When I had my pharmacy Wilt Chamberlain walked in one day. I had my head down and when I looked up, I thought a tree had made its way into the store. He was wearing a cropped tank top and I found myself staring into his belly button. In my brief conversation he told me he was returning from a volleyball game. At 7 ft. 1 it seemed unfair but then again Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could look down on him. Now I’m wondering what it must be like to see the world from that angle.
Yogi Berra was with the New York Yankees for eighteen years as a player. He stood at 5 ft. 7 in. In fact, his position as catcher lowered him another couple of feet to approximately 3 ft. 7 in. He spent his time situated between the umpire and the batter at a level with their belly buttons. From that crouched perch he looked at his teammates in the way conductors, with their backs to the audience, observed their orchestra.
As Berra said, You can observe a lot by watching. He did a lot of watching and orchestrating. From almost down in the dirt he was grounded in common sense. Some of his wisdom can only be understood as inside baseball talk as when asked what to do about a teammate’s batting slump. Berra’s answer was, Try swinging at strikes.
Translation: Only commit to what IS hittable; don’t chase bad balls. The pitcher will know this and you will never see a strike again. Or to put it another way, seize what you can and don’t waste your time running after foolish stuff or you will strike out. It doesn’t matter that Yogi didn’t follow his own advice; he was probably the best bad-ball hitter in the game.
Books have been written about all his pithy pieces of wisdom, many of which he says he never said. Maybe that is the ultimate honor to have words attributed to you which you might have said but didn’t.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is also a valued voice. At his height, 7 ft. 2 inches, he is closer to the gods of Mt. Olympus. He has gone on, after his basketball days were over, to become an author, historian and spokesman for Civil Rights issues. He has transcended those days as the highest scorer in the history of professional basketball. He contends that his mind is his greatest resource.
Yogi wrote that one cannot think and hit at the same time. It takes a fine mind to make such a statement. Berra is referring to all those failures in the batter’s box who tried to outthink the pitcher. They would be advised to rely on their muscle memory and not take themselves out of the moment to analyze what they were doing wrong.
Both Yogi and Kareem exceeded their dimensions. They saw things from a different latitude. The statistics they posted may never be reached again but they have achieved a life even beyond those numbers.
One was a common man whose utterances have become immortalized as the epitome of common sense, awkwardly expressed. Berra was an imp who played tall and saw with a street-smart erudition tapping into a larger humanity. Listeners come away scratching their heads and nodding in agreement.
Abdul-Jabbar is that rare combination of a scholar-athlete whose lofty words have a special ring of truth, whose perspective is not often articulated. His sky-hook shot was unstoppable. His insights come from the rarefied air he breathes.