Yogi Berra, American original and Yankees immortal, dies at 90
Yogi. It’s hard not to smile when you hear his name. You might think of his goofy mug, with the crooked smile that looked as if it had been ripped from the funny pages. Then there’s the oddly-shaped wrestler’s body—squat torso, long arms—that inspired his first Yankees manager to call him “the Ape.” And of course then there were the malapropisms, some authentic, others invented by sportswriters, which he delivered in a monotone sprinkled with the flat A’s of his Midwestern roots.
If anyone didn’t like Yogi Berra, it could only have been someone who played on the teams he helped beat so relentlessly for 19 seasons. Then again, many of his opponents and their fans echoed the sentiments of my father, whose love for the Brooklyn Dodgers was matched only by his hatred of the Yankees: Once, when I asked him if he hated Yogi, Dad looked at me with incredulity. “How can you hate Yogi?”
As Mickey Mantle said, “He was the guy who made the Yankees almost seem human.”
If Babe Ruth was the greatest Yankee, Lou Gehrig the most admired and Joe DiMaggio the most exalted, then Berra was the most adored, a title he took with him to the grave when he died on Tuesday night at the age of 90. It’s not just that he’s a Hall of Famer, a three-time Most Valuable Player and earner of an unsurpassed 10 World Series rings. He was also, according to his biographer, Allen Barra, “the greatest player at baseball’s most demanding position.”
Of all the elite catchers in the game’s history, Bill James wrote in 100 Years: The Yankee Retrospective, “Berra was the only one who played every day, batted cleanup, did the job defensively, and never had a bad season … Roy Campanella was as good as Berra was in his best seasons, maybe better, and so was Johnny Bench and maybe Mickey Cochrane, too. Put all three together, and they had about as many great seasons combined as Yogi did by himself.”
When Yogi’s second manager, Casey Stengel was asked to identify the secret of his success, he said “I never play a game without my man,” by which he meant Berra.
The Yankees' catcher amassed 358 home runs and 1,430 RBIs and struck out only 414 times, feasting on the kinds of pitches that other hitters disdained. “If you’d bounce the ball to the plate, throw it over his head or throw it at him, he’d hit it solidly,” said Eddie Joost, a Philadelphia Athletics infielder. And yet Berra gained just as much fame for saying things like, “90% of the game is half-mental,” “You can observe a lot by watching,” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
He wasn’t trying to be funny; he was just Yogi. It was the guys behind the typewriter who did the rest and largely created his persona. “The media was good with him,” wrote David Halberstam in October 1964, “inventing a cuddly, wise, witty figure who did not, in fact, exist.” Even Yogi admitted, “I really didn't say everything I said.”
Behind this image, though, he was a tough, prideful man and a fierce competitor. Berra had a flair for business and was a formidable contract negotiator at a time when players, particularly the Yankees, were at the mercy of remorseless team executives. Shrewd enough to realize that he could capitalize on his image, Yogi became one of the most successful celebrity pitchmen, a lucrative sideline that lasted 50 years, surfacing in ads that sold everything from Yoo-Hoo to the Aflac duck.
"They say he's funny,” said Stengel. “Well, he has a lovely wife and family, a beautiful home, money in the bank, and he plays golf with millionaires. What's funny about that?"
The future Yogi was born Lawrence Peter Berra on May 12, 1925, in St. Louis. He and three older brothers and a sister grew up in an Italian neighborhood known as the Hill. His father was a bricklayer; his mother didn’t speak English and called her son Lawdie. Berra’s dalliance with formal education ended after ninth grade. From that point forward, baseball defined his life. First, an American Legion teammate gave him his nickname after seeing a movie that involved the Indian holy men known as Yogis. Then there was the business of trying to impress big-league scouts. Though he was a sandlot star, he wasn’t considered as polished as his good friend, Joe Garagiola, who admitted, “Yogi wasn’t better than me. He was much better.”
Garagiola signed with the Cardinals for a $500 bonus. Berra, meanwhile, was rejected outright by the woeful Browns and insulted when the Cards offered to sign him but with no bonus. Branch Rickey, their otherwise visionary general manager, didn’t seem much bothered even after he ponied up a $250 signing bonus. “That boy,” he said, “is too clumsy and too slow.”
Rickey was the finest talent evaluator the game had ever seen, but like so many others, he underestimated Berra. “It was,” Barra said, “the most colossally shortsighted blunder ever made by a baseball executive.”
Instead, Berra signed with the Yankees for $500 and played one season of minor-league ball at age 18 before he enlisted in the Navy. When the Americans landed at Normandy, he was part of the top-secret mission, stationed on a 36-foot landing craft support (LCS) just off Omaha beach. The boat was more like a floating bathtub; Berra, along with five other enlisted men and one officer, manned 24 rockets and three machine guns. Their job, according to Barra, “was to spray rockets on the beach before troop landings.” Berra and his mates stayed there for 12 days. “I didn’t know enough to be scared,” he remembered. He later saw time in Tunisia and Italy and received a Purple Heart for action he saw in assault on Marseille, France. Berra was never one to talk about himself, and many of his future teammates had no idea he’d served his country, let alone participated in one of the century’s most critical battles.
When he came home, Berra played for the Yankees’ Newark farm team, got called up to the big club at the end of the 1946 season and set about becoming a legend in ’47, although few realized it. The Yankees hid him in the outfield for 24 games, and when they put him behind the plate, they could only hope that their clumsy young catcher wouldn’t get killed or run out of the ballpark. He hit bottom during the World Series, when Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers stole seven bases in the first four games. Yogi played rightfield after that, and the Yanks won in seven.
Berra’s transformation as a receiver began in 1949, when new manager Casey Stengel brought in Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey to mentor Yogi. By the time Dickey was finished, as Yogi put it, “learning me everything he knows,” it was clear that his pupil would soon displace him as the Yankees’ greatest catcher. As Stengel put it, “Mr. Berra is a rather peculiar fellow of very remarkable abilities.”
Stengel also put an end to the ape talk. “No more of this stuff about him keeping house in a tree or swinging from limb to limb like those apes,” he said. “And stop feeding him peanuts.”
Still, Berra was an irresistible target, and everyone seemed to be taking cheap shots at his looks. “On the polite and professional Yankees,” wrote Ernest Havemann, “Yogi looks as out of place as a tractor in a Cadillac plant.” Red Sox pitcher Mike Ryba called him the captain of the “All-America Ugly Team.” Yogi let Ryba know that he “would never win any beauty contest himself,” and then he went out and swung the bat with a vengeance. “It don’t matter if you’re ugly in this racket,” he said. “All you gotta do is hit the ball, and I never saw nobody hit one with his face.”
The damage Berra wrought with his bat was enough to give him the last laugh, but he did even better than that when he met a bright 19-year-old beauty named Carmen Short who was working as a waitress in St. Louis. “I was bashful, nervous, not good-looking,” he said. But he was also ready to give her his heart, as he poured out his feelings in love letters from the road. She gave him her heart in return, and they married in 1949, a union that produced three sons, all of them professional athletes, and lasted until her death 65 years later. “I could hardly believe my luck,” he said. “Carmen liked me as much as I liked her.”
It was hard not to get the feeling that Berra, according to Stengel, was the kind of guy would fall into a sewer and climb out holding a gold watch. There were the odd but insightful things he said, of course, but there was also the story his roommate, Bobby Brown, told about Yogi reading a comic book. Brown, a third baseman who would become a physician, was reading a textbook at the same time. When they both put their books down, Yogi said, “How did yours turn out?” Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t. Either way, it was too good for reporters to pass up.
“Funny thing about those jokes,” Berra told Sport magazine. “When the fans do it, I like it. When the newspaper fellows do it, I like it. I like it when they get on me. Makes me want to do better. Know what I mean? If I get a hit, it’s that much better a hit. I figure if they didn’t like me, they wouldn’t holler. It’s when they stop joking with me I’m in trouble.”
The joking never stopped, though, and the only people in trouble were the pitchers who tried to get Berra out, as he was the AL MVP three times in seven years. His breakout season was 1950: .322/.388/.533, 30 doubles, six triples, 28 home runs, 124 RBIs, 116 runs—and he struck out only 12 times. That last stat was no fluke, either: He topped 30 strikeouts only three times in his career and never whiffed more than 38 times in a season.
The Yankees, meanwhile, were making the World Series their personal province. They won the first six Berra played in, though he didn’t hit especially well. After that, October was his meat: .429/.538/.619 in 1953, .417/.500/.583 in '55, .360/.448/.800 in '56 and .320/.414/.480 in '57. In the 1956 series, Berra torched Brooklyn ace Don Newcombe for a grand slam in Game 2 and two more homers in Game 7.
“I always said he would swing at a horse turd and hit it,” Newcombe said. “Every pitch I threw to him I wanted back.”
If a Series produced a memorable photo of a memorable moment, Berra was odds-on to be in it. There he was going crazy when Jackie Robinson was called safe stealing home in 1955. Berra spent the rest of his life insisting he was out. A year later, he was leaping into Don Larsen’s arms after that imperfect man pitched a perfect game. And it was Berra who watched forlornly as Bill Mazeroski’s homer sailed over the leftfield wall in Pittsburgh to beat the Yanks in 1960.
It was not for that Zelig-like presence, however, that Stengel came to call Berra his “assistant.” Not only did Yogi have a sharp mind, but he was also one of the better defensive catchers in the league. “I’m not sure that the fans really appreciated how nimble Berra was,” Mantle said. “Twice in his career I saw him grab a squeeze bunt, tag the batter before he could get out of the box and then dive to double the runner trying to score from third.”
The rest of the time, Yogi talked. He talked to opposing hitters, and to umpires and batboys and anyone else who crossed his path. On the field, he was just plain friendly.
“Have a good dinner last night?” he’d ask Ted Williams.
“Maybe just shut up, you ugly bastard,” Williams said.
“If you leave a tip, the food gets better,” said Yogi.
Williams hated a blabbermouth, remembered Berra’s teammate Phil Rizzuto, “but he could not hate Yogi.”
The fun stopped when it was time for him to negotiate his contract. In an era when players didn’t have agents and front-office cutthroats showed them no mercy, Yankees general manager George Weiss might have been the worst of them all. Berra refused to be cowed by him. “How smart was Yogi Berra?” Rizzuto said, recalling those 1950 negotiations. “A bunch of Yankees held out for more money that year, but Yogi was the only one who got what he wanted.” And the next year it was déjà vu all over again.
“I have to stay in Yogi’s good graces,” Stengel liked to say. “He’s in good with the bosses, you know?”
In his way, Berra knew how to make a buck as well as they did. It might be in the clubhouse card games he always seemed to win, or in business ventures with Rizzuto. And it didn’t hurt that Carmen had a head for business, too. Some said she was the real brains in the family, and Yogi never said a word otherwise.
His crafted public image had come a long way from the homely kid who spoke as inelegantly as he caught. When Hanna-Barbera introduced a cartoon character named Yogi Bear, who sounded and dressed vaguely like Art Carney’s Ed Norton from The Honeymooners, it resurrected Berra’s image as a comic book-reading ape caricature. Berra wasn’t thrilled about it and had a lawyer look into it, but when Hanna-Barbera proved that Yogi wasn’t Yogi Berra’s real name, nothing came of it. Still, the cartoon was inspired by the man—amiable, underestimated and “smarter than your average bear.”
The Yankees maintained their dynasty into the 1960s, playing in the first five World Series of the decade. But Stengel was fired after the collapse against the Pirates in 1960, and his replacement, Ralph Houk, was promoted to general manager when the Dodgers swept the Yankees in ’63. By this time, Stengel was delighting fans and sports writers alike as the manager of the Mets, a monumentally bad team that nevertheless outdrew the Yankees. Who better than Berra to try to compete with Casey for control of the sports page?
Yogi retired from playing to take over as the Yankees’ manager in 1964. Mantle had his last great season and Joe Pepitone had the best campaign of his career, but the team struggled with injuries and the perception was that the veterans took advantage of their friendship with Berra. The most celebrated incident came when the manager yelled at utility infielder Phil Linz for being a wise-ass on the team bus after a loss. “But most of us got along with him,” third baseman Clete Boyer said, “and we all knew, even when we would kid around with him, that he was a smart baseball man. He didn’t over-manage, but when he did make a move, it was always the right one. Doesn’t mean it always worked, but it was the sound baseball choice.”
The team went 22–6 in September and won the pennant. Losing the World Series to the Cardinals in seven games shouldn’t have been a reflection on Berra as a manager—especially with his ace pitcher, Whitey Ford, hurt—but the Yankees promptly fired him anyway. For the next dozen years, they never so much as made the postseason.
As for Berra, he joined the Mets as a coach in 1965, was with them when they won the Series in ’69 and became manager in '72 after Gil Hodges died. A year later, the Mets became the team with the worst record (82–79) to ever make the playoffs. In the middle of the summer, as the ball club treaded water, Dave Anderson of The New York Times quoted Berra as saying, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” and another Yogi-ism was born.
The Mets, heavy underdogs, beat the Big Red Machine in the playoffs before taking the Oakland A’s of Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers to seven games in the World Series. The Mets lost, and in the middle of the 1975 season, Berra was fired.
It seemed only fitting that he would return to the Yankees as Billy Martin’s bench coach in 1976, a much-needed calming presence for the Bronx Zoo and an ace in the hole for the team’s impulsive, volcanic owner George Steinbrenner. Yogi had box office appeal, but more than that, Steinbrenner wanted Yogi around when relations with the tempestuous Martin erupted, as they did time and again. When Martin and his star rightfielder, Reggie Jackson, almost came to blows in the dugout at Fenway Park, Yogi was the one that got between them.
Steinbrenner fired Martin after the 1983 season and hired Berra as his manager. But it got late early in ’84, to borrow a Yogi-ism, when the Detroit Tigers went 35–5 to start the season, effectively ending the Yanks’ chances at the playoffs. Steinbrenner harangued Berra, his players and his coaches, and, at his most erratic and dictatorial, demoted players punitively. Finally, in July, during a meeting with the owner and the coaching staff just before the All-Star break, Yogi decided he’d heard enough.
He threw a pack of cigarettes at Steinbrenner and launched into a tirade memorialized by Bill Madden and Moss Klein in their book, Damned Yankees. “This isn’t my f---ing team, it’s your f---ing team!,” Berra shouted. “You make all the f---ing decisions. You make all the f---ing moves. You get all the f---ing players that nobody else wants. You put this f---ing team together and then you can sit back and wait for us to lose so you can blame everybody else because you’re a f---ing chicken s--- liar.”
Steinbrenner turned to the coaches and said, “I guess the pressure of losing is getting to him.”
Nevertheless, there was Steinbrenner the next spring, telling the press, “Yogi Berra will be the manager for the whole year. A bad start will not affect Yogi’s status.” Then he fired Berra after a 6–10 start in 1985, a period notable for the absence of future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, who was nursing an injury. Nonetheless, Steinbrenner said, “I didn’t fire Yogi, the players fired him.”
“Some full season,” Berra told general manager Clyde King, who’d been sent to do the firing. “Whatever he wants; it’s his team. He could’ve told me himself, though.” But he hadn’t, and Yogi swore he would never return to Yankee Stadium as long as Steinbrenner owned the team.
What separated Berra from the scores of other managers and general managers fired by Steinbrenner was that he kept his word. The Boss couldn’t soften him up with money or cushy executive jobs or honorary awards. Even when the Yankees unveiled plaques of Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra in Monument Park in 1988, Yogi and his family were no-shows.
Another 11 years would pass before there was a rapprochement. WFAN broadcaster Suzyn Waldman arranged a meeting between Yogi and Steinbrenner at Berra’s museum and learning center in Montclair, N.J. The Yankees were back on top, having won two of the previous three World Series and zeroing in on two more. When Steinbrenner arrived, the first thing Berra said was, “You’re late.” That broke the ice. The two went into a room by themselves, closed the doors, and shouted at each other so loudly that they could be heard outside. In time, Carmen joined them, the noise subsided, and when they finally emerged, George and Yogi were friends again.
“It’s over,” Berra said.
“I would have driven across the George Washington Bridge in a rickshaw to get Yogi back,” Steinbrenner said.
After that, Berra returned to Yankee Stadium and was a fixture there for the rest of his life (his annual trips to spring training as a special instructor were lovingly captured in Harvey Araton’s Driving Mr. Yogi). It was where he belonged. Of course, when David Cone threw a perfect game in 1999, it came on Yogi Berra Day.
In his last years, Yogi was more gnomish than ever, especially when he donned a Yankee uniform on Old Timer’s Day. Here was the good luck charm, shrunken but preserved. After DiMaggio died, Berra became the greatest living Yankee, always introduced last to the loudest ovation. He was a living reminder of the proudest of Yankee traditions: winning.
But if you looked past that and remembered Yogi as a funny-looking little guy who said funny things, that was alright, too. Indeed, it was part of what made him such an enduring figure. We may not have realized how shrewd he was, but who cared so long as he made us smile every time that we saw him or even heard his name? He gave us laughter along with the big hits and all those World Series championships. He was, wonder of wonders, a Yankee everyone could love, which is perhaps the greatest Yogi-ism of them all.