There are three kinds of baseball fans: those that know Yogi Berra as an 18-time All-Star and 3-time MVP, those that know Yogi was an old catcher, and those that simply don’t know the player (this group is the other two’s favorite because now they get to talk about Yogi). It’s an unfortunate fact of life that most English speakers will fall into that last category, but nearly everybody falls into a final group, that’s a person who knows a Yogi-ism.
- It’s déjà vu all over again
- When you come to a fork in the road, take it
- Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t go to yours
- If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up somewhere else
And most famously:
- It ain’t over ‘till it’s over
This phrase has become a fixture in our culture, ending up in countless movies, songs, any number of political speeches (politicians love their aw-shucks expressions), to Star Trek, and video games. It even shows up in academia with fancy published papers like It ain’t over till it’s over: A global perspective on the Great Moderation-Great Recession interconnection. Which, I suppose, you gotta add some seasoning to make the Factor-Augmented Vector Autoregressive model sound exciting. Props to them.
This culturally ingrained knowledge makes what I’m about to suggest as sacrilegious to baseball as a starting runner on second in extras or the Designated Hitter in the National League: Yogi Berra never said, “It ain’t over till it’s over”.
It’s the last day of July 1973. A cool summer evening as far as The Bronx goes at 79 degrees.
The Mets, led by Yankee legend turned manager Yogi Berra, just dropped a game to Pittsburgh 1-4. It was ordinary. Willie Mays in the final campaign of a 22-year campaign went hitless with 2 K’s for New York. Dock Ellis, he of LSD infamy, went 6 innings for Pittsburgh, and Ramon Hernandez – with a 202 ERA+ the prior season – finished them off. Together they limited the hapless Mets to only 4 hits and Yogi’s team fell to 44-57, 11.5 games behind St. Louis in the NL East. Dead as a door-nail.
Whatever’s left of the 24,322 fans that purchased tickets wander out of Shea and the players go through their post-game routine. It’s still the early 1970s, so three or four beers were likely cracked open while half undressed ballplayers stewed in yet another four-game losing streak, not their first nor last of the ’73 season. Outside the privacy of the clubhouse, Yogi Berra stood next to reporters and said something extraordinary about the season: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
“That was my answer to a reporter when I was managing the New York Mets in July 1973.” The manager wrote in his 1998 astutely named book: The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said. The prophet Yogi proved that there was a sense in his mystifying words. Those ’73 Mets rebounded from thirteen games under .500 in September to ultimately represent the National League in the World Series before falling in seven games to the Oakland Athletics.
That miraculous turnaround sparked the famous Yogi-ism into American folklore spreading as far as our Cold War sphere of influence could reach.
The Deep, Dark Truth
Of all the Yogi-isms out there, it ain’t over till it’s over is his most famous proverb – and it’s widely recognized Yogi said those words sometime during the 1973 season. Only, there’s no actual evidence. No quote in the Times. Nothing in the Post or Sports Illustrated or the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review or Teen Vogue, those words are nowhere to be found!
The book Yogi: The Life and Times of an American Original has the closest origin to the phrase, writing that on September 4th, 1973, “The New York Post ran a headline saying, ‘Time is Running Out on the Mets.’ When asked if time was indeed running out, Berra replied, ‘Yeah, it’s running out, but you’re still not out of it until it’s automatic.'”
“You’re still not out of it until it’s automatic.” The seeds of the great truism are evident, but nobody is going to confuse this statement for the refined Yogi-ism we have today. It lacks panache. It’s a little Texas leaguer compared to a moonshot, a K versus an emphatic punchout. Maybe I’m being pedantic in wanting a word-for-word origin story, but baseball is a group of people still arguing over how many hits Cap Anson had 120 years ago and which formula best describes the effectiveness of a pitcher. This is what we do. It’s fun.
So here we go.
With the Mets trying to recapture the magic of the World Series run the following season, a New York Times article penned another variation of Yogi’s 1973 quote, “[Yogi] is not yet ready to admit that this year’s Mets can’t repeat. ‘You’re not out of it… until you’re out of it.'” That’s considerably closer than “out until it’s automatic” but not quite there.
In 1974, a Cincinnati Enquirer piece by Bob Hertzel wrote, “…in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, ‘The game’s not over ’til it’s over.'” Here we have the first firm nugget of the word-for-word quote. Switch a few words and add a contraction or two and we have it! Though, it’s not exactly right. The Yogi-ism is still taking shape somewhere in our collective minds.
Jump forward to 1978 and the New York Times comes tantalizingly close, like a ball tailing off on the wrong side of the foul pole, “‘It’s never over until it’s over’ Yogi Berra once said.” We’re splitting hairs at this point, but missing those keywords would be as if someone said, “Today, I consider myself the most fortunate man on the face of the earth.” It conveys the exact same meaning, sure, but panache is missing!
The first time that exact phrase appeared in print – at least in the New York Times that I can pin down – was in 1982 when Joe Lieberman, (yes, future Senator Joe Lieberman at the time,) said of the Attorney General’s race, “As Yogi Berra said, ‘it ain’t over till it’s over.’” Proving again that politics loves the aw-shucks nature of Yogi quotes – but that’s a different article. This becomes the first ample evidence of the famed quote word-for-word, though it’s still misquoted (how to misquote a quote that was never said?) from time to time through that decade, like in a Dear Abbey column of all places saying “the game isn’t over until it’s over”.
It was in some grey area during the late ’80s that the saying finally solidified its precise vocabulary. Nic Cage’s Moonstruck in 1987 has the exact quote. In ’88 President Ronald Reagan has all the right words, and it culminates in Lenny Kravitz’s 1991 album titled, you guessed it, It ain’t over till it’s over. Twenty years of careful calibration and the legendary true-ism is finally set, and in the ’90s the quote takes off and shows up everywhere.
Call it linguistic form or the etymology of Yogi, but whatever mystifying black box famous phrases go through to achieve their final form, it’s clear as mud that Yogi is the rightful owner of this one. Even if he never really said everything he said.
This was in no way meant to diminish the greatness of Yogi, it’s only fitting that a legend should have legends of his own, after all. For a fuller look at Yogi Berra, I strongly suggest taking 8 minutes out of your day to watch this MLB Network remembrance from 2015.
Photo by James Escher / Icon Sportswire | Design by Daniel Pearson (@persondaniel)