Yogi Berra Suing Over Yogi Bear? Take It With a Grin of Salt

Time to debunk a myth while showing the baseball star's legal connection to 'Sex and the City.'
AP
Yogi Berra

On Tuesday, Yogi Berra died at the age of 90. The baseball legend was undoubtedly a cultural icon for, among other things, the many malapropisms attributed sometimes falsely to him.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

With this in mind, we'd thought it would be fun to explore a legend about Berra making the rounds today. BBC and Slate included it in their memorials, for instance. It has to do with the Hall of Famer supposedly suing Hanna-Barbera Productions over its Yogi Bear character. As Wikipedia currently tells what happened, "Berra sued Hanna-Barbera for defamation, but their management claimed that the similarity of the names was just a coincidence. Berra withdrew his suit, but the defense was considered implausible, and sources now report that Berra was the inspiration for the name."

Proving a negative is tough. We tried to reach out to one of Berra's longtime attorneys, but got nowhere. We checked court records and couldn't find it. But according to Warner Bros., which owns the work of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, the lawsuit never happened, though it is true that Hanna-Barbera asserted a coincidence. We were even provided a quote from Barbera, who died in 2006.

"I've often been asked if Yogi Bear was a deliberate reference to the irrepressible Yogi Berra," he said. "My answer is that no deliberate reference was intended — Yogi Bear doesn't play baseball, and Yogi Berra was not passionate about pic-a-nic baskets — but, undoubtedly, the sound of the name was awash in our collective unconscious at a time when Yogi Berra was a very popular figure. As a matter of fact, Yogi Berra's first name was actually Lawrence."

Not convinced? Well, how about quote from Berra himself in the August 10, 1963 edition of the Long Beach Press-Telegram?

"Television is big enough for both me and Yogi Bear," he said. "I was going to sue the Yogi Bear program for using my name, until somebody reminded me Yogi isn't my real name — it's Lawrence."

So maybe he came close, but never pulled the trigger. Then again, three years earlier, he told the same newspaper that he had never heard of the cartoon character until his kids discovered it. "My kids love it because they say the bear reminds them of their old man," said Berra, hardly sounding like someone who was claiming his reputation was hurt.

Interestingly, had The Huckleberry Hound Show come out years later instead of 1958, we imagine it would have been in some legal trouble. Not because of defamation. Rather, perhaps because of rights of publicity, a state-based statute that started gaining popularity in the 1960s (ironically, due in part to the boom in baseball cards) protecting an individual's name, image and likeness (with latitude for transformative works).

In the later portion of his life, Berra took advantage of such laws protecting his name.

One lawsuit he did in fact file (here's proof) was against Turner Broadcasting System, Conde Nast Publications, Hearst and other media outlets. In late 2003, TBS had just bought the right to air episodes of Sex and the City in syndication. In an ad campaign that ran in Vanity Fair, Glamour, Lucky, O, and other magazines, as well as in New York City subways and on buses, one of the show's stars was pictured with the following text:

"Yogasm:

a) a type of yo-yo trick

b) sex with Yogi Berra

c) what Samantha has with a guy from Yoga class"

Not too long after Berra filed the lawsuit in 2005, TBS turned around and sued its ad firm for indemnification. By the end of the year, the case was settled. As Berra never said, "It’s déjà vu all over again!”

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