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A new PBS documentary on Yogi Berra drops the ball

In David Halberstam's Summer of '49, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author spins a sharply detailed narrative of one of baseball's most phenomenal seasons, the year the two bitterest rivals in the American League — Ted Williams' Boston Red Sox and Joe DiMaggio's New York Yankees — met on the final day of the season to decide the pennant. Halberstam's portrait of the complex personalities that came together in an epic summer of struggle is as tightly woven and dramatic as The Iliad. Halberstam is a master quick-sketch artist, outlining a character and his relationship to those around him in a few revealing anecdotes.

For example, according to Halberstam, when the pride of St. Louis' Hill neighborhood, Yogi Berra, joined the Yankees, he was a powerful hitter but lacked agility behind the plate. Management brought back former catcher Bill Dickey to tutor Berra, "particularly on his footwork," writes Halberstam. "Sometimes from a distance they looked like two lovers at an Arthur Murray's studio."

Halberstam's sketch of Berra is a mere four-and-a-half pages, and in it there is more curious detail than to be found in the one-hour special Yogi Berra: Déjà Vu All Over Again, to be aired on KETC (Channel 9) at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 10. Even with the esti-mable Bob Costas acting as host, Déjà Vu fails to reveal any new insight into one of baseball's most colorful and adorable figures. Rather than explore the baseball lore you don't know — Berra's transformation from journeyman to all-star catcher or his handling of pitchers — the program gives you what you know already: Berra's a sweet, funny guy who took some hard knocks but persevered.

The filmmakers try to get cute, when Berra is the last person you need to get cute with: For example, they place the aging Hall of Famer in a chair at home plate, reading from a book of tips on catching that a ghost writer scribed for him decades ago. The result is more foolish than comic. You know something is very wrong when Billy Crystal shows up to provide a fan's perspective. Berra, a player who suffered (and prospered) from caricature throughout his career, deserves a fuller portrait.

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