Lawrence Peter ‘Yogi’ Berra: May 12, 1925‚ÄďSeptember 22, 2015


‚ú™ Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra¬†(born¬†Lorenzo Pietro Berra) was an American professional baseball player¬†who later took on the roles of¬†manager¬†and¬†coach. He played 19 seasons in¬†Major League Baseball¬†(MLB) (1946‚Äď1963, 1965), all but the last for the¬†New York Yankees. He was an 18-time¬†All-Star¬†and won 10¬†World Series¬†championships as a player‚ÄĒmore than any other player in MLB history. Berra had a career¬†batting average¬†of .285, while hitting 358¬†home runs¬†and 1,430¬†runs batted in. He is one of only six players to win the¬†American League’s Most Valuable Player Award¬†three times. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest catchers in baseball history¬†and was inducted into the¬†Baseball Hall of Fame¬†in¬†1972.

Berra was born Lorenzo Pietro Berra in a primarily Italian neighborhood of St. Louis called¬†The Hill. His parents were Italian¬†immigrants¬†Pietro and Paolina (n√©e¬†Longoni) Berra.¬†Pietro was originally from Malvaglio near¬†Milan; he arrived at¬†Ellis Island¬†on October 18, 1909, at the age of 23.¬†In a 2005 interview for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Berra said, “My father came over first. He came from the old country and didn’t know what baseball was. He was just ready to go to work.

Berra’s parents originally gave him the¬†nickname¬†“Lawdie,” which was derived from his mother’s difficulty pronouncing “Lawrence” or “Larry” in English correctly. He grew up on Elizabeth Avenue, across the street from boyhood friend and later competitor¬†Joe Garagiola. That block was also home to¬†Jack Buck¬†early in his Cardinals broadcasting career, and it was later renamed “Hall of Fame Place.” Berra was Catholic¬†and attended South Side Catholic, now called¬†St. Mary’s High School, in south St. Louis with Garagiola. Berra left school after the eighth grade due to a desire to work and assist in his family‚Äôs finances.¬†

Berra began playing baseball in local¬†American Legion Baseball¬†leagues, where he learned the basics of catching while playing both outfield and infield positions. While playing in American Legion Baseball, he received the nickname “Yogi” from his friend Jack Maguire, who, after seeing a newsreel about India,¬†said that he resembled a¬†yogi¬†from¬†India¬†whenever he sat around with arms and legs crossed waiting to bat or while looking sad after a losing game.

In 1942, the St. Louis Cardinals passed over Berra in favor of signing his boyhood best friend, Joe Garagiola. On the surface, the Cardinals seemed to think that Garagiola was the superior prospect, but team president Branch Rickey actually had an ulterior motive. Rickey already knew that he was going to leave St. Louis to take over the operation of the Brooklyn Dodgers and was more impressed with Berra than he let on. He apparently had planned to hold Berra off until he could sign him for the Dodgers. Berra played for the Norfolk Tars in 1943.

Berra joined the¬†United States Navy¬†in 1943, and served as a¬†gunner’s mate¬†on the attack transport¬†USS¬†Bayfield¬†during the D Day¬†Normandy landings.¬†A Second Class Seaman, Berra was one of a six-man crew on a Navy rocket boat, firing machine guns and launching rockets at the German defenses on¬†Omaha Beach. He was fired upon and later received several commendations for his bravery.

During an interview on the 65th Anniversary of D-Day, Berra confirmed that he was sent to Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion as well. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Berra was shot and wounded in the left hand during Operation Dragoon, an injury which qualified him for the Purple Heart. However, he never received the medal, because he did not fill out the paperwork. He did not want his mother receiving a telegram and worrying he had been hurt. His military records were accidentally lost in the St. Louis Archives fire in 1973, and without his medical records, there was no way to prove he had been wounded.

Following Operation Dragoon, Berra was sent to Tunisia before returning to the United States in January 1945 and being stationed at¬†Naval Submarine Base New London. While there, he played for the base’s semi-pro baseball team. He also bribed guards to allow him to sneak off base and play for the¬†Cranston, Rhode Island, Chiefs for $50 a game under an assumed name, as at that time he was already signed with the Yankees.¬†He was ultimately discharged from the military in May 1946.

Following his military service, Berra played minor-league baseball with the¬†Newark Bears, surprising the team’s manager with his talent despite his short stature. There,¬†he was mentored by Hall of Famer¬†Bill Dickey, whose¬†uniform number¬†Berra took. Later he said, “I owe everything I did in baseball to Bill Dickey.”

Berra was called up to the Yankees and played his first game on September 22, 1946; he played 7 games that season and 83 games in 1947. He played in more than a hundred games in each of the following 14 years. Berra appeared in 14¬†World Series, including 10 World Series championships, both of which are records. In part because Berra’s playing career coincided with the Yankees’ most consistent period of World Series participation, he established Series records for the most games (75) at bats¬†(259),¬†hits¬†(71),¬†doubles¬†(10),¬†singles¬†(49), games caught (63), and catcher putouts¬†(457). In Game 3 of the¬†1947 World Series, Berra hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history,

Berra married Carmen Short on January 26, 1949. They had three sons and were longtime residents of¬†Montclair, New Jersey, until Carmen’s declining health caused them to move into a nearby¬†assisted living facility¬†in¬†West Caldwell. Berra’s sons also played professional sports.¬†Dale Berra¬†played¬†shortstop¬†for the¬†Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees (managed by Yogi in 1984‚Äď85) and¬†Houston Astros.¬†Tim Berra¬†played pro¬†football¬†for the¬†Baltimore Colts¬†in the¬†1974 NFL season; and Larry Berra played for three minor league teams in the¬†New York Mets¬†organization. Carmen Berra died on March 6, 2014 at age 85 from complications of a stroke. The couple had recently celebrated their 65th anniversary.

Berra was an All-Star for 15 seasons and was selected to 18 All-Star Games (MLB held two All-Star Games in 1959 through 1962). He won the American League (AL) MVP award in 1951, 1954, and 1955. Berra never finished lower than fourth in the MVP voting from 1950 to 1957.

From 1949 to 1955, on a team filled with stars such as Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, it was Berra who led the Yankees in RBI for seven consecutive seasons.

Berra was excellent at hitting pitches outside of the strike zone, covering all areas of the strike zone (as well as beyond) with great extension. In addition to this wide plate coverage, he also had great bat control. He was able both to swing the bat like a golf club to hit low pitches for deep home runs and to chop at high pitches for line drives.

As a catcher Berra was outstanding: quick, mobile, and a great handler of pitchers, Berra led all American League catchers eight times in games caught and in chances accepted, six times in double plays (a major-league record), eight times in putouts, three times in assists, and once in fielding percentage.

At age 37 in June 1962, Berra showed off his superb physical endurance by catching an entire 22-inning, seven-hour game against the¬†Detroit Tigers. Casey Stengel, Berra’s manager during most of his playing career with the Yankees and with the Mets in 1965, once said, “I never play a game without my man.”

After spending the¬†1963 season¬†as a player-coach‚ÄĒBerra appeared in 64 games (35 as a catcher and 29 as a pinch hitter. He retired as an active player after the¬†1963 World Series¬†and was immediately named to succeed¬†Ralph Houk¬†as manager of the Yankees. His last at-bat came on May 9, 1965, three days shy of his 40th birthday.¬†

Berra was later signed by the crosstown¬†New York Mets¬†as a coach. Berra’s tenure as Mets manager ended with his firing on August 5, 1975. He had a record of 298 wins and 302 losses, which included the 1973 postseason. In 1976, he rejoined the Yankees as a coach. The team won its first of three consecutive AL titles, as well as the¬†1977 World Series¬†and¬†1978 World Series, and (as had been the case throughout his playing days) Berra’s reputation as a lucky charm was reinforced.¬†Casey Stengel¬†once said of his catcher, “He’d fall in a sewer and come up with a gold watch.”

Berra joined the Houston Astros as bench coach in 1985 where he again made it to the NLCS in 1986. The Astros lost the series in six games to the Mets. Berra remained a coach in Houston for three more years, retiring after the 1989 season.

Berra was elected into the¬†Baseball Hall of Fame¬†in¬†1972, on his second ballot.¬†That same year, his No. 8 was retired by the Yankees, jointly honoring both Berra and¬†Bill Dickey, his predecessor as the Yankees’ star catcher.

On August 22, 1988, Berra and Dickey were both honored with plaques to be hung in¬†Monument Park¬†at Yankee Stadium. Berra’s plaque calls him “A legendary Yankee” and cites his most frequent quote, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

In 1998, Berra appeared at No. 40 on¬†The Sporting News¬†list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players¬†and fan balloting elected him to the¬†Major League Baseball All-Century Team.¬†In 2020,¬†The Athletic¬†ranked Berra at number 43 on its “Baseball 100” list.

On July 18, 1999, Berra was honored with “Yogi Berra Day” at¬†Yankee Stadium.¬†The celebration marked the return of Berra to the stadium, after the end of his 14-year feud with Yankees owner¬†George Steinbrenner. The feud started in 1985 when Steinbrenner, having promised Berra the job of Yankees’ manager for the entire season, fired him after just 16 games. Berra then vowed never to return to Yankee Stadium as long as Steinbrenner owned the team. In 2008, Berra was inducted into the¬†New Jersey Hall of Fame.

On November 24, 2015, Berra was awarded the¬†Presidential Medal of Freedom¬†posthumously by¬†President Barack Obama¬†in a ceremony at the¬†White House¬†attended by members of Berra’s family, who accepted the award on his behalf.

On July 1, 2021, the¬†United States Postal Service¬†officially issued its Yogi Berra commemorative stamp outside of Berra’s museum. Berra is only the 30th baseball player to have his picture on a stamp; and he was the first player to appear on a USPS stamp in nine years.

Berra was known for his impromptu pithy comments,¬†malapropisms and seemingly unintentional witticisms, known as “Yogi-isms.” These often took the form of either an apparent¬†tautology¬†or a contradiction, but often with underlying humor and wisdom.¬†Allen Barra¬†has described them as “distilled bits of wisdom which, like good country songs and old¬†John Wayne¬†movies, get to the truth in a hurry.”

Berra is often incorrectly credited with the saying “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” which was first attributed to¬†Texas Tech University¬†sports information director Ralph Carpenter in 1976. When asked about the quotation in 1998, Berra told a¬†New York Times¬†reporter, “That’s one of the things that I said that I never said.”

Berra died in his sleep at the age of 90 of natural causes in West Caldwell, New Jersey, on September 22, 2015.

The Yankees added a number “8” patch to their uniforms in honor of Berra¬†and the¬†Empire State Building¬†was lit in his honor with vertical blue and white Yankee “pinstripes” on September 23.¬†New York City lowered all flags in the city to half-staff for a full day in tribute.

Berra’s funeral services were held on September 29. His ashes are interred next to his wife Carmen at the¬†Gate of Heaven Cemetery¬†in¬†East Hanover, New Jersey. Berra’s longtime friend,¬†Joe Garagiola, who lived directly across the street from Berra when they were young, died six months later on March 23, 2016.‚ú™

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