The main brief of "It Ain't Over," a lively, engaging and moving documentary, is more or less stated upfront by a friendly but mildly indignant Lindsay Berra, a granddaughter of its subject, baseball player Yogi Berra.
She recalls watching the 2015 All Star Game with her granddad. On hand that day at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati were four special guests deemed the greatest living players: Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays. All legends, to be sure. But Berra, in crucial respects a humble man, felt snubbed, as did Lindsay. Because the movie makes a very credible case that Berra was as great a player as any of them.
The reason he didn't make this cut, Lindsay believes, is that Yogi's boyish, generous personality had come to overshadow his prodigious skill. As Sean Mullin's documentary points out: As a catcher for the New York Yankees, Berra was awarded Most Valuable Player three times during that team's remarkable dominance of the game in the 1950s. He was an All-Star for 15 consecutive seasons, and he collected 10 World Series rings.
But Berra cut a different figure from baseball heroes of the day. He had an easy grin and read comic books in the locker room. Only 5 feet 7 inches tall, he wasn't big and strapping like Joe DiMaggio. "Everything about him was round," says Roger Angell, one of several sportswriters interviewed here. (Plenty of players chime in, including Derek Jeter, who reflects on Berra's deceptively simple advice: "When you see a strike, hit it.")
And for all that, he was a phenomenal player. While he didn't become a catcher until he joined the Yankees, his mental acuity, discipline and intense training from coach Bill Dickey, plus his own relatively low center of gravity, made him ideal in the position. Yes, you read "mental acuity" correctly. A good catcher has to carry the whole equation of the game in his head.
The movie's account of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, in which Berra caught pitcher Don Larsen's perfect game — the only no-hitter in World Series history until last year, and the more recent accomplishment took three different pitchers — is a thrilling demonstration of Berra's baseball genius.
He was also a devoted family man, married for 65 years to Carmen Berra; his extravagantly affectionate and charmingly repetitive love letters to her are read aloud here. And he was a war hero — he was on a rocket boat off Normandy on D-Day, and while he was wounded, he didn't apply for a Purple Heart because he didn't want to worry his mother.
Berra's exemplary life is animated by the inevitable trotting out of his folksy malapropisms known as Yogi-isms. The movie's title comes from one, "It ain't over 'til it's over," which nobody, apparently, is sure Berra ever uttered. But the best of them, when you really turn them over, are as profound as Zen parables: "If you can't imitate him, don't copy him."
Only an original like Berra could come up with that.