Yogi Berra, one of baseball’s greatest catchers and characters, who as a player was a mainstay of 10 New York Yankees championship teams and as a manager led both the Yankees and New York Mets to the World Series – but who may be more widely known as an ungainly but lovable cultural figure, inspiring a cartoon character and issuing a seemingly limitless supply of unwittingly witty epigrams known as Yogi-isms – died Tuesday. He was 90.
His death was reported by the Yankees and by the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center Museum in Little Falls, N.J. Before moving to an assisted living facility in nearby West Caldwell, N.J., in 2012, Berra had lived for many years in neighboring Montclair.
In 1949, early in Berra’s Yankees career, his manager assessed him this way in an interview in the Sporting News:
“Mr. Berra,” Casey Stengel said, “is a very strange fellow of very remarkable abilities.”
And so he was, and so he proved to be. Universally known simply as Yogi, probably the second most recognizable nickname in sports – even Yogi wasn’t the Babe – Berra was not exactly an unlikely hero, but he was often portrayed as one: an All-Star for 15 consecutive seasons whose skills were routinely underestimated, a well-built, appealingly open-faced man whose physical appearance was often belittled, and a prolific winner – not to mention a successful leader – whose intellect was a target of humor if not outright derision.
That he triumphed on the diamond again and again despite his perceived shortcomings was certainly a source of his popularity. So was the delight with which his famous, if not always documentable, pronouncements, somehow both nonsensical and sagacious, were received.
“You can observe a lot just by watching,” he is reputed to have declared once, describing his strategy as a manager.
“If you can’t imitate him,” he advised a young player who was mimicking the batting stance of the great slugger Frank Robinson, “don’t copy him.”
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” he said, giving directions to his house. Either path, it turned out, got you there.
“Nobody goes there anymore,” he said of a popular restaurant. “It’s too crowded.”
Whether Berra actually uttered the many things attributed to him, or was the first to say them, or phrased them precisely the way they were reported, has long been a matter of speculation. Berra himself published a book in 1998 called “The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!” But the Yogi-isms testified to a character – goofy and philosophical, flighty and down to earth – that came to define the man.
Berra’s Yogi-ness was exploited in advertisements for myriad products, among them Puss ‘n Boots cat food and Miller Lite beer, but perhaps most famously, Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink. Asked if Yoo-Hoo was hyphenated, he is said to have replied, “No, ma’am, it isn’t even carbonated.”
If not exactly a Yogi-ism, it was the kind of response that might have come from Berra’s ursine namesake, the affable animated character Yogi Bear, who made his debut in 1958.
The character Yogi Berra may even have overshadowed the Hall of Fame ballplayer Yogi Berra, obscuring what a remarkable athlete he was. A notorious “bad ball” hitter – he swung at a lot of pitches that weren’t strikes but mashed them anyway – he was fearsome in the clutch and the most durable and consistently productive Yankee during the period of the team’s most relentless success.
In addition, as a catcher he played the most physically grueling and concentration-demanding position on the field. (For a respite from the chores and challenges of crouching behind the plate, Berra, who played before the designated hitter rule took effect in the American League in 1973, occasionally played the outfield.)
Stengel, the Hall of Fame manager whose shrewdness and talent were also often underestimated, recognized Berra’s gifts. He referred to Berra, even as a young player, as his assistant manager and compared him favorably to star catchers of previous eras like Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett and Bill Dickey.
“You could look it up” was Stengel’s catchphrase, and indeed the record book declares that Berra was among the greatest catchers in the history of the game, some say the greatest of all.
Berra’s career batting average of .285 wasn’t as high as that of his Yankee predecessor Dickey (.313), but Berra hit more home runs (358) and drove in more runs (1,430). Widely praised by pitchers for his astute pitch-calling, Berra led the American League in assists five times, and from 1957 through 1959 went 148 consecutive games behind the plate without making an error, a major league record at the time – although he wasn’t a defensive wizard from the start.
On defense, he certainly surpassed Mike Piazza, the best-hitting catcher of recent vintage – and maybe ever. Johnny Bench, whose Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s were known as the Big Red Machine, and Berra were comparable in offensive production, except that Bench struck out three times as often. Berra whiffed a mere 414 times in more than 8,300 plate appearances over 19 seasons – an astonishingly small ratio for a power hitter.
Others – Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter and Ivan Rodriguez among them – also deserve consideration in a discussion of great catchers, but none was clearly superior to Berra on offense or defense. Only Roy Campanella, a contemporary rival who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and faced Berra in the World Series six times before his career was ended by an auto accident, equaled Berra’s total of three Most Valuable Player awards. And although Berra didn’t win the award in 1950, he gave one of the greatest season-long performances by a catcher that year, hitting .322, smacking 28 homers and driving in 124 runs.
Berra’s career was punctuated by storied episodes. In Game 3 of the 1947 World Series against the Dodgers he hit the first pinch-hit home run in Series history, and in Game 4 he was behind the plate for what was almost the first no-hitter and was instead a stunning loss. With two out in the ninth inning and two men on base with walks, the Yankees’ starter, Bill Bevens, gave up a double to Cookie Lavagetto that cleared the bases and won the game.
In September 1951, once again on the brink of a no-hitter, this one by Allie Reynolds against the Boston Red Sox, Berra made one of baseball’s legendary errors. With two out in the ninth inning, Ted Williams hit a towering foul ball between home plate and the Yankee dugout; it looked like the end of the game, sealing Reynolds’ second no-hitter of the season and making him the first American League pitcher to accomplish that feat. But as the ball plummeted, it was caught in a gust of wind; Berra lunged backward, and it deflected off his glove as he went sprawling.
Amazingly, on the next pitch, Williams hit an almost identical pop-up, and this time Berra caught it.
In the first game of the 1955 World Series against Brooklyn, the Yankees were ahead, 6-4, in the top of the eighth when the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson stole home. Plate umpire Bill Summers called him safe, and Berra went berserk, gesticulating in Summers’ face and creating one of the enduring images of an on-the-field tantrum. The Yankees won the game although not the Series – it was the only time Brooklyn got the better of Berra’s Yanks – but Berra never forgot the moment. More than 50 years later, he signed a photograph of the play for President Barack Obama, writing, “Dear Mr. President, He was out!”
During the 1956 Series, again against Brooklyn, Berra was at the center of another indelible image, this one of sheer joy, when he leapt into the arms of Don Larsen, who had just struck out Dale Mitchell to end Game 5 and complete the only perfect game (and only no-hitter) in World Series history.
When reporters gathered at Berra’s locker after the game, he greeted them mischievously. “So,” he said, “what’s new?”
Beyond the historic moments and individual accomplishments, what most distinguished Berra’s career was how often he won. From 1946 to 1985, as a player, coach and manager, Berra appeared in a remarkable 21 World Series. Playing on powerful Yankee teams with teammates like Phil Rizzuto and Joe DiMaggio early on and then Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, Berra starred on World Series winners in 1947, ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’56 and ’58. He was a backup player on the championship teams of 1961 and ’62. (He also played on World Series losers in 1955, ’57, ’60 and ’63.) All told, his Yankee teams won the American League pennant 14 out of 17 years. He still holds Series records for games played, plate appearances, hits and doubles.
No other player has been a champion so often.
Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925, in the Italian enclave of St. Louis known as the Hill, which also fostered the baseball career of his boyhood friend Joe Garagiola. Berra was the fourth of five children. His father, Pietro, a construction worker and a bricklayer, and his mother, Paulina, were immigrants from Malvaglio, a northern Italian village near Milan. (As an adult, on a visit to his ancestral home, Berra took in a performance of “Tosca” at La Scala. “It was pretty good,” he said. “Even the music was nice.”)
As a boy, Berra was known as Larry, or Lawdie, as his mother pronounced it. As recounted in “Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee,” a 2009 biography by Allen Barra, one day in his early teens, young Larry and some friends had gone to the movies and were watching a travelogue about India when a Hindu yogi appeared on the screen sitting cross-legged. His posture struck one of the friends as precisely the way Berra sat on the ground as he waited his turn at bat. From that day on, he was Yogi Berra.
An ardent athlete but an indifferent student, Berra dropped out of school after the eighth grade. He played American Legion ball and worked odd jobs. As teenagers, both he and Garagiola tried out with the St. Louis Cardinals and were offered contracts by the Cardinals’ general manager, Branch Rickey. But Garagiola’s came with a $500 signing bonus and Berra’s just $250, so Berra declined to sign. (This was a harbinger of deals to come. Berra, whose salary as a player reached $65,000 in 1961, substantial for that era, would prove to be a canny negotiator, almost always extracting concessions from the Yankees’ penurious general manager George Weiss.)
In the meantime, the St. Louis Browns – they later moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles – also wanted to sign Berra but were not willing to pay any bonus at all. Then, the day after the 1942 World Series, in which the Cardinals beat the Yankees, a Yankee coach showed up at Berra’s parents’ house and offered him a minor league contract – along with the elusive $500.
Berra’s professional baseball life began in Virginia in 1943 with the Norfolk Tars of the Class B Piedmont League. In 111 games he hit .253 and led the league’s catchers in errors, but he once had 12 hits and drove in 23 runs over two consecutive games. It was a promising start, but World War II put his career on hold. Berra joined the Navy. He took part in the invasion of Normandy and, two months later, in Operation Dragoon, an Allied assault on Marseilles in which he was bloodied by a bullet and earned a Purple Heart.
In 1946, after his discharge, he was assigned to the Newark Bears, then the Yankees’ top farm team. He played outfield and catcher and hit .314 with 15 home runs and 59 runs batted in in 77 games, although his fielding still lacked polish; in one instance he hit an umpire with a throw from behind the plate meant for second base. Nonetheless, the Yankees summoned him in September. In his first big league game he had two hits, including a home run.
As a Yankee, Berra became a fan favorite, partly because of his superior play – he batted .305 and drove in 98 runs in 1948, his second full season – and partly because of his humility and guilelessness. In 1947, honored at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, a nervous Berra told the hometown crowd, “I want to thank everyone for making this night necessary.”
Berra was a hit with sportswriters, too, although they often portrayed him as a baseball idiot savant, an apelike, barely literate devotee of comic books and movies who spoke fractured English. So was born the Yogi caricature, of the triumphant rube.
Berra tended to take the gibes in stride. If he was ugly, he was said to have remarked, it didn’t matter at the plate. “I never saw nobody hit one with his face,” he was quoted as saying. But when writers chided him about his girlfriend, Carmen Short, saying he was too unattractive to marry her, he responded, according to Collier’s magazine, “I’m human, ain’t I?”
Berra outlasted the ridicule. He married Short in 1949, and the marriage endured until her death in 2014. He is survived by their three sons – Tim, who played professional football for the Baltimore Colts; Dale, a former infielder for the Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros; and Lawrence Jr.
Certainly, assessments of Berra changed over the years.
“He has continued to allow people to regard him as an amiable clown because it brings him quick acceptance, despite ample proof, onfield and off, that he is intelligent, shrewd and opportunistic,” Robert Lipsyte wrote in The New York Times in October 1963.
At the time, Berra had just concluded his career as a Yankee player and the team had named him manager, a role in which he’d continue to find success, although not with the same regularity he enjoyed as a player and not without drama and disappointment. Indeed things began badly. The Yankees, an aging team in 1964, played listless ball through much of the summer, and in mid-August they lost four straight games in Chicago to the first-place White Sox, leading to one of the kookier episodes of Berra’s career.
On the team bus to O’Hare Airport, reserve infielder Phil Linz began playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the harmonica. Berra, in a foul mood over the losing streak, told him to knock it off, but Linz didn’t. (In another version of the story, Linz asked Mickey Mantle what Berra had said, and Mantle responded, “He said, ‘Play it louder.’”) Suddenly the harmonica went flying, having been either knocked out of Linz’s hands by Berra or thrown at Berra by Linz. (Players on the bus had different recollections.)
News reports of the incident made it sound as if Berra had lost control of the team, and although the Yankees caught and passed the White Sox in September, winning the pennant, Ralph Houk, the general manager, fired Berra after the team lost a seven-game World Series to St. Louis, in a bizarre move replacing him with the Cardinals’ manager, Johnny Keane.
Keane’s Yankees finished last in 1965.
Berra, meanwhile, moved across town, taking a job as a coach for the famously awful Mets under Stengel, who was finishing his career in Flushing. The team continued its mythic floundering until 1969, when the so-called Miracle Mets, with Gil Hodges as manager – and Berra coaching first base – won the World Series.
After Hodges died before the start of the 1972 season, Berra replaced him. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in that summer, but the Mets team he inherited faltered, finishing third, and for most of the 1973 season they were worse. In mid-August, the team was well under .500 and in sixth place, when Berra uttered perhaps the most famous Yogi-ism of all.
“It ain’t over till it’s over,” he said (or words to that effect), and, lo and behold, the Mets got hot, squeaking by the Cardinals to win the National League’s Eastern Division title.
They then beat the Reds in the League Championship Series before losing to the Oakland Athletics in the World Series. Berra was rewarded for the resurgence with a three-year contract, but the Mets were dreadful in 1974, finishing fifth, and the next year, on Aug. 6, with the team in third place and having lost five straight games, Berra was fired.
Once again he switched leagues and city boroughs, returning to the Bronx as a Yankee coach, and in 1984 the owner, George M. Steinbrenner, named him to replace the volatile Billy Martin as manager. The team finished third that year, but during spring training in 1985 Steinbrenner promised him that he would finish the season as Yankee manager no matter what. However, after just 16 games (the Yankees were 6-10) the impatient and imperious Steinbrenner fired Berra anyway, bringing back Martin – and worse than breaking his word, perhaps, sending an underling to deliver the bad news.
The firing, which had an added sting because Berra’s son Dale had recently joined the Yankees, provoked one of baseball’s legendary feuds, and for 14 years Berra refused to set foot in Yankee Stadium. a period during which he coached four seasons for the Houston Astros.
In the meantime private donors helped establish the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the New Jersey campus of Montclair State University, which awarded Berra an honorary doctorate of humanities in 1996 and where a minor league ballpark, Yogi Berra Stadium, opened in 1998. A tribute to Berra with exhibits on his career, the museum runs programs for children dealing with baseball history. In January 1999 Steinbrenner, who died in 2010, went there to make amends.
“I know I made a mistake by not letting you go personally,” he told Berra. “It’s the worst mistake I ever made in baseball.”
Berra chose not to quibble with the semi-apology. To welcome him back into the Yankee fold, the team held a Yogi Berra Day on July 18, 1999. Also invited was Don Larsen, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch, which Berra caught.
Incredibly, in the game that day, David Cone of the Yankees pitched a perfect game.
It was, as Berra may or may not have said in another context, “deja vu all over again,” a fittingly climactic episode for a wondrous baseball life.