”To me, he is a great man. I am lucky to have him and so are my pitchers...He springs on a bunt like it was another dollar."
“He'd fall in a sewer and come up with a gold watch."
Both of those quotes came from the infinitely quotable Casey Stengel, Berra’s manager for many, many years.
I don’t think you have to be a fan of baseball to have heard of Yogi Berra. After all, he’s famous for his many strange quotes and seemingly different way of looking at things. Over the years, he’s lent his face and name to many a product (anybody remember Yoohoo?) but if it wasn’t for his abilities on the diamond, none of that would have been possible.
The son of Italian immigrants, Lawrence Peter Berra was born in St. Louis on May 12, 1925. Accounts differ as to how he became known as “Yogi”. The most reputable one is that he got the name from one of his friends who dubbed him “Yogi” after seeing a movie about Hindus. The name stuck and Berra, always active in sports, went on to chase his dreams of becoming a major league catcher.
As with most kids, those dreams start in the sandlots where pick up games seem like a daily ritual. Yogi, coming from humble origins, often had to play barefoot. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade in order to take on some jobs in order to help out his family. All the while, he continued to play in the local league sponsored by the American Legion and finally caught the attention of legendary baseball man Branch Rickey. He offered Yogi $250.00 to sign on with the St. Louis Cardinals. Yogi figured he was at least worth $500.00 and refused Rickey’s offer. The Yankees wound up signing Yogi and baseball history was about to change. As a side note, Branch Rickey would later make headlines when, as part of the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, he signed Jackie Robinson to a major league contract and broke down baseball’s color barrier.
With the advent of World War II Yogi enlisted in the United States Navy. He would later take part in the D-Day invasion where his boat capsized off Omaha Beach. He was rescued and pulled to safety and eventually made his way back to the States to start his baseball career in earnest.
He re-joined the Yankees in 1946 and was assigned to their top farm club, the Newark Bears. He was called up late in the end of the same season to give Bill Dickey, the aging Yankee catcher and future Hall of Famer, a much-needed rest. He made an immediate impression by hitting a homer in his first game.
Over the next couple of years, with Dickey guiding him every step of the way, Yogi began to shine. He learned how to handle pitchers and his fielding abilities were flawless. He once caught 148 games in a row and handled 950 chances without making a single error.
As if that weren’t enough, his ability at the plate might have been even more impressive. Surrounded by stars such as Joe DiMaggio early in his career and Mickey Mantle, later in his career, Yogi proved to be no slouch. Always known a “bad ball hitter” Yogi often chased pitches that were way out of the strike zone. Normally, for your average hitter, this is considered a bad trait and resulted in getting rung up by the pitcher. Yogi was so adept at this that in one of his seasons, he only struck out 22 times.
So how good a player was he? Try these on for size.
American League’s Most Valuable Player – 3 times
Named to the All-Star Team 15 years running (1948
Most at bats – career (259)
Most hits – career (71)
Most doubles – career (10)
Most singles – career (49)
Most World Series rings – career (10)
As if those numbers don’t speak for themselves, Yogi’s also the guy who caught Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 World Series and the picture of him jumping into Larsen’s arms after the final out is considered one of the best in baseball history. That game remains the only perfect game in World Series history.
After retiring as a player, Yogi went on to the coaching ranks and eventually became a major league manager. What he lacked in what could be called “book smarts”, he made for by becoming a student of the game. He is one of the few men in the storied history of baseball to win World Series Championships as a manager in both leagues. The first came with the Yankees in 1964 and then with their cross-town rivals, the New York Mets in 1973.
Although generally known as the happy go lucky kind of guy, Yogi did have his pride. When he unceremoniously fired by the infamous George Steinbrenner only 16 games into the Yankees' 1985 season, he vowed not to return to Yankee Stadium. What ensued was an unspoken feud between him and Steinbrenner that would last 14 years in which Yogi refused to attend various events such as Old-Timers Games and other functions that included past Yankee greats. Always a team player, Yogi found it hard to turn down requests from former teammates such as Whitey Ford to make an appearance but he held true to his convictions. Finally, in 1999, Steinbrenner issued an apology in a closed door meeting with Yogi and his family. He was invited and accepted the offer to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in his beloved Yankee Stadium on April 9, 1999. Needless to say, the stadium was packed and Yogi received an extended standing ovation.
Yogi Berra, a true ambassador to the game, was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 and is also been selected as a member of Baseball’s All Century Team for his achievements both on the field and off.
For those of you who are devotees of the sport of baseball, you’ll notice one glaring omission in this w/u that I purposely left out. Yogi Berra also coached for spell for the Houston Astros after being fired from the Yankees. The image of him in those hideous uniforms of the 80’s, after spending so many years in pinstripes, is almost too much for me to bear.