When it comes to famous quotations, Americans seem to love them more than any other people on the planet. We put them on bumper-stickers, toss them around in political or religious debates, and use them as an excuse to avoid actually having to think too deeply about any particular topic. If it can be summed up in a phrase or two, so much the better.
Baseball fans, of course, also love famous quotations, such as Satchel Paiges’s “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Simply recalling these quotes puts a satisfied smile on our face.
Unfortunately, the truth is many of the quotations we take for granted as having been said by, for example, the Founding Fathers, or old-time ball players, in many instances turn out not to have been said by them at all. Sometimes, the alleged statements are inaccurate renderings of much less interesting comments. Other times, they appear to have been simply made up completely out of whole-cloth, or actually belong to someone else.
Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra probably has more quotes attributed to him than any other baseball player in history. Yogi was lovable, successful and humble, and he looked kind of funny with big ears and the grin of a six-year old who just tasted his first ice-cream cone. What’s not to like?
Many of the sayings attributed to Berra, however, are probably apocryphal. But if a quotation could be attached to the legend of Yogi Berra, it would seem to be that much more funny and interesting.
The same can be said, in a way, to all the alleged quotations attributed to our Founding Fathers over the years. While these men actually did, of course, pen many significant, historical statements, many other quotations which have been credited to them (especially in recent years), are at best of suspicious origin, and, at worst, are obviously fake.
I have provided a list of several famous quotations allegedly made by famous people (including Yogi Berra) which, it turns out, were probably never penned by the person to whom these lines are attributed.
1) “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.” – George Washington. Except here’s what the official, non-partisan website of Mount Vernon and the legacy of George Washington has to say about this quotation:
The quote is frequently misattributed to Washington, particularly in regards to his farewell address of 1796. The origin of the misquote is, perhaps, a mention of a similar statement in a biography of Washington first published in 1835. However, the quote that appeared in the biography has never been proven to have come from Washington.
2) “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” – Yogi Berra. Unfortunately, Yogi didn’t come up with this one. The origin of this quote can be traced (at least) as far back as John McNulty writing in the New Yorker magazine, in a story published February 1943, before Yogi was even in the Majors.
3) “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.” – Thomas Jefferson. It appears that this statement was first made (sort of) famous not by Jefferson, but by that other Founding Father…President Gerald R. Ford. Barry Goldwater has also sometimes been credited with making this statement.
As an aside, I just saw this exact quotation on a bumper sticker in a parking lot today, and it was attributed to Thomas Jefferson. The interesting thing is I also saw this same quotation on another car in a different parking lot a few weeks ago, but it was attributed to conservative philosopher Edmund Burke. So, at least in Greenville County, SC, you appear to have your choice of whom to award this statement.
4) “Its Deja Vu all over again.” – Yes, Yogi Berra is often credited with this saying, but in a phone interview with journalist William Safire in the late ’80’s, Yogi denied ever having made this statement. About a decade later, however, Berra did take credit for it after all. Did he really say it, or did he just come to believe that it would do no harm taking credit for it after all? A version of this line was also found in a poem called “Thanks to You,” by Jim Prior, which appeared in a Florida newspaper in 1962:
It’s Deja Vu again / Out of the blue again / Truer than true again / Thanks to you.
5) Most of us are familiar with the following quotation, frequently attributed to Protestant theologian Martin Niemoller:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out for the trade unionists, because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came out for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
This quotation has always held strong emotional appeal precisely because it points out the inherent danger of good people remaining silent in the face of great evil. But was Martin Niemoller really the first to say it, assuming he ever said it at all?
On the floor of the House of Representatives in October, 1968, a slightly different version was entered into the Congressional Record by Henry Reuss, a Congressman from Wisconsin. His version led off with the Jews, then moved on to Catholics, then unions, then industrialists, and finally the Protestant church. His version left out the communists and socialists.
Representative Reuss credited these words to a Jewish businessman named Howard Samuels.
A paraphrase of the lines attributed to Father Niemoller was discovered going back to the mid-1950’s, however, and though the thoughts are generally similar, the phraseology isn’t as clearly defined and polished as the version most commonly attributed to him. It should be pointed out that Niemoller actually did bravely stand up to the Nazis, and did survive a period of time in a Nazi Concentration Camp.
Niemoller himself did later say that his favorite version of this quotation included the communists and the socialists as two of the persecuted groups because it was much closer to being historically accurate than the ones which leave out those two groups in favor of Industrialists and Catholics.
Nevertheless, no written record of Niemoller making the specific statement famously associated with him has ever been located.
6) “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra. Berra is on record stating that he’s pretty sure he never said this one.
7) “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” – Josef Stalin. The person who actually first wrote those words was the German journalist / satirist Kurt Tucholsky in an essay on French humor in 1932. He was a left-wing Democrat in Germany during the Weimar Republic. Later, under Hitler, his books were burned and he was stripped of his German citizenship (though he had already fled to Sweden.) He died in 1935, before the worst of the Nazi genocidal campaigns and the Second World War commenced.
8) “Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.” – Yogi Berra While that very well be true, Berra didn’t say this. Instead, the quotation belongs to Rocky Bridges, who played for several Major League baseball teams from 1951 to 1961.
Why does this happen so often? In many cases, there is a political motivation involved. If you can attribute a statement which appears to support your side’s political convictions to a Founding Father, for example, you gain implicit credibility in the eyes of an unsuspecting, credulous public. As for baseball fans, we just like to read cool-sounding stuff.