When Larry Berra was a teenager, one of his teachers got him into stamp-collecting, a hobby that he enjoyed for years. As he found magic in all the tiny portraits of artists and icons and presidents, he asked his teacher: What would it take to get his father—Yogi Berra, the famous ballplayer, then at the tail end of his career—onto a stamp?
The teacher explained to him that an individual who is still alive cannot be featured on a stamp. “I said, ‘Well, hopefully that won’t happen for a while,’” recalls the younger Berra, now 71. But that conversation from high school came back to him last year—when he got a surprise call from the United States Postal Service to say that his father, who died in 2015, would finally have a stamp of his own.
“I was stunned when they asked me,” Berra says. “It’s an incredible feeling.”
Yogi Berra’s stamp was unveiled in January and will be released later in 2021. The honor that puts him in select company—the other individuals honored with stamps this year are science-fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin, nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, and artist Emilio Sanchez. For his family, though, it’s a way to keep his memory alive while sending his face around the country.
“To have Dad’s image in front of people all the time so they don’t forget him—that means a lot to me,” Berra says.
The process of putting an individual on a stamp and finding the right design can take years—each tiny image comes only after plenty of back-and-forth. It starts with the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, a group of people with expertise in various fields who gather four times a year to review proposals for new stamps that have been sent in from around the U.S. (Berra’s name first popped up in 2016; the committee can select only a handful of names for stamps each year and typically looks a few years out at a time.) Once an individual has been chosen, a research group collects relevant material for potential artwork, and the family is contacted to go through necessary legal paperwork. Then it’s time to get down to the work of figuring out the design.
“I wanted to make sure that the stamp had a certain energy—that it wasn’t just like a typical baseball card,” says USPS art director Antonio Alcalá.
Alcalá hired one artist to try capturing Berra, and when early sketches failed to capture the vibe, he switched to another one. This artist, Charles Chaisson, reviewed a dozen different images of Berra selected by the research group before producing a handful of sketches. One potentially promising example showed Berra batting—“but at a stamp size, everything ends up being so small,” Alcalá says, “so if you’re showing the batter in his swing, it’s hard to see Yogi, and instead he becomes another baseball player in a generic sort of way.” So he decided on a different route. The final selection is centered on Berra’s face, but with a more “dynamic angle” than you might find in your traditional baseball card, situated partially outside the frame. You can see his chest protector, identifying him as a catcher, and his ball cap, identifying him as a Yankee. But the focus is on him and his smile.
That’s exactly right to Larry Berra.
“I just remember my father smiling all the time,” says Berra. “And I’d rather have his face showing than hidden behind the mask.”
While the stamp was being developed, Berra could not discuss it publicly, bound by the terms of a nondisclosure agreement. After the announcement was made official in January, however, he made a few calls—to the sons of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, teammates of his father who have been featured on their own stamps, to share the news and ask about their experiences with the unique honor.
“I think there are very few ways the United States brands itself both to its citizens and to the world,” Alcalá says. “We have the flag—of course that’s an incredibly important one—and we have our currency. But beyond those, there are few things that reach everywhere across the country that say, This is something that the United States government feels like represents who we are, the things that we value, the things that we believe are important. So to have a stamp celebrating your contributions to American culture, American life. … It’s significant.”
Berra is the 31st baseball player to be featured on a stamp; 20 of the previous 30 came together in a set that was released to honor the MLB All-Century Team in 2000, however, and so only a handful have been honored individually like this. Jackie Robinson was the first: “They’ve put Jackie Robinson on a postage stamp,” SI wrote at the time, “right up there in the same league with Thomas Jefferson and the woman who founded the Red Cross.”
That league now includes Yogi Berra. And for Larry, the oldest of his three sons, it’s one last stamp to add to the collection that he started all those years ago.
“His face brought joy to thousands of people,” says Berra. “As players get older and pass away, their legacy wanes and goes down, but hopefully the stamp will keep it going—that means the most to me, to keep him in the public eye, so they don’t just forget.”