When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It

Yogi Berra? Apocryphal?

yogifork01Dear Quote Investigator: Yogi Berra was a brilliant baseball player and manager. He is also famous for his comically wise sayings which are known as ‘Yogiisms’. This is my favorite on the topic of making decisions:

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

Is this an authentic Yogiism?

Quote Investigator: This precise quotation was printed in the salient 1998 work “The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!”, and its author Yogi Berra provided some context for his statement: 1

I was giving Joe Garagiola directions from New York to our house in Montclair when I said this.

Garagiola was a long-time friend of Berra and a fellow baseball player.

Intriguingly, this same statement was used as part of a joke that was printed in several U.S. newspapers one hundred years ago in 1913. The humor was based on wordplay and referenced the additional meaning of ‘fork’ as a dining utensil: 2 3

Wise Directions

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
“I will, if it is a silver one.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In September 1988 an Auburn, New York newspaper printed a statement from a business manager who tentatively attributed the saying to Yogi Berra. This is the earliest linkage to Berra located by QI: 4

“As a manager, I love using a quote alleged to that wise old sage, Yogi Berra: ‘When you come to the fork in the road, take it!’ It helps our department lighten up the load when we face a difficult decision.”

In 1989 an autobiography titled “Yogi: It Ain’t Over” was released by Yogi Berra with Tom Horton. Within the first chapter Berra discussed the large and diverse set of sayings that have been credited to him over the years. He identified some of the ascriptions as spurious, and he expressed uncertainty about whether or not he had spoken the saying under investigation. The citations in 1989 and 1998 indicate that his opinion shifted: 5

“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I really don’t know about that one. The commencement speaker at Arizona State used that in his speech last year. Somebody sent me the student newspaper. The Dartmouth College student newspaper called a big meeting on campus “A Yogi Berra Affair.” The reason I thought it was funny is that I didn’t finish high school, and now college people use something I said, or maybe never said, to make a point.

In 1991 the saying continued to circulate. For example, it was printed in a newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: 6

Or, as the great bard, Yogi Berra, has advised, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”

In 1998 the quotation appeared in “The Yogi Book” as noted at the beginning of this article. Berra declared that he employed the phrase while explaining how to reach his house to Joe Garagiola.

In 2009 the biography “Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee” by Allen Barra was published, and it included a wonderfully appealing rationale for Berra’s famous remark. While traveling to Berra’s house one may choose the left fork or the right fork and both are acceptable decisions because both efficiently lead to his house: 7

Generally speaking, there is a significant difference between the genuine Yogiisms and the pseudo-Yogiisms, and it is this: the things Yogi said that he actually said usually make sense in fewer words than most anyone else would use. “When you come to the fork in the road, take it” refers to the quickest way to get to his house (it’s the same distance whether you keep to the right or left).

In conclusion, the earliest evidence of this expression located by QI appeared in 1913. The statement was employed as part of a joke exploiting two common meanings of the word ‘fork’.

By 1988 the quotation was being ascribed to Yogi Berra. By 1998 Berra had embraced the saying. In 2009 a biography presented an entertaining explanation.

(In Memoriam: For my brother Stephen.)

Notes:

  1. 1998, The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said! by Yogi Berra, Page 48, Workman Publishing, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1913 July 31, Fort Gibson New Era, Wise Directions (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 6, Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1913 July 31, Correctionville News, Wise Directions (Filler item), Quote Page 7, Column 6, Correctionville, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1988 September 21, The Citizen, Gray Power Matters: Retirees need a good sense of humor by Dorothy H. Nelson, Quote Page 9, Column 1 and 2, Auburn, New York. (Old Fulton)
  5. 1989 Copyright, Yogi: It Ain’t Over by Yogi Berra with Tom Horton, Quote Page 7, McGraw-Hill, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1991 April 19, Cedar Rapids Gazette, A University of Iowa laser center allegory by Duane Spriestersbach, Quote Page 6A, Column 4, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 2009, Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra, Quote Page xxxv, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper)