Yogi Berra: Unforgettable and incomparable – ESPN

  • For just about every day during his long, rich and incredibly accomplished adult life in the public eye, it was impossible to think about Yogi Berra without smiling.

    Until now. Lawrence Peter (Yogi) Berra, the beloved catcher who was a member of 10 New York Yankees world championship teams, a three-time American League MVP and a Hall of Famer, has died. He was 90.

    The story of Yogi Berra’s remarkable life began on May 12, 1925, in an ethnic neighborhood of St. Louis known as The Hill, where young “Lawdie Berra” — the pronunciation was the result of his Italian-immigrant mother, Paolina’s, inability to say “Larry” — became best friends with Joe Garagiola, another son of Italian immigrants who also went on to become a major leaguer and later, a broadcaster and television personality.

    It was Garagiola who publicized and, some said, invented many of the “Yogi-isms” for which Berra became famous later in his career. Larry Berra became “Yogi,” according to the biography on his official website, when another boyhood friend, Bobby Hofman, thought he bore a resemblance to a Hindu character in a movie they attended on The Hill.

    The Hill is where Yogi Berra learned to play baseball on sandlots and, later, in local America Legion leagues. It is also where he met Carmen, who was working as a waitress at a local restaurant. At first, she rebuffed his advances, telling him she did not go out with married men.

    “I’m not married,” Berra protested.

    He soon learned Carmen had mistaken him for Terry Moore, a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder. “I’m Lawrence Berra,” he told her.

    “OK,” she said. “I’ll go out with you.”

    They were married on Jan. 26, 1949.

    By then, Berra had finished a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, serving as a gunner’s mate in the D-Day invasion, and had already played three seasons for the Yankees. He batted .305 in his second full season, in which he was voted to the second of his 15 All-Star Games.

    He had also become a protégé of Yankees manager Casey Stengel, who recognized the innate baseball smarts in the young man — Berra dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help contribute economically to the family — and later referred to him as “my assistant manager.”

    To the current generation, Yogi Berra was a funny little man known for the malaprops, real and invented, that have become part of the lexicon.

    But to his teammates for 19 major league seasons — 18 of which were with the Yankees — and to opposing pitchers, Berra was a fearsome hitter who batted better than .300 three times, drove in more than 100 runs five times and finished with 358 home runs, 305 of which came when he was a catcher. At the time he retired, that was a record for a player at the most demanding position on a baseball field.

    Defensively, Berra was respected as a keen handler of pitchers and an agile fielder with a strong throwing arm. Later in his career, he made a successful switch to the outfield, patrolling the spacious left field in the original Yankee Stadium at 37 years old.

    And as a manager, Berra was one of a handful who led a team in both the American and National Leagues to the World Series, having managed the New York Mets to the NL pennant in 1973.

    All told, Yogi Berra went to the World Series 21 times as a player, coach or manager.

    He still holds the Yankees record for most World Series games played (75) as well as most World Series at-bats (259), hits (71) and doubles (10). He is second in RBIs (39) and runs scored (41), one behind Mickey Mantle in both categories.

    Decades before there was Reggie Jackson, Yogi Berra was the Yankees’ first Mr. October.

    Berra’s accomplishments on the baseball field were belied by his squat, bow-legged, 5-foot-7, 185-pound frame.

    The first day he arrived at Yankees training camp in 1946 — still in his uniform after completing his stint in the Navy — clubhouse man Pete Sheehy didn’t think he looked much like a ballplayer. “He didn’t even look like a sailor,” Sheehy said.

    And the Yankees GM, Larry MacPhail, thought his new prospect — whom the Yankees had signed, reluctantly, for a $500 bonus — looked like “the bottom half of an unemployed acrobatic team.”

    More than 60 years later, Joba Chamberlain would tell a police officer who was arresting him for a DUI that Berra “might not be as tall as the front of your car.”

    But the diminutive man was capable of some towering achievements on the baseball field. For seven consecutive seasons, from 1949 to 1956, Berra led the Yankees in RBIs despite the presence of sluggers such as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

    What made Berra’s accomplishments all the more remarkable was his reputation as a “bad-ball hitter,” who had little regard for the strike zone. Despite his penchant for swinging at pitches over his head, Berra rarely struck out. In 1950, a season in which he batted .322, hit 28 home runs and drove in 124, Berra struck out just 12 times in 597 at-bats, or about once in every 50 at-bats.

    Until recent years, Berra was a frequent visitor to Yankee Stadium and a fixture at Opening Day, Old-Timers’ Day and at the Yankees’ spring training facility in Tampa, Florida, where he would often be ferried around in a golf cart by former Yankees pitching great Ron Guidry.

    But a fall at his home in July 2010 caused him to miss Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium, and his visits to the ballpark began to dwindle from then on.

    “He’s about as well as an 88-year-old can be,” said Dave Kaplan, Berra’s friend and the curator of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, said on the occasion of Berra’s birthday in May 2013, for which a celebration was held at the museum in Montclair, New Jersey. Guests included several members of the 1978 Yankees, such as Guidry and Chris Chambliss. “He’s just not very ambulatory.”

    Near the end of his playing career, Berra became reacquainted to young fans as a television pitchman for Yoo-Hoo, a chocolate-flavored soft drink, and he remains widely known for the oft-quoted Yogi-isms he is purported to have said with hilarious regularity.

    Although Berra played on this comical image — one of the nine books he is credited with co-authoring is titled, “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said” — he was respected in baseball circles for having an innate intelligence for the game.

    Still, the Yogi-isms live on …

    • “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.”

    • “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

    • “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

    • “You can observe a lot by watching.”

    His most-famous line — “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” — was said when Berra was managing the 1973 Mets and is actually a misquote.

    Berra made the remark in midseason when his team was mired in last place, and he always insisted that what he actually said was, “It isn’t over until it’s over.” He also said the real credit for the statement belongs to Rocky Bridges, another former major leaguer.

    The apparent non-sequitur turned out to not only be true, but prophetic: Berra’s Mets wound up winning the division, beating the Cincinnati Reds — the “Big Red Machine” of Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez — in the NLCS, but took the highly favored Oakland Athletics to the seventh game of the World Series.

    It was a remarkable managerial performance, made more so by the circumstances under which Berra became the Mets manager — succeeding Gil Hodges after Hodges’ sudden death from a heart attack a year earlier.

    Berra’s rapprochement with the Yankees was comparatively recent. Although he rejoined the Yankees as a coach in 1976 after the Mets fired him and became the team’s manager in 1984, Berra refused to speak to owner George M. Steinbrenner III or return to Yankee Stadium for nearly 15 years after Steinbrenner — who had promised Berra he would not be fired — dispatched a lieutenant, Clyde King, to dismiss him just 16 games into the 1985 season.

    The rift ended in 1999, when Steinbrenner initiated a reconciliation and honored Berra with a Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium on July 18. On that day, Berra was also reunited with Don Larsen, whose perfect game in the 1956 World Series Berra had caught. Larsen threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Berra, and to make the day complete, Yankees starter David Cone threw a perfect game against the Montreal Expos.

    On that day, the stadium’s public address announcer, the late Bob Shepard, introduced Berra as “a man of conviction,” an obvious nod to the deeply held principles that kept him away from the place he loved for so many years.

    But Yogi Berra was not a man to hold grudges. “I’m very happy,” he said. “I’m glad it’s over.”

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