Features, Film, Interview

INTERVIEW: Sean Mullin and Lindsay Berra on ‘IT AIN’T OVER’

Opens Friday, 5/19


One would think Yogi Berra’s stats would speak for themselves: 10-time World Series Champion, 18-time American League All-Star, three-time AL MVP winner, member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. As the catcher for the New York Yankees from 1946 to 1963, Berra more than earned his status as a national icon whose whole list of achievements on the field is far, far too long to list here.

But while the names of his teammates Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle have in themselves become shorthand for their respective eras of baseball, Lawrence “Yogi” Berra, who died in 2015 at 90 years old, is perhaps better remembered as a product spokesman and, most of all, for his goofy, redundancy-laden quotations affectionately dubbed “Yogi-isms”: “It’s déjà vu all over again,” “Ninety percent of the game is half mental,” and, most famously, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

It’s the latter that gave a name to It Ain’t Over, a new documentary on Berra opening May 19 at the AMC theaters in Boston Common, Framingham and the Liberty Tree Mall. Directed by Sean Mullin (Kings of Beer) and executive produced and narrated by Berra’s granddaughter, sportswriter Lindsay Berra, It Ain’t Over seeks to reclaim the Yankee’s legacy from the oft disparaging and misleading public image that portrayed him as unintelligent and oafish, instead reminding audiences and baseball fans of his athletic prowess, wit and infectious charm.

Supported by interviews with family, friends and admirers – including Bob Costas, Don Mattingly, Billy Crystal and Derek Jeter – It Ain’t Over covers the span of Yogi Berra’s life and his storied playing career including highlights like catching the only perfect game in World Series history (1956, pitched by Don Larson), as well as his support for civil rights and friendship with Jackie Robinson. The doc also spends considerable time on Berra’s post-playing career as a manager and coach, taking the 1969 ‘Miracle Mets’ to a title, and his 14-year long feud with former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (who in his own twist of fate is maybe more fondly remembered these days as a side character on Seinfeld, but that’s another argument).

Sean Mullin and Lindsay Berra spoke with Boston Hassle about the film, the conscious construction of Yogi’s public persona, his lifelong friendships with other baseball legends, and their favorite Yogi plays. Lindsay also discusses why Yogi disdained a certain pic-a-nic basket thieving bear and the failure to protect his nickname from infringement, dropping something akin to a Yogi-ism of her own in the process: “If it would happen today, that wouldn’t happen.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BOSTON HASSLE: The film’s central thesis is about how Yogi Berra’s cultural image has overshadowed his legacy as a player, and the ‘Yogi-isms’ seem to have played a big role in defining that public persona. But the film is also named for one and you feature them prominently throughout, including a running gag where you contrast them with, shall we say, more intellectual quotations from historical figures. From a filmmaking perspective, how did you approach integrating that aspect of Yogi’s life while maintaining a balance with his athletic achievements?

SEAN MULLIN: I think for me personally, as a filmmaker, the films I am most interested in making are films where there’s some sort of conflict between perception and reality, and those are the types of topics I look out for. There was really no better example of a conflict between perception and reality than with Yogi, so I sunk my teeth into that disparity. I made sure that the entire film was built around that central conflict. I didn’t want to make a baseball movie, I didn’t want to make a sports movie, I just wanted to make a movie about a life well lived while also finding a way to clarify the record that he was inarguably one of the greatest players to ever step on a diamond.

BH: Lindsay, the film goes into how Yogi and your family had a complex relationship with the pop culture depictions of him. I was even a little surprised to learn he took so much offense to the Yogi Bear cartoon. But then there’s also things – like the baseball comics, That Touch of Mink, the Yoo-Hoo ads – where he was more directly involved and they came across in the film as more nostalgic. What are the distinctions between those depictions of him and some of the items that you aren’t a fan of?

LINDSAY BERRA: I think the Yogi Bear thing was just so obviously mocking him, like when you put up something with ‘two plus two equals three,’ it’s just blatantly calling him dumb, and I don’t think my grandfather was dumb at all. When you use the Yogi-isms to market other things, most of the Yogi-isms, if you’re willing to see past the initial silliness of them, they’re really kind of genius, and I don’t think any of us have any problem with that. At the end of the day, my father [Larry Berra] actually loves the Yogi Bear cartoons, too.

But I think that had trademarking been a thing then and had grandpa trademarked his nickname– Nowadays, like remember when J.Lo had her butt insured, everything is protected (Ed. Note: Jennifer Lopez has denied that she insured her butt). But back then, nicknames were not and I think if it would happen today, that wouldn’t happen. There wouldn’t be a Yogi Bear cartoon if there was a figure like Yogi Berra, because they just wouldn’t be able to get away with it.

But the other ones, the commercials later (in his life), I don’t want to give anyone the impression that grandpa was not a willing participant in those commercials. I think he knew that it made good business sense to do those and he really did lean into that part of his personality as he got older. His best year in the big leagues he made $60,000, and that was only one year, most years it was around $45,000, which was a decent living back then, but he wasn’t a bajillionaire by today’s standards. And he’d grown up super poor on The Hill in St. Louis and knew the importance of saving and having a reserve; he had three kids, he was sending money home. And it’s like I said, those things just made good business sense for him, so later in life he did really lean into that.

BH: I thought one of the most interesting moments in the doc was when you spoke to the ad copywriter who wrote a number of those things he never said. It’s interesting hearing you talk about how he did lean into that image and I’m curious about a sense of ownership that might come with that as well, him being able to control and guide that image.

SM: Being able to speak with people who distorted his image was really important to me, and yeah, that woman in particular was a real character. But she loved Yogi. Even though she was kind of playing into this caricature image of him, she adored Yogi and it was a pride of her career. I think it’s important to show all those sides of it, and even his best friend Joe Garagiola would make stuff up and feed into this idea that he was a joker. The thing with society is it’s hard to be both funny and good, comedies don’t win the Oscar and there’s a reason for that. I think society’s very uncomfortable with you being both funny and good and Yogi was the jester, but he was also the king.

BH: The film goes into a lot of detail of his friendships with players like Don Larson and Jackie Robinson, but one area you didn’t quite touch on as much was his relationship with some of those bigger Yankees stars that he played alongside, like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. What were those relationships like and did that media coverage at the time that was more favorable to them, but more backhanded towards Yogi, ever affect those relationships on or off the field?

LB: No, I would say it didn’t affect those relationships at all. When I was a kid, Mickey, Phil Rizzuto, Hank Bauer, Moose Skowron, Eddie Lopat, Gil McDougald – they were all around the house all the time. They were playing grandpa’s golf tournament every year, they’d come in a few days early for barbecues. I grew up with these guys. Those were friendships that were really lifelong. Grandpa was a pallbearer at Mickey’s funeral; I remember crying like a baby the morning I found out that Mickey passed away. Phil Rizzuto was in an assisted living facility about 45 minutes from our house and grandpa was driving down there every night to sit with him until Phil fell asleep. Those were lifelong friendships.

Honestly, the stuff that happened in the press, those guys knew how valuable grandpa was to that team and I think they knew that he was the engine. He was the catcher, he’s involved in every play, he calls every pitch. Whitey Ford talks about not calling him off over a seven year period. They knew how important he was to the team and they were also just really good friends. They spent so much time together, you know these were train rides, not plane rides, back then so they were together all the time. My dad was talking the other day about how after Saturday afternoon games they would all go back to my grandparents’ house where Grammy and Grandpa had a pool and they’d have a big barbecue, and if you were driving by you might be lucky enough to see Mickey Mantle throwing a football with kids on the front yard. So no, I don’t think the disproportionate press affected their friendships in any way at all.

BH: Speaking about his personal life, there’s a good deal of rare footage in the movie, not just the games, but also the home movies and other behind the scenes clips. How much archive footage did you have to work with and what was your approach to editing it?

SM: All credit there goes to Julian Robinson, our editor and co-producer. Julian just absolutely went above and beyond sourcing all this material. We had multiple archival producers on the project, I think three or four over the course of almost four-and-a-half, five years. So it was thousands and thousands of hours.

As the director and as a writer, I’m very proud of taking a writing credit on this film. I made sure this was a WGA-covered project and the Writer’s Guild is on strike right now, so it’s actually really important to me to say the importance of writing, because for me the writing is the structure, it’s the three acts, it’s the eight sequences.

BH: Derek Jeter jokes in the film about telling Yogi that his 10 World Series rings would be “more like five” by today’s standards, to which Yogi responds by telling him to come over to his house and count them. But it brings up an interesting point about the span of Yogi’s life in baseball. In the time from his meeting Babe Ruth up through mentoring players like Jeter in the 2000s, the game and the business of MLB changed drastically. For someone who was always so quintessentially himself, what was it about his personality and his approach to the game that helped him to adapt and stay so involved over the decades, particularly as he moved from player to manager to coach to mentor?

SM: That childlike love of the game, maybe?

LB: Yeah, I mean, he really just loved baseball.

There’s a Yogi-ism, “When it comes to baseball, you don’t know nothing,” and I don’t think he ever stopped learning. If you think you know everything, that’s when you’re gonna stagnate and not be able to progress in the game, but I think that he was always just open to learning what he didn’t know. And he was super humble, as much of a superstar as he was, he never thought that he was better than anyone else. I think that was part of what contributed to that staying power, the fact that he’d been there and done it and met all of those people. But he wasn’t a big ego guy and he didn’t push that on folks.

Then when you get into the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s and the game is evolving, he was open to learning what’s going on in the new game and adapting to the time. I don’t know that he’d love the big bases so much, but you know, such is life.

BH: How would he have liked the pitch clock?

LB: The pitch clock is interesting. I feel like he thought a lot of guys took way too long. I feel like he would think that the need for a pitch clock was kind of sad, but I don’t know that he would dislike the clock itself.

BH: I was reading some of the other interviews you’ve both done for the film so far, and I noticed you’ve been asked a lot what your favorite Yogi-isms are. But in the spirit of the film and his legacy as an athlete, I’m curious what are your favorite Yogi moments on the field?

LB: I think it’s amazing that he hits a home run in his first big league game, that just doesn’t really happen. And then he hit another one the second day. That’s pretty cool. The iconic image of grandpa jumping into Don Larson’s arms is obviously a favorite.

Oh, there’s a photo that’s in the movie of grandpa tagging out Ted Williams at home plate. He dove to tag Ted and he’s actually still suspended in the air, he hasn’t hit the ground yet, and he’s got his eyes up looking at second base. So he’s tagged Ted, has not landed, and he’s already looking to see if he can make another play behind the one that he just made. I’m not even sure what game that was, but you freeze that moment in time and it says so much about grandpa as a player and how heads up he was on the field. I think that was a really cool photo that we were able to include in the film. And we are in Boston right now.

He had so many home runs in game sevens, like there’s so many moments that are just really incredible. There would be a called strike three and when he catches the ball he leaps out of his crouch like it’s the happiest he’s ever been in his life. It could be just a random strike three, not to win a game! He just had so much fun playing baseball and I think that really comes through.

SM: This is gonna be an odd one, but it says something about his character, and it didn’t make the film. But in his last game as a professional ballplayer, it was only the second time in his career he struck out three times in one game. He was with the Mets in 1965, and it was only a few games into the season.

LB: May 10, 1965, two days before his 40th birthday.

SM: He strikes out three times in the game, and that was so unbearable for him that he retired before the game ended. He just walked off. It just says a lot about his character and who he was that he wasn’t gonna allow himself to continue on like that.

LB: Three times on the same pitch. Tony Cloninger fastballs.

BH: Since we are in Boston, my dad’s a lifelong Red Sox fan so you’d have to draw blood from a stone before you could get him to say a nice word about the Yankees. But I told him I was doing this interview and he was like ‘Oh, I loved Yogi Berra.’

SM: Red Sox fans are liking the movie, by the way!

LB: Grandpa loved Ted Williams, when he saw Johnny Pesky he would actually kiss the man. He had such great friendships with so many of the Red Sox.

SM: I think the game was different, I think the sportsmanship was different all around. I mean, there’s this really great shot in the movie where after a World Series game you’ve got Yogi and Jackie Robinson arm-in-arm hugging and laughing with each other, palling around. That type of sportsmanship doesn’t really exist these days.

BH: Yeah, it really doesn’t.

LB: Also, tell your dad that my dad, Larry Berra, Yogi’s oldest son, is a lifelong Red Sox fan.

BH: Oh really? He’ll love that!

LB: He loved Ted Williams as a kid and grandpa used to let him go into the other clubhouse and see Ted when the Red Sox ran, mostly because my dad and my uncle Tim used to annoy the shit out of Mickey Mantle and grandpa was like “Get out of here, go bother Ted.”

And Ted didn’t really like a lot of people, he’s famously cantankerous. But he really liked my dad and my dad ended up playing for his Cape Cod League in Cotuit. He went to his baseball camps when he was a kid and my dad became this kind of closet Red Sox fan as a child. And then when grandpa had his feud with Steinbrenner, my dad became a very out-of-the-closet Red Sox fan. Now he’s like a weirdo. He goes to the ballpark with a Yankees cap and a Red Sox pullover and people think there’s something wrong with him.

It Ain’t Over
Dir. Sean Mullin
98 min.

It Ain’t Over opens Friday, 5/19 at AMC Boston Common, AMC Framingham and AMC Liberty Tree.

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