Yogi Berra transformed himself from barefoot sand-lotter into one of the greatest catchers and clutch hitters in the history of baseball. He anchored the New York Yankees dynasty from the late 1940s to the early ’60s, becoming a 15-time All-Star, winner of 10 world championships (the 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.)
Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925 in “The Hill” section of St. Louis, an enclave of hard-working Italian immigrants. 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 movie – was most passionate about baseball. He left school after eighth grade to help out his family financially, working various menial jobs while playing American Legion ball.
After a 1941 tryout with the hometown St. Louis Cardinals, he refused general manager Branch Rickey’s $250 signing offer. (Yogi was insulted he didn’t get the same $500 offer given to Garagiola.) He signed instead with the Yankees a year later, earning $90 a month with the team’s Class B affiliate in Norfolk.
With World War II in full swing, Yogi joined the Navy at age 18. He volunteered for duty on a secret mission, training to operate machine guns on a 36-foot “rocket” boat. On June 6, 1944, Yogi and his five crewmates provided cover fire on Omaha Beach, softening the German defenses to support Allied troops during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
After his military service Yogi exchanged his Navy uniform for baseball pinstripes to play with the Newark Bears, the Yankees’ top minor-league team. He debuted with the Yankees in the waning weeks of the ’46 season, hitting a home run against the Philadelphia A’s in his very first game. Under the mentorship of Yankee great Bill Dickey, he became a star catcher, 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 in celebration is one of baseball’s most iconic images.
Yogi’s prowess at the plate was also legendary. Despite the greats around him – first Joe DiMaggio, then Mickey Mantle – it was Yogi who was the most feared hitter on Yankee pennant-winning rosters 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 ankles.
With time Yogi emerged as baseball’s unofficial ambassador and one of the game’s most respected statesmen. Even after his official retirement from the game he remained a revered presence at spring training and in the Yankees’ clubhouse. Despite all the accolades and honors, Yogi 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 integrity and unshakable principles were never more evident than during his 14-year refusal to return to Yankee Stadium after his ignominious firing as manager by George Steinbrenner 16 games into the 1985 season. In January of 1999, Yogi accepted the Yankee owner’s heartfelt apology in a private meeting at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, a reconciliation that paved the way for the legendary catcher’s celebrated return to the Yankee family.
Family was always paramount to Yogi. His 65-year marriage to his wife 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.
A resident of Montclair, NJ for over a half a century, Yogi Berra remained an inspiration to all generations, transcending the role of star athlete to become an American icon. In 1996, he received an honorary doctorate from Montclair State University. Two years later, a baseball stadium was named after him on campus. In December 1998, the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center opened its doors to the public, a place where Yogi’s legacy and values live on. In recognition of his contributions on and off the field, in 2015 Yogi Berra was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.