Family man, World War II vet and 10-time world champion, Yogi Berra represented everything that is good in the game and in life
By Jack O'Connell
Yankees Magazine |
Social media has reached a point where the phrase itself has become an oxymoron; with so much negativity spreading among its various forms, precious little of it seems social. A major exception was the day America learned of the passing of Yogi Berra. The outpouring of warmth and affection for this overwhelmingly popular figure was reassuring, as if the gentle man himself was participating in the conversation.
And while he spent some time in other Major League uniforms, it was with the Yankees that Yogi Berra established himself as one of baseball's most unlikely, and nevertheless outstanding players, and to some extent was the franchise's unofficial mascot. It was said that even fans who hated the Yankees could never feel that way about Yogi.
His accomplishments were extraordinary, most notably his practically being a logo for the World Series. Berra played in 14 of them and was on the winning side 10 times, the only player to have a World Series ring for each finger. He also managed in two World Series and was a coach in five others for a grand total of 21 appearances in baseball's championship tournament.
Few athletes have crossed over into popular culture's conscience to the degree that Yogi did during a lifetime that pushed into a 10th decade. Following a Hall-of-Fame playing career as one of baseball's greatest catchers, Berra succeeded the late Gracie Allen as the nation's favorite fractured phrasemaker while all along reminding us, as one of his book titles stated, "I really didn't say everything I said."
Yogi Berra -- baseball man, family man, funny man, respected man -- died of natural causes Sept. 22 at the age of 90 in an assisted living facility in West Caldwell, N.J.. He had been a resident of Montclair, N.J., since the 1950s, when he was a perennial All-Star and Most Valuable Player candidate for Yankees teams that dominated the American League. The Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center has stood on the Montclair State University campus in Little Falls, N.J., since opening in 1998. It became a source of pride to the eighth-grade dropout, who enriched more lives than a thousand faculties.
His death came on the 69th anniversary of his Major League debut, a 4-3 Yankees victory over the Philadelphia Athletics in which Berra, catching and batting eighth, had two hits in four at-bats, including the first of his 358 career home runs. He is survived by his sons Larry, Tim and Dale. His wife, Carmen, whom he married in 1949, died March 6, 2014.
Tributes poured in almost immediately, including from the White House.
"Yogi Berra was an American original -- a Hall of Famer and humble veteran; prolific jokester and jovial prophet," President Barack Obama said. "He epitomized what it meant to be a sportsman and a citizen, with a big heart, competitive spirit, and a selfless desire to open baseball to everyone, no matter their background."
Berra's background was humble. Lawrence Peter Berra was the son of immigrants from Italy. He grew up in a St. Louis neighborhood known as "The Hill." Across the street in the largely Italian section of town lived Joe Garagiola, Berra's lifelong friend, fellow future Major League catcher and, later, as a television personality, the keeper of the Yogi legend. It was Garagiola who amused audiences with tales of Berra's dilapidated, yet commonsense logic.
About a popular restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."
About the difficulty of tracking fly balls in left field at Yankee Stadium in the afternoon shadows: "It gets late early out there."
On attendance problems: "If the people don't want to come out to the ballpark, nobody's going to stop them."
Coaching his players in Spring Training, he once told them: "Pair up in threes."
On Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle homering back-to-back so often: "It's déjà vu all over again."
About pennant races: "It ain't over till it's over."
Actually, the latter quote, which is probably his most famous, may not be exactly what Berra said that day in 1973, when -- as Mets manager -- he was not ready to concede the National League East race. Several writers who heard Yogi that day swear that he really said, "You're never out of it until you're out of it."
Either way, the listener gets the idea. One of the more amazing aspects of Berra's being quoted so frequently is that he was a shy person who did not speak that much. Yet to those who got to know Berra, his kindness and helpfulness spoke volumes.
"When [I was] in Yogi's presence, I always felt like I was talking to my grandfather," Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said. "I just felt comfortable. I always felt like he was going to pull something out of his pocket, like a piece of licorice, and give it to [me]. It was always a joy to be around him."
"Yogi Berra's legacy transcends baseball," Yankees managing general partner/ co-chairperson Hal Steinbrenner said in a statement. "Though slight in stature, he was a giant in the most significant of ways through his service to his country, compassion for others and genuine enthusiasm for the game he loved. He has always been a role model and hero that America could look up to.
"While his baseball wit and wisdom brought out the best in generations of Yankees, his imprint in society stretches far beyond the walls of Yankee Stadium. He simply had a way of reaching and relating to people that was unmatched. That's what made him such a national treasure."
As a baseball player, he beat plenty of odds. Squatty with 185 pounds on a 5-foot-7 frame, Berra recalled how in his rookie year Ted Williams wondered aloud, "Who in hell are the Yankees trying to fool with this guy?" It was a judgment the "Splendid Splinter" would live to regret as Yogi's Yankees repeatedly ruined life for the Boston Red Sox, as well as every other team in the league.
Berra got his famous nickname from a boyhood friend, Bobby Hofman, later a Major League infielder and Yankees front-office executive, who likened his pal to a Hindu character in a movie by the way he sat with his legs crossed. Yogi's earlier nickname had been "Lawdie," from his mother's pronunciation of Larry. Former Yankees infielder Jerry Coleman once recalled that when Berra was first introduced to Whitey Ford, it was, "Larry, say hello to Eddie."
Forced to drop out of school after eighth grade and go to work to help the family, Berra joined the U.S. Navy during World War II in 1943 and served as a gunner's mate on the USS Bayfield. He and his crewmates were 300 yards from the shores of Normandy June 6, 1944, for the D-Day invasion, providing cover fire for the Allies.
Spurned by his hometown Cardinals -- who signed his friend Garagiola for $500 but offered him only $250 -- Berra signed with the Yankees for $500. He wore uniform No. 38 when he debuted in 1946 and No. 35 the next year, when he hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, off Brooklyn's Ralph Branca in Game 3 of the Yankees' seven-game triumph over the Dodgers. Berra was given No. 8 in 1948, and no one else would wear it again.
Bill Dickey, the former Yankees catcher who would be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1954, wore No. 8 for the majority of his career until 1946. Of Dickey's tutoring him at the position, Berra famously said, "He learned me all his experience." The Yankees retired No. 8 in honor of both players in 1972, the year Yogi was elected to the Hall of Fame.
Casey Stengel took over as Yankees manager in 1949, the beginning of a remarkable run of success for the franchise that won 10 pennants and seven World Series under his stewardship through 1960. Stengel rarely called Yogi by his famous nickname, but rather "Mr. Berra" and considered him his "assistant manager."
It was Stengel who first took note of Berra's good fortune seemingly everywhere he went. "He'd fall in a sewer," Casey said, "and come out with a gold watch."
Berra won the American League MVP Award in 1951, '54 and '55 and was the runner-up in 1953 and '56. Over a period of seven seasons (1950 to '56), Berra finished in the top four in MVP balloting every year. He received MVP votes in 15 of his 19 Major League seasons and was a 15-time All-Star. Along the way, he hit .274 with 12 home runs and 39 RBI in 75 World Series games. A .285 career hitter, Berra drove in 1,430 runs, amassing five seasons of 100 or more RBI, and never struck out more than 38 times in a single season. In his finest all-around season of 1950, Yogi batted .322 with 116 runs, 30 doubles, six triples, 28 homers and 124 RBI, and struck out merely 12 times in 656 plate appearances.
Yogi got his shot at managing for the first time with the Yankees in 1964, after Ralph Houk, who had succeeded Stengel, moved into the front office as general manager. The Yankees won the pennant, but lost the World Series in seven games to the Cardinals. Berra was fired after the Series and replaced by the St. Louis manager who had won the Series, Johnny Keane.
An incident during the stretch run in which Berra barked at infielder Phil Linz for playing a harmonica on the team bus after a tough loss played into the suspicion that Yogi had struggled to command control of the team, which is disputed by Mel Stottlemyre, a rookie pitcher that season.
"The whole thing was pretty ugly, but I'm convinced it helped spark the ballclub," Stottlemyre told the New York Daily News.
Instead, Berra rejoined Stengel with the Mets as first base coach and remained in that role under Wes Westrum and Gil Hodges and was part of another World Series, their stunning upset of the Baltimore Orioles in 1969. When Hodges died of a heart attack in Spring Training in 1972, Berra was chosen over director of player personnel Whitey Herzog to manage the team. Yogi got to the World Series again in 1973, but suffered another seven-game loss, this time to the Oakland A's.
In 1976, the year after he was fired by the Mets, Yogi returned to the Yankees as a coach and made it to the World Series four more times, winning in 1977 and '78 and losing in 1976 and '81. With Berra back in the manager's office in 1984, the Yankees finished a distant third behind Detroit and Toronto. The next year, despite a vow to give his manager the full season, principal Owner George Steinbrenner fired Berra after 16 games. Insulted that word came not directly from Steinbrenner but from General Manager Clyde King, Yogi boycotted Yankee Stadium for 14 years before WFAN's Suzyn Waldman brought Steinbrenner and Yogi together at Berra's museum, where The Boss issued a sincere apology.
Berra could not have been happier. Returning to the Stadium invigorated him. He was a regular visitor to the clubhouse over the ensuing years and endeared himself to a new generation of players. Some would tease him by asking about the duck on the Aflac commercials, among the scores of product endorsements Yogi did over the years that profited from his unique way with words.
"To those who didn't know Yogi personally, he was one of the greatest baseball players and Yankees of all time," Derek Jeter wrote on his website, The Players' Tribune. "To those lucky ones who did, he was an even better person. To me, he was a dear friend and mentor. He will always be remembered for his success on the field, but I believe his finest quality was how he treated everyone with sincerity and kindness."
"What an honor it was to have rubbed shoulders with Yogi," Andy Pettitte said. "He embraced me from the first day I met him. Heck, he embraced everyone he met."
"When you were around Yogi, he had a way of bringing out the best in you," Jorge Posada said. "He made you feel good inside. That was his gift to so many of us and why people always tended to gravitate to him. I don't care what team you play for or what team you root for, if you love baseball, then you love Yogi Berra."
The highlight of Berra's renewed acquaintance with the Yankees was July 18, 1999. It was Yogi Berra Day at the Stadium, with Don Larsen -- whose perfect game he caught in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series -- there to help celebrate. In honor of Yogi, the No. 8 was painted on the field behind home plate. Befitting the special aura of Yogi, David Cone pitched a perfect game that afternoon against the Montreal Expos. The Yankees had eight hits. Cone threw 88 pitches. Eerie stuff.
Don Mattingly, who played for Berra in the 1980s, wore No. 23 with the Yankees, but pitcher Derek Lowe had that number when the former captain and first baseman became a Dodgers coach in 2008. As a tribute to Yogi, Mattingly took No. 8.
"Everything Yogi touches turns to gold, and I was looking for gold," Mattingly said. "People have it right about Yogi. The reason he was so loved, it wasn't about his career -- even though he was a great player -- it was really more about the person, how great a guy he was, the way he treated people, how humble, how sincere and kind he was to people. His legendary achievements on the field were outdone by his humility off the field. That's really what defined him and why he touched so many people. We will all miss you, Yogi."
Jack O'Connell is a staff writer for Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2015 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.