All-star, soldier, philanthropist, wit—these are just a few of the many words one could use to describe baseball legend Yogi Berra, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90. Though he will no doubt remain best known for his many accomplishments as the catcher for one of the most dominant New York Yankees teams in baseball history, his famous witticisms, military service and charitable endeavors leave behind him a legacy that extends far beyond the diamond and that has made him not only one of the greatest but also one of the most-loved to have ever played the game.
Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925, in an Italian immigrant section of St. Louis, Missouri, known as “The Hill.” One of five children, Berra showed a passion and aptitude for athletics early on, playing baseball, softball, soccer, football and even roller hockey. But it would be baseball that emerged as his favorite, and before long, Berra was on teams in both the YMCA and American Legion leagues. It was while playing in the latter that he acquired the nickname that would stick for life, when a friend dubbed him “Yogi,” remarking that Berra’s habit of sitting cross-legged in the dugout reminded him of a snake-charmer.
In 1942, Berra and another friend and neighbor, future major leaguer and sports announcer Joe Garagiola, were given the opportunity to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals. Both were asked to sign with the team, but when they compared notes, Berra was dismayed to discover that the $250 he had been offered was half as much as Garagiola’s contract and he turned it down. The following year, however, at age 18, Berra signed a minor league contract with the Yankees for $500. In his first year with the organization, during which he played for the Norfolk Tars, he split his time between the outfield and behind the plate and distinguished himself early by, among other feats, once driving in an astonishing total of 23 runs in a doubleheader.
Despite the obviously bright future in baseball that awaited him, when the United States entered World War II, Berra heard the call of duty and promptly enlisted in the Navy. He served in Europe as a second-class seaman and gunner’s mate aboard a rocket boat that was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June of 1944 and received several commendations for his actions during the battle.
When Berra’s military service ended in 1946, he returned to the Yankees organization, this time playing for the minor league Newark Bears. His stay there was brief, however, and on September 22, 1946, Berra was called on to play his first major league game for the Yankees. An auspicious indication of the dazzling career to come, in his first major league at bat, Berra introduced himself to the home crowd at Yankee Stadium by belting a home run. Though Berra was initially clumsy behind the plate, under the tutelage of coach and former Yankees catcher Bill Dickey, his defensive abilities were soon equaled only by his offense. During the 19 seasons of his professional career as a player, Berra put up some of the most impressive numbers in the game. Among his most notable accomplishments on the field were: becoming the first person in World Series history to hit a pinch-hit home run (1947); winning the Most Valuable Player award in 1951, 1954 and 1955; leading catchers in home runs and RBIs for nearly a decade; playing in 15 All-Star Games; and in 1958 earning a perfect (1.000) fielding percentage, making him just one of four catchers ever to do so. He played on more pennant-winning teams (14) and won more World Series championships (10) than any player in baseball history.
As if these statistics alone would not be enough to win over Yankees fans, Berra was equally beloved for his friendly, down-to-earth personality and the malapropisms, often referred to as “Yogi-isms,” that have made him perhaps the most quoted sports figure of all time. Among his most famous sayings are “Baseball is ninety percent mental, and the other half is physical,” “The future ain’t what is used to be,” “I never said most of the things I said” (in reference to the press’s frequent exaggerations of his comments) and “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” which has become an inseparable part of the lexicon of baseball and, indeed, of sports in general.
After retiring as a player in 1963, Berra returned to the Yankees as manager in 1964. The team won the pennant that year but lost the series and Berra was subsequently fired. He was a coach for the New York Mets for the next seven years, and, in 1972, became that team’s manager. The year 1972 also saw Berra’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Yankees honoring him by permanently retiring his jersey number (8). In 1975, Berra returned to the Yankees, first as a coach, then again as manager from 1983 until he was once more fired in 1985. He was hired as a bench coach by the Houston Astros in 1986 and was there until his retirement in 1992, having spent almost a lifetime devoted to the game.
Following his retirement, Berra devoted much of his time to charitable causes, raising millions through annual golf tournaments. In 1998 Berra was involved in opening the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center. The center’s mission is to promote values such as sportsmanship, social justice and educational excellence. The museum houses items from Berra’s days as a player, including the glove he wore in the perfect game he caught during the 1958 World Series, as well as his championship rings.
Berra also penned several memoirs, appeared in countless television commercials and has been the subject of endless articles, documentaries and feature films, including 61*, The Bronx Is Burning and the 2013 Broadway musical Bronx Bombers.
In 2014, Berra’s wife, Carmen, to whom he had been married for 65 years, died of complications resulting from a stroke. The couple is survived by their three sons, Dale, Tim and Larry. Yogi Berra is survived by the feats of skill and wit that have made him one of the greatest, most memorable sports figures ever.