Written by Mark Piebenga (Staff) — You can read and learn much more about Mark at www.wikipiebenga.com.
I think that about a third of a being good improvisor is being an invested human being. Another third of it is being a good listener. And then the final third is being a real weirdo, having a unique point of view.
In honor of the opening week of baseball season, today I’m going to focus on two of the funnest, weirdest points of view I’ve encountered lately. They came up through rewatching that Ken Burns Baseball documentary. Inning 7, chronicling the 1950s, absolutely kills me. (In a good way, but it also in a bad way, considering the Yankees success, on which more later.)
Something about the ’50s really gets me. The Brooklyn Dodgers finally win a Series. The country is idyllic, but rife with social issues which would explode in the ‘60s. Things were perfect, but so terribly off. Though it was published in 1963, I think part of my fascination with the era may well come from the voice of J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, which I read not necessarily every year, but frequently. Rightly or wrongly, I equate his writing style with a very ‘50s sensibility. (That book speaks less to me now than when I first read it at twenty-three, the age of the narrator, but I still sure do like it.) There’s something innocent but also depraved about that whole time period, and about that story. The weird wholesomeness juxtaposed against impending tragedy.
The best parts of Inning 7, for me, are people (primarily sportswriter Robert Creamer) retelling anecdotes and quotes from the Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra, and the Yankees manager, Casey Stengal. While both already have solidly cemented reputations as quintessential malaprop artists (Yogi ever more so thanks to Aflac commercials, Seinfeld, and other pop culture detritus), it really is worth checking out some of the chestnuts these guys were both dropping on a (presumably) regular basis. If you’ve seen it recently you’ll have to bear with me, as much of the info below is lifted from the movie. But it’s worth it because honestly I think their individual points of view were so unique and great that they could have both made tremendous improvisers at some point.
Stengal (nickname: The Ol’ Perfessor) was famous for what sportswriters dubbed “Stengalese,” a brand of speech full of impenetrable doubletalk that had an undeniable underlying sense, a method to the madness. As noted in the film, he’d been in baseball since 1910, and was made famous for a game-winning, inside-the-park homerun in the 1923 World Series. From 1949 to 1960, he managed the Wankees to ten pennants and seven World Series titles. Some of his quotes:
Alright, everybody line up alphabetically according your height.
I made up my mind but I made it up both ways.
Most people my age are dead at the present time.
Creamer: Al Lopez, managing the Indians in the ’50s, was going to come down the stretch using just three pitchers. Somebody told Stengal about this, and he said, “Well. Well. Well…I’d heard it couldn’t be done, but it don’t always work.”
There’s a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them.
Creamer also recounts, “There was once a big hitter named Bob Serve. Stengal came out of the clubhouse, sat down ten feet down the bench from him. Stengal turned and said, ‘There’s not many people that know this, but one of us has been traded to Kansas City.’ There went Serve.”
Now that I reread the quips here I can see that he would have been a big scene-stealing joke-forcer. But with some proper training by the likes of Allen, Cackowski, Jagodowski, and Gregoropolous, no doubt he could have been taught to do scenework.
Lawrence Peter Berra’s weird body (which earned him his nickname “because he just walked like a yogi”) was initially thought imperfect for baseball. “One critic said that he played like the bottom man on an unemployed acrobatic team.” Another coach called him, “The Ape.” However, he proved to be a great hitter, tremendously agile, and one of the best catchers in the history of the game. He once went 148 games, 959 chances, without an error. A three-time American League MVP, he anchored that Stengal-Yankees dynasty, catching an unbelievable 75 World Series games with a record 71 W.S. hits. His quips would have been equally great scene-starters:
After flunking a high school test his teachers asked him, “Don’t you know anything?” He’d say, “I don’t even suspect anything.”
“If fans don’t want to come out to the park, nobody’s going to stop them.”
“90% of hitting is mental, the other half is physical.”
When the wife of the mayor of New York said he looked very cool in his new summer suit, Yogi replied, “Thanks. You don’t look so hot yourself.”
Asked what he would do if he found a million dollars, he said, “If the guy was poor, I’d give it back to him.
Criticized that he was not the author of all his attributed maxims, quoth Berra, “I didn’t say half the things I’ve said.”
An improv connection: we can’t possibly keep track of everything said. In a time when it’s apparently important to “find one’s voice” for the purpose of generating “buzz” and “traction” and “heat” and “web presence,” I think it’s valuable to listen to real, iconic voices. They spoke for themselves, they spoke in paradoxes, and they spoke hilariously. Here’s to speaking well, with a true voice, and here’s to opening day of the national pastime.
 My friend Rocky is fond of recounting a Carl and the Passions show that focused on an old-timey baseball team. In a group scene, each of the players had a soliloquy about a personal fear, most related to the game, or even more trivial matters. Cacky’s: “If my cronies find out I’m one-sixteenth Cherokee, I’m done for!”