Yogi Berra 1925--2015
PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY NEIL LEIFER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDFALL GUY The free-swinging Berra hit .318 against the Pirates in the 1960 World Series—a rare Fall Classic he lost as a Yankee. In 75 postseason games he batted .274 with 12 homers and 39 RBIs. At 4:33 a.m. on June 6, 1944, under overcast skies, just before dawn broke over Omaha Beach, a 36-foot steel boat was lowered from a U.S. battleship into the dark waters of the English Channel. Inside this boat—in Navy terms, a Landing Craft, Support (Small) boat; in relative terms, a bathtub—hunkered a commanding officer and six sailors. One of those sailors was a 19-year-old, first-generation American from St. Louis named Lorenzo Pietro Berra, or Lawrence Peter Berra, or better still, to you, me and posterity, Yogi Berra. Seaman 2nd Class Berra fought at D Day from one of the smallest crafts in the world's biggest assault. He was grazed by a bullet from a German machine gun (he earned a Purple Heart, though to not worry his mother, he never applied for it) and came through the war with a Distinguished Unit Citation, two battle stars, a European Theater of Operations ribbon and the beginnings of what was nothing less than the quintessential, if not outlandishly charmed, Great American Life. Twenty-seven months after D Day, wearing the famed Yankees pinstripes, the 5'7", 185-pound Berra stood in the lefthand batter's box at Yankee Stadium for his first major league game. Jesse Flores of the Philadelphia Athletics threw him an outside curveball. Berra whacked it into the rightfield seats for his first home run. The next day he hit another one. Berra would go on to become arguably the greatest catcher in baseball history and inarguably the greatest winner the game has ever known. In that spot between integration (1947) and expansion ('61), when baseball was the unchallenged great American pastime, only Stan Musial drove in more runs than Berra. He played in 14 World Series, winning a record 10, and participated in seven more as a coach or a manager—putting him in 21 of the 34 Series played between 1947 and '81. From 1950 to '56 he put together a run of MVP finishes of third, first, fourth, second, first, first and second. No one knew more success or took part in more famous baseball moments. "Talking to Yogi Berra about baseball," onetime commissioner Bart Giamatti said, "is like talking to Homer about the gods." Turning words into taffy was, of course, as much Berra's natural talent as putting solid wood to a baseball, no matter how unsightly the pitch or his swing. With only an eighth-grade education, Yogi leaves a presidential library full of malapropisms and observations that mine wisdom from simplicity. Remarks such as "It ain't over till it's over" made him, as The New Yorker observed in 1991, the successor to Winston Churchill as the most quotable figure in the world. At the time of his death on Sept. 22, near his home in Montclair, N.J., the 90-year-old Berra might have been as popular and cherished as ever, even though he played his last big league game, as a player-coach for the Mets, in 1965. He starred in television commercials that ran for years, especially with the Aflac insurance duck, and between 1997 and 2009 he wrote or cowrote eight books. But he was beloved even more because he was a God-fearing man who knew humility was a virtue, not a weakness; who wrote love letters to his wife, Carmen, from the road; who into his advanced years still carried in his wallet a picture of his parents; who never spoke ill of others; who lacked the gifts of extraordinary size, appearance and skills but owned the rare one of the ability to laugh at himself. In short, Yogi was the real deal, the genuine goods. Shortly after this new century began, CNN caught up with Berra and asked him to reflect on his wide, expansive life. Yogi, ever sweet, ever sage, ever wonderful, replied, "If I had to do it all over again, I would do it all over again."
PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN G. ZIMMERMAN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDTHE EYES HAVE IT During spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1957, Berra—flanked by Mickey Mantle (far left) and Billy Martin—already had the look of a future manager.
To order SI's special commemorative issue of stories about Berra and photographs from his career, go to backissues.si.com
PHOTONY DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGESNEW YORK STORY Clockwise from bottom left: A 15-time All-Star backstop in the Bronx beginning in the late 1940s, Berra dueled with the Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson in the '55 Series and struck a pose at Yankee Stadium in '58 before going on to Queens to manage the Mets, where he handled ace Tom Seaver, gabbed with old pal Joe DiMaggio and trumped Reds manager Sparky Anderson in the 1973 playoffs.
PHOTOMARK KAUFFMAN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]
PHOTOOLEN COLLECTION/DIAMOND IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]
PHOTONEIL LEIFER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]
PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORT/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]
PHOTOJOHN IACONO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]