Never Answer an Anonymous Letter

Yogi Berra? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Would you please explore another Yogiism? The following comical remark is attributed to the celebrated baseball player:

Never answer an anonymous letter.

If the letter contains no information about the sender then, of course, it is impossible to reply. That is the humorous interpretation. But Yogi Berra once noted that a letter may have a return address without providing a name.

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of a version of this quip located by QI was printed in 1876. The ascription to Yogi of the modern saying is uncertain. Detailed citations are given further below.

It is possible to reply to an anonymous letter sometimes. For example, an anonymous letter can be sent to a magazine, and the periodical can publish the letter together with a response. In 1770 an exchange of letters was published in “The Monthly Review” of London. One anonymous letter writer accused another writer of being overly personal. The journal published a response: 1

When, says he, I answer an anonymous letter, and make not the most distant allusion to any thing but what appears upon the face of it, where can be the personality?

In 1838 “Mechanics’ Magazine: Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette” published an anonymous critical letter signed with a nom de plume. The journal also printed a response from the person who was criticized: 2

It has been a rule with me never to answer an anonymous letter, but the classic pen of the reverend gentleman who signs himself “An Amateur Mechanic,” is as well known to me as if he had appeared in his proper person.

In 1873 a book titled “Analysis of Letter-Writing: With a Large Number of Examples of Model Business Letters” was released. The volume included the following two guidelines for proper business correspondence. No humor was intended: 3

All business letters should be carefully kept, until, at least, the matters to which they relate are completely closed, and there can be no further use for them.

You should never condescend to answer an anonymous letter, even if you are nearly certain who wrote it. Never write one.

By 1876 the comical potential of the line was recognized. A newspaper in Orange City, Iowa printed a collection of funny remarks under the article title “Nubbins of Humor” including these three items: 4

Intoxicating music—”Ale to the chief.”

It is a wise thing never to answer an anonymous letter until you have found out who wrote it.

“How long will my chop be, waiter?” asked a hungry man in a restaurant, “About five inches, sir.” was the prompt reply.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1924 a newspaper in Jefferson, Iowa presented an unorthodox absurdist method for replying to an anonymous letter: 5

The postman said:—”Walt a minute! Don’t drop that letter in the box without stamping and addressing it.”

And I said:—”That’s all right. It’s just an answer to an anonymous letter I received.

In 1989 “Yogi: It Ain’t Over” by Yogi Berra with Tom Horton was published, and the jocular saying was disclaimed by Yogi: 6

I know some people say I told them, “When I was young and green behind the ears . . .” and “Never answer an anonymous letter.” I didn’t, but the anonymous letter idea is a good one.

Memories and reflections can change over time. “The Yogi Book” of 1998 lists expressions that have been embraced by Yogi Berra, and the saying was presented with an explanatory note: 7

Never answer an anonymous letter.”

This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Some letters do have return addresses with no name, you know.

In conclusion, this quip has a long history, and a version was in circulation by 1876. Yogi has expressed some incertitude about the saying, but he now believes that he did say it in the past.

(In Memoriam: For my brother Stephen.)

Notes:

  1. 1770 December, The Monthly Review; Or Literary Journal, Volume 43, Article 32: An Answer to a Second Letter to Dr. Priestley, Quote Page 492, Printed for R. Griffiths, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1838 August 18, Mechanics’ Magazine: Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette, Number 784, (Letter from L. Hebert, Camden Town, Date: August 11, 1838), Quote Page 328, Printed and Published for the Proprietor by W. A. Robertson at the Mechanics’, Magazine Office, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1873, Analysis of Letter-writing: With a Large Number of Examples of Model Business Letters by Calvin Townsend, Quote Page 139, Published by Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor, & Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1876 November 9, Sioux County Herald, Nubbins of Humor, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Orange City, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1924 December 18, Jefferson Herald, OWL-LAFFS: O.W.L (On With Laughter), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Jefferson, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1989 Copyright, Yogi: It Ain’t Over by Yogi Berra with Tom Horton, Quote Page 11, McGraw-Hill, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1998, The Yogi Book: I really didn’t say everything I said! by Yogi Berra, Page 93, Workman Publishing, New York. (Verified on paper)