May 23, 1988 12:00 PM

Pay attention now, class. Today we shall delve into the mysterious cult called Yogi-ism. No, not the meditative Eastern religion. We’re talking about Yogi Berra, 63, the strangely philosophic Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees, manager of the World Champion Yankees of 1978 and currently third base coach of the Houston Astros. A diamond-in-the-rough existentialist, Mr. Berra now has taken up movie reviewing in his spare time, which promises to extend the study of Yogi-ism nationwide. But first, a refresher course in the pithy sayings that have brought Mr. Berra fame:

•”No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

•Asked what time it is: “You mean now?”

•”I ain’t in no slump. I just ain’t hitting.”

•”It’s déjà vu all over again.”

•”I want to thank everyone who made this day necessary” (at Yogi Berra Day).

•And, of course, the classic “It ain’t over till it’s over,” a truism that applies equally to sports, politics, business, romance and almost anything else one can think of.

Is the Yog qualified to review movies? “Sounds kinda screwy,” he concedes, “but I just say what I like.” Screwy or no, the syndicated Yogi at the Movies, in which he delivers a 30-second critique and rates the film a strikeout, single, double, triple or home run, has been placed on 64 TV stations across the country. The format is simplicity itself: A clip of the film is shown, an off-camera voice asks Mr. Berra questions and he answers them.

“Hey, Yogi, whaddaya think of Biloxi Blues?”

“It reminded me of being in the Army—even though I was in the Navy.”

“Did you guess the ending in Masquerade?”

“No,” says Mr. Berra, “but towards the end you could.”

The inspiration for putting Mr. Berra on the aisle belongs to Tom Villante, a high-powered advertising and marketing man. “I used to be a batboy for the Yankees,” says Villante. “Yogi was always going to the movies, and players were always asking him what he’d seen. His critiques were hilarious—better than the movies themselves.” Additionally, Mr. Berra has had many warm-ups for his new position. “Yogi loved movies and comic books,” recalls Phil Rizzuto, former Yankee shortstop and Berra roommate, in his own distinctive cadences. “That sonofagun, he’d love to take me to a Hitchcock thriller he’d seen before. In the middle he’d jump up and say, ‘I gotta go, Phil, but that guy did it.’ ”

Comedy remains central to an understanding of Mr. Berra’s approach. One of his favorite actors is Larry—not Sir Laurence Olivier but Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. The Marx Brothers also were a profound early influence on the young cineast. Avant-garde? Get outta here! “I like a good Western,” he says. “I like a good war movie. Rin Tin Tin was my favorite dog actor.”

Mr. Berra does his film study on the road or in Houston. “They got a 15-plex, whatever you call it, right by the ballpark,” he says. Over the phone, he and producer Villante discuss the films he has seen, to establish an artistic commonality. With the cameras rolling, the producer then fires questions at “Yog” and, voilà! cinema berraté”.

At work, Mr. Berra does not yet seem fully at ease. Wearing a blue blazer during a recent performance in the den of his Victorian home in Montclair, N.J., a leafy New York suburb, he keeps twisting the two giant rings that grace his gnarled fingers—the World Championship one from the Yankees and the one commemorating his 1972 induction into the Hall of Fame. Reviewing the action-adventure flick Above the Law, he is asked for his opinion of its star, Steven Seagal.

“He could be another Cliff Eastwick,” he replies.

The technicians laugh so hard they have to stop taping. Apparently Mr. Berra has mixed up Clint Eastwood, ex-Philly pitching ace Rawly Eastwick and somebody named Cliff. When taping finally resumes, Villante asks him about the movie Casual Sex. “Yogi, what’s your definition of safe sex?” “No sex is safe,” the critic replies, “unless you’re over 85.”

Both Mr. Berra and Villante deny that he gets fed such lines. “Yogi,” says Villante, “doesn’t know he’s coming up with Yogi-isms.” It should be said that the classic Yogi-ism is at once tricky to create and the natural outgrowth of a unique perspective—and not, as some scholars have alleged, the result of hype, embellishment or maybe even fabrication. In its purest form, the Yogi-ism is sense masquerading as nonsense, or perhaps vice versa, or not.

“Yogi doesn’t try to be funny,” says Rizzuto. “It just comes out that way. He says a lot of things that are deep—although they don’t sound it.”

What does the future hold for Mr. Berra as film critic? Will he present an Oscar at the next Academy Awards, as Villante predicts? Will he forget about filmdom when the Yankees fire Mr. Martin again and hire him? In pondering these questions for the next class, one should bear in mind another great Yogi-ism: “You can observe a lot just by watching.”