the tag with her foot and landing safely on the base. The photo also showed Yogi making the safe sign while the umpire signaled out.

Berra always loved to watch his sons – he could only catch winter sports like basketball and hockey in those days – and grandchildren play. And when they gathered around the house on all those holidays, he was out there playing with them.

By the time Lindsay got to high school, Grampa Yogi had been around her sports life since she was a little kid. People were used to him being at games. That was the way he wanted it. There was always another sport, always another season to be present for his teammates, or his kids and grandkids.

Lindsay has become a golfer and triathlete, a CrossFit coach and hiker. She has written about hockey and baseball and fitness for ESPN Magazine, MLB.com Men’s Health and other publications and websites. All through it, she has kept her grandfather’s perspective close to her heart.

She talks about his success as a bad-ball hitter as a metaphor for how he looked at life: A ball was not a bad pitch or a good pitch; there was still something you could do something with, even in a weird spot.

Her favorite Yogi-ism has always been: If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.

“People just look and see the problems and all of the things that they could change,” she says, “but even if they changed it, they’d still want to change something else, right? So it’s just kind of about seeing the good that’s already there.”

Think of those words the next time you watch your kid play sports.

Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now loving life as sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. For his past columns, click here.

Got a question for Coach Steve you want answered in a future column? Email him at [email protected]

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