Yogi Berra is arguably – let this be emphasized once again, arguably – the greatest player to ever wear a New York Yankees uniform. That reads completely opposite of the pinstriped hagiography where Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter are the most iconic Yankees of all time. Yet his individual accomplishments and the team success that followed are unparalleled, even for a franchise that seems to have written half of baseball’s history books.
Because he didn’t look straight from central casting and he had a funny way of expressing himself, Yogi’s story seemed to have been pushed to the margins until now. “It Ain’t Over,” a 90-minute documentary directed by Sean Mullin, is an informative, witty, and honest look into Berra’s life, serving to re-introduce his story as both a baseball legend and whimsical pitchman.
Earlier this month, Awful Announcing spoke with Mullin about making the film, gaining the trust of the Berra family and a military kinship that inspired Mullin to pursue the project.
Awful Announcing: Considering how long it has taken for Berra to get the documentary treatment, how did you gain his family’s trust to tell his story?
Sean Mullin: I wrote and directed my first scripted feature film. It was called Amira and Sam, a love story about an Army veteran and an Iraqi refugee in New York City. It came out in 2015 and the producers based in New York kept saying they wanted to work on something else but we weren’t sure what it was going to be. And so fast forward a couple of years at a charity golf event when one of them struck up a conversation with Dale Berra.
I’ll be honest, when I first got that phone call about the documentary, I was like “Wait a second. He seems too perfect. Like, what’s the story? What’s the narrative gonna be? I don’t wanna do it just to do it.” You know so much work to make these films. But the deeper I drove into his back story, the more I started to find out that he was criminally overlooked his entire life from childhood to his deathbed essentially, and that’s a narrative we could build around, so I hopped on board.
We didn’t start shooting until the spring of 2019 and we were really getting going until March 2020 when we shut down for a year because of the pandemic. We picked it back up in 2021, finished the film in 2022, premiered it in Tribeca (Film Festival) and sold it to Sony Pictures Classics.
AA: What stands out about your film is that it tells Yogi’s story without turning into a full-on documentary about the Yankees themselves, which could turn away fans who aren’t interested in more Yankee-related media. If anything, It Ain’t Over felt like an unflinching, honest sort of portrayal not just about Yogi’s life, but the good, the bad and the ugly with the Yankees. How would you view Yogi’s story as it relates to the typical Yankee storytelling?
Mullin: Most sports documentaries, I’d say over 90% by my estimate, at least are commissioned by either the team or there’s some sort of allegiance to some sort of a higher power, somebody else meddling. But this was a completely independent documentary. I had total and complete creative control, I had final cut, I had the ability to really tell the story I wanted to tell with no meddling at all from everybody. The Yankees did ultimately help out and MLB helped out a lot, ultimately by providing footage. But as far as the creative, the creative was completely up to me and my team, and so that allowed us to really just tell the authentic story of who this person was.
We didn’t want to make a hagiography. We kind of get into all sides of his story. And yes, he lived an incredible life but at a cost, with society thinking he was an idiot, with this idea that you can’t be funny and good, that he’s just a caricature. Nobody wants the jester to be king, and Yogi was both.
AA: For such a well-known public figure, his military history tends to be forgotten or at least overlooked. There’s a personal resonance with you as a veteran, so how important was it to highlight that as it related to his career?
Mullin: I had gone to West Point for college, I played rugby there and played football there. I served in the military – was in Germany for a couple of years and I finished my time in the New York National Guard. I was actually a first responder at Ground Zero on September 11, and ended up spending the better part of the next nine months as an officer charged with the soldiers at Ground Zero. I’d spend 12 hours a day doing that and I did stand up comedy and improv theater at night. So it’s a crazy time for me.
I learned that Yogi had a Yankees contract in hand, and he put that on hold to go volunteer and serve in World War II. He volunteered for a special boat mission, and he thought it had something to do with Buck Rogers because he was a big comic book guy. (Laughs.) But he ended up on the shores of Normandy on D-Day.
One of the traumatic things he had endured in his life was pulling his bodies out of the water the day after D-Day. And so just by the fact that he went through that kind of trauma before this illustrious career with the Yankees, I think it really set the tone. It really grounded him in a way that, you know, he could not be shaken. He was unflappable as the film shows. And that was something I really want to get out.
AA: It’s not very often that the narrator of a baseball documentary is a woman, and in the case of your film it’s not just any woman but Lindsay Berra, Yogi’s granddaughter. Her admiration for him leaps off the screen from start to finish. Considering the heavy hitters that appear in the film, how did you decide that she would be the voice of the film?
Mullin: Lindsay is a force of nature and Lindsay is incredible human being and she’s kind of is the torchbearer for Yogi. And when we started talking, when I initially set out to make this film, we were gonna have either Billy Crystal or maybe Bob Costas or someone else kind of narrate the film. But we just started to shoot as you do in documentaries, and kind of figure it out as you go. And we’re about a third of the way through shooting and I had so many wonderful conversations with Lindsay and I just called my producers up and said, “Hey, we need a team meeting.” And I get everybody on the call. “So I hope you guys are okay with this. But I think I’m gonna go with Lindsay as the narrator here, because she sets the perfect kind of vehicle for the audience to get into this story.”
AA: And it works quite well here as Lindsay makes her own family member the subject of a sports debate – calling back to the 2015 All-Star Game in Cincinnati where he’s inexplicably not included among the greatest living players at the time along with Johnny Bench, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax. In doing so, she sets the tone for the whole film about being overlooked, taken for granted or perhaps forgotten despite an incredible career.
Mullin: It’s important to note that we’re not we’re not trying to take anything away from those guys. But what she was trying to bring up was, “hey, he was still around, he should have been part of that conversation.” She told me the story a couple of times, and I was like, “let’s start the movie with that story lens. Let’s open the film with that story because that’s just a great way to crack open the shell.”
AA: Something else that stood out in how the story was told was the use of quotes from historical figures and contrasting that with his own (or those believed to be his own). It celebrates how his simple phrases say just as much as the grandest prose. Was this something that you set out to do from jump or did this come together in the process of filming?
Mullin: I’ve always been a fan of quotes and phrases. I think there are certain quotes that are kind of echoes of each other, they’re not identical, but you’ll find a lot of times people are saying pretty much the same thing, but in different ways. And so that’s kind of what we’re going for there.
People thought Yogi was dumb. He dropped out of school in eighth grade, and they thought he was an idiot. He didn’t speak perfect English. But we have an English professor coming to film and says just because he’s not saying things the way you think they should be said does not mean they’re not super profound. I wanted to put his quotes next to other similar quotes that are just as profound but are but are considered a little more erudite or educated.
AA: Another interesting wrinkle in It Ain’t Over was discovering that Yogi was far more progressive than younger folks would have expected. Yogi didn’t just befriend a legend such as Jackie Robinson or manage a diversifying baseball team, but he did things such as showing support for Athlete Ally in later years or took up causes near to historically oppressed groups in his own way. Considering the eras of society he came up in, was any of this a surprise to you or did you sense this was who he always was?
Mullin: Well, I think it comes down to the fact that he was just so authentic, and he just always did the right thing. Sometimes doing the right thing, it’s labeled as progressive and today’s hyper partisan politics, supporting minority groups. He talked to the President of the United States the same way he talked to the mailman, there was no difference. He treated everybody the same. And so the fact that he became a champion or supported different kinds of people all along the way was so ingrained in the fabric of him as a human being. He couldn’t imagine it any other way. And I think that’s one thing that just makes him so special.
AA: All directors have something they wished to include in their documentaries but had to cut for the sake of time. What do you wish you kept in the film?
Mullin: Oh, my goodness, yes! If I could just let the whole 90-minute interview with Billy Crystal roll and just do that. That’s a whole other movie on its own and you just sit in his backyard. You know, that was amazing. Just the fact that I was able to sit down with Vin Scully, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Bob Costas, and you know, all these incredible, incredible people. And Joe Maddon – I love that guy, man. He’s probably the most underutilized person I have in the film, and his interview is incredible. And those are just the interview subjects.
But then, even on the Yogi side, his best friend was Phil Rizzuto. He’s barely in the film, right? Yogi managed the Astros, and they never really got in the film. I come from the narrative kind of screenwriting kind of background and I had to look at his life holistically – okay, these are the three acts this is what I can fit into this screenplay, so to speak. Some stuff is gonna stay in, some stuff was gonna have to go.
AA: Finally, it was hard not to notice that there are quite a few people in the film who are no longer with us, including Yogi. Because this was filmed over a couple of years, how does it feel to watch it in retrospect now?
Mullin: Yeah, it’s very sobering to realize that you’ve made a film with a handful of people who are going to be in that film forever and part of your legacy, and they’re unfortunately not here to see it. And so it did take five years to make this film, but the upside of that is we were able to capture a lot of people’s last moments. And I think it might have been the last interview with Vin Scully and just to be able to sit with him in the owner’s box of Dodger Stadium to talk about Yogi Berra for 30 minutes was a highlight of my life.
Available only in theaters, It Ain’t Over opened in New York and Los Angeles and is now opening in major markets across the country.