The legend of Yogi Berra is based not just on what he did on the baseball field, but also his idiosyncratic speech patterns. Even people who are not baseball fans can recall some of his better Yogi-isms, the name bestowed on his many malapropisms.
The term malapropism derives from the character Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals, a play first performed in London in 1775. So the term itself has been around for more than 240 years. Mrs. Malaprop, however, was only reciting dialogue written by the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The Rivals was his first play and he was only 23 years old when it premiered. If the London stage had a Rookie of the Year award back then, he would have won it hands down.
Yogi, however, has the advantage over Mrs. Malaprop, since he wrote his own material. He was not the only gifted malapropist in the public eye, however. Film producer Samuel Goldwyn was also a fount of quirky quotes. I assume readers of this web site are familiar with Yogi, so I won’t go into any detail about him; but perhaps a bit of background on Samuel Goldwyn is in order.
Goldwyn was born Schmuel Gelbifsz in Warsaw in 1879 (or 1882, depending on your source). He emigrated to England, then Canada, and finally arrived in the United States in 1899. Under the name Samuel Goldfish, he worked as a glove salesman for a company in Gloversville, N.Y. (as the crow flies, about 35 miles from Cooperstown). Relocating to New York City, he married into a showbiz family (he was the brother-in-law of Jesse Lasky Sr., who was one of the founding fathers of Paramount Pictures).
In Hollywood in 1916, Goldwyn joined forces with two brothers named Selwyn, and formed Goldwyn Pictures. Eventually, he legally changed his name to Goldwyn and the studio became one of the entities that resulted in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At the time of the merger, however, Goldwyn had already left the studio.
Ironically, while Goldwyn was one of the architects of the studio system during the silent era, he made his mark as an independent producer in the first few decades of the sound era. His productions were nominated for Best Picture eight times. He won a Best Picture Oscar for The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946. Of special note, one of his nominations was for the Lou Gehrig biopic, Pride of the Yankees, in 1942.
Other than a connection with the Yankees, the only thing Goldwyn and Berra have in common is their creative manipulation of the English language. Like Yogi, Goldwyn was honored with an eponymous noun (Goldwynism) for his malaprops. He also was nicknamed Mr. Malaprop.
Admittedly, some of the quotes attributed to Berra and Goldwyn may have been somewhat different when first uttered, or may be downright apocryphal. Yogi worked around sportswriters, who have been known to engage in embellishment or exaggeration – even when sober – and Goldwyn worked with screenwriters, whose job description involves putting words in other people’s mouths.
That air of uncertainty only adds to one’s legend. Did that so-and-so really do/say everything people said he did/said? After all, if a hung-over Mickey Mantle hits a 500-foot home, that’s more impressive than if he did so when sober. Hey, anyone can hit a 500-foot home run, right?
Remarkably, despite their verbal contortions, Yogi and Goldwyn manage to make themselves understood. In some cases, their utterances are not as absurd as they appear. For example, when Yogi says, “We have deep depth,” it sounds redundant. But if you think about it, depth is a variable. If you’re on a submarine heading towards the bottom, you go down 10, 20, 30, etc. fathoms. So some depths are deeper than others. Or when Goldwyn says, “A bachelor’s life is no life for a single man,” you understand what he means. It may be a contradiction, but it is definitely not nonsense.
Berra was a heavy hitter literally; Goldwyn a heavy hitter figuratively. They were in different fields but parallel universes. As evidence, I offer some apropos malaprops:
Yogi-ism: You saw Dr. Zhivago? Why? Aren’t you feeling well?
Goldwynism: Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined.
Yogi-ism: We have a good time together, even when we’re not together.
Goldwynism: We’d do anything for each other; we’d even cut each other’s throats for each other.
Yogi-ism: It gets late early out there.
Goldwynism: I was always an independent, even when I had partners.
As Time Goes By
Yogi-ism: I looked like this when I was young, and I still do.
Goldwynism: We’ve passed a lot of water since then.
I Shoulda Stood in Bed
Yogi-ism: I usually take a two-hour nap from 1 to 4.
Goldwynism: I’ve been laid up with intentional flu.
Yogi-ism: I really didn’t say everything I said.
Goldwynism: If I was in this business for the business, I wouldn’t be in this business.
Back to the Future
Yogi-ism: The future ain’t what it used to be.
Goldwynism: Never mind forecasts, especially about the future.
Yogi-ism: Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise they won’t go to yours.
Goldwynism: I don’t think anybody should write his autobiography until after he’s dead.
Remembrance of Things Past
Yogi-ism: It’s déjà vu all over again.
Goldwynism: Flashbacks are a thing of the past.
Yogi-ism: I ain’t in a slump. I’m just not hitting.
Goldwynism: I’m willing to admit that I may not always be right, but I’m never wrong.
The Madding Crowd
Yogi-ism: It’s so crowded, nobody goes there.
Goldwynism: I don’t care if my pictures never make a dime, so long as everyone keeps coming to see them.
The Open Road
Yogi-ism: When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Goldwynism: I want to go where the hand of man has never set foot.
The New Math
Yogi-ism: Ninety percent of this game is half mental.
Goldwynism: You are partly one hundred percent right.
Yogi-ism: If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.
Goldwynism: What we need now is some new, fresh clichés.
The Living Dead
Yogi-ism: Steve McQueen looks good in this movie. He must have made it before he died.
Goldwynism: The scene is dull. Tell him to put more life in his dying.
Butts in the Seats
Yogi-ism: If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?
Goldwynism: Go see it and see for yourself why you shouldn’t see it.
Yogi-ism: Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel.
Goldwynism: I never put on a pair of shoes until I’ve worn them five years.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
Yogi-ism: A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.
Goldwynism: He’s living beyond his means, but he can afford it.
Yogi-ism: It was hard to have a conversation with anyone, there were too many people talking.
Goldwynism: From now on, whenever you talk to me, keep your mouth shut.
Yogi-ism: You can observe a lot by watching.
Goldwynism: When you’re a star, you have to take the bitter with the sour.
Majoring in Tautology
Yogi-ism: We made too many wrong mistakes.
Goldwynism: I hear you’re a very smart genius.
Yogi-ism: I was in the invasion of Normandy in southern France.
Goldwynism: Don’t worry about the war. It’s all over but the shooting.
Don’t Know Much About History
Yogi-ism: Even Napoleon had his Watergate.
Goldwynism: I want to make a picture about the Russian Secret Police: the GOP.
Yogi-ism: You can’t think and hit at the same time.
Goldwynism: If I look confused it is because I am thinking.
Yogi-ism: The only reason I need these gloves is ‘cause of my hands.
Goldwynism: Directors are always biting the hand that lays the golden egg.
The Eternal Question
Yogi-ism: I wish I had an answer to that, because I’m tired of answering that question.
Goldwyism: I challenge you to give me a frank, affirmative answer: yes or no.
Yogi-ism: Baseball’s different today, but it isn’t.
Goldwynism: Let’s bring it up to date with some snappy 19th-century dialogue.
The Impossible Dream
Yogi-ism: We were overwhelming underdogs.
Goldwynism: It’s absolutely impossible, but it has possibilities.
Yogi-ism: [after seeing Puccini’s Tosca] I really liked it. Even the music was good.
Goldwynism: This music won’t do. There’s not enough sarcasm in it.
Yogi-ism: If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.
Goldwynism: Our comedies are not to be laughed at.
But Yogi-isms and Goldwynisms are definitely to be laughed at. Sometimes the similarities are too close for comfort. The last one I offer appears to be the result of a mind meld:
Yogi-ism: Tony Perez is a big clog in their machine.
Goldwynism: [bidding farewell to a longtime employee] It always makes me very unhappy to say goodbye to a clog in my machine.
So there we have it. Truly, a gold mine for philologists. As Yogi once observed, after being informed that a Jew had been elected mayor of Dublin, Ireland, “Only in America.”
If only Samuel Goldwyn had worked on his breaking pitches and change-up! What a battery he and Yogi would have made! Just imagine the conversations they would have had on the mound.