Lawrence Peter Yogi Berra was one of the most popular New York Yankees of all time. With all the discussion on who will be the Yankee catcher next season, I thought it would be appropriate to look at one of the Yankees’ most iconic catchers. Yogi was a long time catcher, coach, and manager for the Yankees. Berra was born in 1925 to immigrant parents Pietro and Paolina Berra in the Italian neighborhood of the “Hill” in St. Louis, Missouri. His real name was Lorenzo Pietro Berra. To fans, he was just “Yogi.”
He learned how to catch while playing baseball in the local American Legion baseball team. While playing there, friend Jack McGuire saw a newsreel about India, and he noticed that the Yogi’s sat with their arms and hands crossed, the same as Berra. He began calling him Yogi, and the nickname stuck. After playing for the legion teams, The Yankees signed Yogi for a $500 bonus, but the War intervened. In the Navy, Berra was a gunner’s mate and was involved in the U.S. assault on Omaha Beach. He was also sent to Utah Beach during the D-day invasion. After the war, he received several commendations for his bravery.
Berra was a short guy for baseball norms, but he surprised everyone with his talent during his short time in the minor league Newark Bears. He was called up by the Yankees late in the 1946 season but only played in seven games. In 1947, he played in 87 games.
In the next fourteen years, the Yankees reached the World Series fourteen times and won it all ten years. Berra caught in more than 100 games a year in that span. Berra established records for the most at-bats, 259 hits, 71 doubles, ten singles, and 457 put outs in World Series play.
During his career, he was selected to 18 All-Star games, was American League MVP in 1951. 54 and 55. He never finished in the voting lower than fourth throughout his career. To give an example of just how good he was, he was on teams with Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, yet Berra led in RBI’s seven consecutive seasons. One of the reasons is that he had the ability to hit balls outside of the strike zone. He was also very strong for a small man; he once caught a 22 inning game, which takes tremendous endurance. Being a short guy, it was natural that he would befriend fellow player Phil Rizzuto who was the team’s short shortstop.
During Berra’s best run, from 1950-1956, he averaged 144 games a year and maintained a .295/.365/.502 line. He led the league in games caught in every one of those seasons and led the league in runners caught stealing in the first three of them. He won all three of his MVPs in that span. Yogi Berra was a notorious bad-ball hitter known for being impossible to strike out; he was fanned only 166 times over those seven seasons combined. Think about that 166 times in seven seasons. By comparison, Aaron Judge struck out 208 times in one year (2017). Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez has struck out 396 in just the four years ending in 2019.
After Berra retired as a player after the 1963 World Series, he was immediately made Manager of the Yankees, just one of many coaching jobs he would hold until he again Managed the Yankees for George Steinbrenner. In 1984 agreed to an extension into 1985 with the assurance that George would not fire him. Well, sixteen games into the season, George fired him and didn’t even do it in person. This created a huge rift, and Yogi was absent from Yankee Stadium for over fourteen years. As George aged, he realized that he wronged Yogi and arranged a meeting. Yogi agreed to it at Yogi’s New Jersey home, and they patched things up. On July 18, 1999, George arranged a Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium honoring the former catcher. On that same day, David Cone pitched his perfect game with Don Larsen in the stands. Yogi caught Don Larsen’s perfect game. From that time on, Yogi was a fixture at Yankee Stadium and became everyone’s Grandfather. Yogi made his last appearance at Old Timer’s Day in June of 2015.
In 1998, Yogi opened the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the grounds of Montclair State University. There was also a baseball stadium named after him. Berra had three sons with his wife, Carmen. In 2012 due to Carmen’s declining health, they moved into an assisted living facility where Yogi would live until his death. In 2014, Carmen passed away. Previous to that, his closest friend Phil Rizutto died. The two people closest to him had died.
Yogi Berra will be remembered as a great catcher and baseball player. Still, he will also be fondly remembered for his Yogi-isms. a series of delightful aphorisms about baseball and life in general, quotes like, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” “90% of baseball is mental, the other 50% is physical”, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it,” “It ain’t over til it’s over,” and “you can observe a lot by watching.” Those are just a few of the wonderful Yogi-isms that are still quoted today. One day Yogi was asked about his Yogi-isms, he in his way with words: “I never said most of the things I said.”
Yogi Berra is one of the most honored Yankee baseball legends. He was an All-Star 18 times; no other catcher in baseball has approached that. He was an MVP candidate 15 times while winning the prestigious award three times. No other catcher in baseball has ever won the MVP three times. His museum displays his 10 World Series rings, which is more than any other baseball player in history. He won three more championships as a coach, including an astonishing 21 total World Series appearances as a player, coach, or manager. During his eighteen-year career, he amassed 2,148 hits, 358 home runs, and 1,430 RBI’s while hitting a career .285 batting average. I was lucky enough to watch Yogi’s career, and a great one it was.
After leaving the Yankees, he became a coach for the cross-town New York Mets. He served under Casey Stengel, Wes Westum, and Gil Hodges for seven seasons, including the Mets’ 1969 World Series win. During spring training in 1972, Gil Hodges suddenly died, and Berra was made manager. Although he was a successful manager, Berra’s tenure as the 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 New York Yankees as a coach. During that time, the Yankees won the Fall Classic in 1977 and 1978. Berra was again named Yankee manager before the 1984 season and was quickly fired, leading to the aforementioned riff with owner George M. Steinbrenner that lasted for fourteen years.
In 1985 Berra signed with the Houston Astros as a bench coach and led the team to the NLCS in 1986. Berra stayed with the Astros completing the 1989 season. He finished his managerial career with a regular-season record of 484–444 and a playoff record of 9–10. Yogi Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. In the same year, his Yankee number 8 was retired with a Monument Park plaque at Yankee Stadium.
Sixty-nine years to the day after Yogi joined the Yankees, he passed away in his sleep at 90 in 2015. All of New York mourned. The empire state building was lighted in pinstripes, The Yankees wore “8” on their sleeves, flags flew at half-mast from New York to his birthplace in St. Louis, and a moment of silence was honored at major league games throughout the country. In 2015 President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Yogi with Presidential Medal of Freedom. In Berra’s place, his son Larry Berra accepted the medal.
Yogi Berra, the unlikely baseball Icon and folk hero, lived his long life, on and off the field, with uncommon humility.