Yogi Berra won the affection and admiration from peer and public to a degree uncommon in American life. His kindness, humility and good humor remain the stuff of legend.
Yogi Berra transformed himself from barefoot sandlotter into one of the greatest catchers and clutch hitters in the history of the game. He anchored the New York Yankees’ dynasty from the late 1940s to early ’60s, becoming a 15-time All-Star, winner of 10 world championships (most in baseball history) and three-time Most Valuable Player along the way. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 and was a member of Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team. As a manager with both New York teams, he became the first man in over 40 years to win pennants in different leagues (Yankees in 1964, Mets in 1973).
Yogi is quoted more than most poets; his one-of-a-kind observations have made him a major contributor to the national repository of wisdom (“It ain’t over ’til it’s over” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”). No other sports figure has as many entries in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Yogi was also renowned for his selflessness, giving generously of his time for countless youth organizations and charitable causes.
Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925 in “The Hill” section of St. Louis, an enclave of hard-working Italian immigrants, trying to realize the American dream. Along with his neighbor and boyhood pal Joe Garagiola, he played every sport imaginable. Yet Yogi – he got the nickname from a friend who said he resembled a yogi in a Hindu-themed movie – was most passionate about baseball. He left school after eighth grade to help his family, working various menial jobs while playing American Legion ball.
Yet after a 1941 tryout with the hometown St. Louis Cardinals, he refused general manager Branch Rickey’s offer of $250 to sign. He was insulted he didn’t get the same $500 offer given to Garagiola, so he signed with the Yankees a year later, making $90 a month with the team’s Class B affiliate in Norfolk. With World War II in full swing, he joined the Navy at age 18 and volunteered for duty on a secret mission – training to operate machine guns on a 36-foot “rocket” boat. Yogi and his five crewmates provided cover fire on Omaha Beach, softening the German defenses to support the Allied invasion during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Yogi survived and would soon exchange his Navy uniform for baseball pinstripes in 1946 with the Newark Bears, the Yankees’ top minor-league team. He debuted with the Yankees in the waning weeks of the ’46 season, and hit a home run against the Philadelphia A’s in his very first game. Through hard work and with the help of Yankee great Bill Dickey, he became a star behind the plate, once going 148 straight games (and 950 chances) without making an error. A master handler of pitchers, he caught two no-hitters by Allie Reynolds in 1951 and Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. The photo of Yogi leaping into Larsen’s arms is one of baseball’s most iconic images.
His prowess at the plate was also legendary. Despite the glamorous shadows around him, first Joe DiMaggio, then Mickey Mantle, it was Yogi who was the most feared hitter on a host of Yankee pennant winners – including an unprecedented five straight world championships – as he led the team in RBI’s for seven straight seasons (1949-55). He seldom struck out and was an amazing bad-ball hitter, known to swing at – and hit – pitches near his eyes or burrowing around his ankles.
A squat 5’8, 190-pounder, whom former Yankee president Larry MacPhail said reminded him of “the bottom man on an unemployed acrobatic team,” Yogi seemed like an improbable star – especially on baseball’s most elite team, the Yankees. Yet he graciously accepted whatever teasing came his way, letting his actions on the field – such as Most Valuable Player-winning seasons in 1951, 1954 and 1955 – quell any doubts.
He was baseball’s unofficial ambassador and one of the game’s most respected statesmen. For years he was a revered presence in spring training and in the Yankees’ clubhouse. He has collaborated on several books – including the 1998 national bestseller “The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said” – and has been a spokesman for numerous products. Despite all the accolades and honors, Yogi Berra never changed. As journalist Leonard Koppett wrote: “In the brightest of publicity spotlights, for more than four decades, Yogi remained completely himself – a rarer and more difficult accomplishment than making the Hall of Fame.”
Yogi Berra’s dignity and unshakable principles were never more evident than his 14-year refusal to return to Yankee Stadium, after his ignominious firing as manager by George Steinbrenner 16 games into the 1985 season. However, Yogi accepted the Yankee owner’s heartfelt apology to him and his wife, Carmen, in a private meeting in January 1999 at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, a reconciliation that paved the way for his celebrated return to the Yankee family.
Family has always been paramount to Yogi Berra. His 65-year marriage to Carmen was a love story for the ages. He was the proud father of three sons – Larry, a former minor-league catcher, Tim, a former NFL receiver, and Dale, a former major-league infielder – and loving grandfather of 11 and one great-grandchild. His oldest grandchild, Lindsay, serves on the board of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center.
A resident of Montclair, NJ for over a half century, Yogi Berra remained an inspiration to all generations. In 1996, he received an honorary doctorate from Montclair State University. Two years later, a baseball stadium was named after him on campus. And in December 1998, the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center opened its doors to the public, paying tribute to an American legend and his lifelong commitment to the education of young people.