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Lindsay Berra Wants You to Meet the Real Grandpa Yogi

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
Boardroom speaks with Lindsay Berra, granddaughter of MLB great Yogi Berra, about what made the Hall of Fame catcher special both on and off the field.

To Lindsay Berra, he was Grandpa Yogi long before he was Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.

He was the guy she’d play Wiffle ball with in the back yard before he burned the hot dogs at the family barbecue. The guy who’d make meatballs with her and help decorate the Christmas tree. Even as Lindsay got older and began to understand that her grandfather was one of the greatest baseball players of all time, she struggled to reconcile that with the Grandpa Yogi she knew — the one inseparable from her Grammy Carmen.

But if you live in a family where Grandpa is in the Hall of Fame and Uncle Dale played 10 years in the majors, baseball is in your blood, and Lindsay can’t escape that. From little league to softball at the University of North Carolina to a career as a sportswriter and trustee at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, Lindsay, as they say, knows ball.

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That’s why she was furious in 2015 when she watched the MLB All-Star Game with Grandpa Yogi as the league honored the guys fans voted as the four greatest living baseball players — Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, and Johnny Bench. All great players and individually deserving of such an honor? Definitely. But to include all four and omit Yogi freakin’ Berra? Outrageous. It also highlighted a flaw in just how fans remember the catcher who won 10 World Series rings.

Yes, Yogi Berra had his signature “Yogiisms.” Yes, he was the perfect character to pitch product in commercials. Yes, his short stature, funny looks, and interest in comic books made him a fun media punching bag.

But all of that combined to make people forget that he was also a legend. In addition to his rings, Berra was an 18-time All-Star, three-time AL MVP, and is one of two players ever to hit more than 350 home runs while striking out fewer than 500 times.

That’s one of the key points that Lindsay Berra wants fans to remember about her grandfather, and it’s hammered home in It Ain’t Over, an upcoming documentary about his life that she executive produced and narrated herself. Ahead of the film’s May 12 release in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, Boardroom caught up with Berra to talk about Grandpa Yogi and his legacy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RUSSELL STEINBERG: The film opens at the 2015 All-Star Game when the league brings out its so-called four best-living players. Is that the moment that inspired you to do this?

LINDSAY BERRA: So, I remember very vividly being there with Grandpa, and I just remember thinking that it was atrocious that MLB was not including him in that group. But I never really had thoughts about making a documentary at that point. My grandfather was not in the best of health and my focus was on spending time with him.

The documentary thing really started with Peter Sobiloff, our producer, in the summer of 2018, who went to see the Mr. Rogers documentary with his wife, and he just really loved it. And he had played in my grandpa’s museum golf outing for a number of years, and he was friendly with my uncles, Tim and Dale. And he mentioned to them, ‘How come there’s no Mr. Rogers documentary, but about your dad?’ And they were like, ‘I don’t know. No one’s ever made one.’ And he said, ‘Can I?’ And when my uncles met Sean, they just started to get really excited about the project, and then I ended up meeting Sean and that was how the ball really got going.

Sean had some reservations initially about making a documentary about Grandpa because it seemed that his life was too perfect and you need some tension to drive a narrative. And he was like, ‘What’s the drama?’ And then when I told him that story and he was taking stock of Grandpa’s life as a whole, he just realized that Grandpa had been critically underestimated and overlooked at every turn, and that provided the drama.

So, I think that that 2015 All-Star Game moment really set it up well, and then since then, so many folks have said, ‘Do you really think he’s forgotten?’ Sony just sent a camera crew out to Yankee Stadium on Opening Day, and they were asking folks, ‘Who’s on your Yankees Mount Rushmore?’ And everybody says Ruth, Mantle, Gehrig, DiMaggio. No one even thinks of Grandpa, and he has more World Series [rings] than any of them.

RS: At what point did you actually get involved in this process, and how did the idea come about that you were going to be the one to narrate it?

LB: That was sort of an accident. I started talking to Sean shortly after my uncles met him. It was probably around Christmas time of ’18, going into ’19, and that spring, I just had a big list of folks that I wanted Sean to interview for the documentary. Sean is a Hollywood person and I’ve been a sportswriter for over 20 years, and I just had the context to be able to get these people to Sean. And I was like, I’m gonna help you because we need to get Vin Scully and Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson and Ralph Terry and Audrie Garagiola and all of these people who were getting on in years. I was afraid that if we didn’t move quickly, we might not be able to get them, so I started to help from a logistical perspective — lining up interviews and putting Sean in touch with people and helping him with questions and backstories.

And in the course of doing that, where I would be telling him stories about Kubek or Richardson, I think that unbeknownst to me, Sean started to get the idea that instead of someone like Bob Costas or Billy Crystal narrating it, he might want me to do it, and then after my first batch of interviews where they interviewed me for the documentary, I thought I was just gonna be an outtake; a clip, just like everybody else. He mentioned that he might want me to do the narration, and I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ I’m not a voiceover artist. I was a little stressed out because I’m not John Facenda from NFL Films with the dramatic voice. I wasn’t totally sold on the idea, and he was like, ‘Let’s just try it and we’ll see if it works,’ and he ended up liking it.

RS: You want Yogi to be remembered for, in part, how great of a player he was. But there’s so much more to him that the film covers. How do you want fans to remember him?

LB: I always say that I think my grandfather would’ve been an amazing human being even if he had never set foot on a baseball field. He was a first-generation Italian immigrant. He volunteered to serve his country in World War II before he even had a chance to be drafted because he felt like it was his duty to serve his country, and he ended up on a Landing Craft Support (Small) — that was one of the rocket boats providing cover fire for our troops going ashore during the D-Day invasion. He was a machine gunner. Then, he had the opportunity to come home from World War II when so many other men did not.

That just gave him this incredible perspective on life, I believe, and he never took a moment for granted and he treated everybody he met with kindness, decency, respect, and compassion. And I hear that from anyone who ever had an interaction with him, whether you had a long relationship with him or whether you met him for 30 seconds in a parking garage. I just think he’s an example of the way you should live your life and he’s a great role model for kids. And I think that’s what should be taken away from the film that as great as he was as a baseball player, he was a better human being.

I think that there’s something in Grandpa’s life that pretty much everyone can identify with. We are all either immigrants or the sons and daughters or granddaughters of immigrants, and there’s a lot of veterans amongst us. He had this beautiful 65-year love story with my grandmother. So many of us can identify with that. He was a wonderful father and a grandfather. We can all identify with the love a parent has for their children.

So, I think that there’s just so much about him that resonates with other people in spite of the fact that he was a famous athlete. Sometimes, you look at people who are superstars and you don’t think you have anything in common with them, but with Grandpa, he had something in common with everybody because he was just such a down-to-earth, normal fella.

RS: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?

LB: I would honestly say for us [that] COVID was the biggest challenge because the first interview we did was with Vin Scully in June of 2019 and we shot for, like, 10 months. We had just come home from Tampa. We did interviews at Yankees Spring Training with Mariano Rivera, Willie Randolph, Hal Steinbrenner, we got Hector Lopez on that trip, Derek Jeter on that trip — but we were starting to hear about the COVID stuff. It was around March 6, 7, 8 [2020] that we were down there. I think we flew home on the eighth, and then the shutdown happened four or five days later and we stopped shooting for over a year. That was hard because we still had some folks that we really wanted to make sure we got interviews with and we were on hold and it gave Sean and Julian Robinson, our editor, some time to really sit with the script and map out what they wanted to do.

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RS: It stuck out to me how you interviewed guys from his era, but then you also had Jeter, Nick Swisher, and more modern players. What does that say about Yogi that he was able to have those relationships spanning those generations?

LB: I think that’s tremendous. It was really important to me to have as many people as possible who had actually seen Grandpa play or played with Grandpa so they could talk about the impact he had on his team, how he was able to make other players better, but also just what he looked like on the field. I love how Roger Angell said he was just circular, but so much faster than people give him credit for. They would talk about what he looked like swinging that big heavy bat that he used. I wanted people who had seen him and actually been there.

But then, later in Grandpa’s life, he ends up making up with George Steinbrenner and going back to Yankee Stadium after a 14-year hiatus in 1999, and he went to Spring Training every year from then until 2013. He ended up being able to have these relationships with guys like Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Jeter, Swisher. But when you think about Grandpa, there’s a photograph of him in 1948 at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis with Babe Ruth, and then he had this amazing relationship with Jeter, and he’s just this thread through the Yankee generations, starting with Ruth, playing with DiMaggio, with Mantle, coaching [Thurman] Munson, Joe Girardi, [Don] Mattingly, [Willie] Randolph, and then mentoring the Core Four later on through their most recent World Series. I don’t think there’s a Yankee or even another Major League Baseball player who had that kind of an impact on that many generations of players.

And they all sent him Christmas cards. These weren’t casual acquaintances; they were meaningful relationships.

RS: So now I’m thinking back to when you were talking about Yankees fans and their Mount Rushmore of Yankees. I wonder how different it would be if the question were, ‘Who are your favorite all-time Yankees?’ I wonder if they would have included Yogi in that.

LB: It might, because I think he does hold a special place in people’s hearts. He played his last game on May 10, 1965. We’re getting on 60 years ago. But he’s making commercials. So there’s like 40-plus years where he’s not playing but is still in the public eye for a different reason. So, I understand why he may have become known for those other things — as the funny guy with the big ears who said the funny things and sold Miller Lite on television. I get it. I just think that he deserves to be remembered for what he did on the baseball field as well.

RS: His approach, and seeing it come through in the documentary, was fascinating to me. And how many Yogiisms came from it, like “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.” They all make sense if you think about it.

LB: Absolutely. He was just really able to cut through the crap and call a spade a spade. I think a lot of that comes down to the perspective you get from serving in World War II. When you face an actual life-or-death situation, the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded is not life or death — it’s opportunity. And he was just grateful to be there and just able to play baseball for the simple joy of playing baseball, and the Yogiisms are funny, but I think that comes through in a lot of them.

RS: Which Yogiism means the most to you? Which do you think about the most?

LB: I like the existential ones the most. ‘The future ain’t what it used to be,’ and ‘if the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.’ Like, there’s always something else to complain about, right? Just be happy in the moment, because in the next moment, you’re gonna be bitching about something else.

I also love ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’ It’s very literal when you see — I live in Montclair, very close to where my grandparents lived, and there is a road that goes straight up to Highland Avenue where they live, and it splits in a perfect Y and both sides of the fork go to Highland Avenue, so it didn’t matter which side you took. So he was giving directions to the house. It makes sense when you see it, but in my family, ‘take the fork’ has kind of become a euphemism for ‘get off your butt,’ you know? So when I get up in the morning and I’m procrastinating or whatever and I need to go work out or I gotta go do whatever I need to do, it’s like, ‘Lindsay, take the fork, get moving.’ So, I use that one a lot in my head.

RS: Something I would love to know more about is when Jackie Robinson came into the league and broke the color barrier. Larry Doby Jr. is in the film to talk about Yogi’s role at that time. What role did Yogi play as a white athlete?

LB: He just had an incredibly forthright moral compass, and it was very easy for him to do the right thing because the wrong thing never occurred to him. I don’t wanna make it seem like Grandpa was some sort of a civil rights activist, but he was along with folks like Ted Williams and Pee Wee Reese — the guys who were super accepting of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Elston Howard, Minnie Miñoso, all the first Black and Latin players, they didn’t say no. And they also went out of their way to have people see them embracing these guys and saying, ‘It’s okay to be here.’

And this is 1947 when Jackie breaks the color barrier. That’s 15 years before the start of the Civil Rights movement in this country. And I don’t think the country gets there without baseball getting there first.

But Grandpa was doing what he thought was right. He met Jackie in 1946. Grandpa was playing for the Newark Bears in the Yankees’ minor league system and Jackie was playing for the Montreal Royals, and they played each other in the postseason that year, and when Jackie broke the color barrier in ’47, Grandpa had already met Jackie. So, it was like, ‘Hey, how you doing? Congrats on being here.’ He didn’t have to introduce himself to him. And I think a lot of the guys who were in the service during World War II, white guys who had served with Black soldiers, it wasn’t really a big deal. And I also say a lot, Grandpa didn’t go overseas to fight for the freedoms of European people to come home and deny those same freedoms to people in this country — he wanted everybody to have the opportunity. He didn’t care what color Jackie was or where he was from. He cared that he was really fast and he had to hold him on at third base.

And there’s the famous play with Jackie Robinson stealing home, and Grandpa did insist until the day he died that Jackie was out, but I always say safe or out is irrelevant. What matters is that Jackie was in the big leagues, and I think Grandpa was proud, and I’m proud of him for being on the right side of that color line when a lot of white folks thought it was the wrong place for people to be.

Via Getty Images (Bettmann/Contributor)

RS: I think a lot of what you just said probably answers what I was gonna ask you next, but you also talk a lot about him receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. What made him particularly deserving of that honor?

LB: It’s what you gave back to society. I think that what I just said about the civil rights stuff certainly was a part of it, but Grandpa, even when he was 85 years old, Athlete Ally approached him to become a spokesperson for LGBTQ rights in sports. I remember Hudson Taylor from Athlete Ally coming to my grandfather’s museum and my grandma and grandpa having a quick conversation about it. My grandmother saying to Hudson, ‘You know what? It’s 2015. It’s about time people just got with the program. Let’s do this.’ She’d had enough of people being belittled or marginalized based on who or what, or however they presented themselves. To become an LGBTQ Rights activist in your late 80s is pretty amazing.

I also think the education thing had a big part to do with it. Grandpa had to quit school in the eighth grade to help his family put food on the table. They were really poor, living on the hill in St. Louis, and I think he was self-conscious of the fact that he didn’t have a high school diploma. So, when he got to the Yankees, as soon as he had enough money to do so, he established a scholarship fund at Columbia University that still exists today.

And when he opened the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, it was the learning center part that was really most important to him, and that was part of the Medal of Freedom as well. I think the educational programs that the museum does, teaching Grandpa’s values to a new generation of kids, but beyond that, he just was a good human. Like I said, I think a lot about him. Obviously, I grew up very close to him and he set the bar pretty high, and it can be a little stressful at times trying to live up to those standards. But you watch this movie, you learn about the way Grandpa Yogi lived his life, and even if you take away just one or two things that change the way you live your life and make you a little bit of a better person — that’s his legacy, and that’s what I think is so tremendous about him and the way he lived.

RS: I know you said it’s not relevant, but I gotta ask: Was Jackie safe or out?

LB: I’m gonna have to side with Grandpa.

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About The Author
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg is an editor and writer at Boardroom. He came to the brand in 2021 with a decade of experience in sports journalism, primarily covering college basketball at SB Nation as a writer, reporter, and blog manager. In a previous life, he worked as a social media strategist and copywriter, handling accounts ranging from sports retail to luxury hotels and financial technology. Though he has mastered the subtweet, he kindly requests you @ him next time.