Recently, I saw a documentary about the late Yogi Berra, published by his granddaughter, and I was reminded that I had never published a blog about him despite the fact that he was one of the most colorful personalities I had ever observed. I highly recommend the documentary. Anyway, below please find my blog about the aforementioned Yogi Berra.
In your opinion, who is the greatest catcher in MLB history? There are several worthy candidates, for example, Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, Mickey Cochrane, Roy Campanella, Ivan Rodrigues, and Carlton Fisk, to name a few. Each of them has worthy credentials. If you prefer offense, there’s Bench who, during his 17 seasons was perennially among the league leaders in homeruns and RBI and a mainstay of the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine” teams of the 1970s. If you favor defense, Rodriquez, who caught 2,427 games, was renown for picking off runners and throwing out would-be base stealers, and won an MLB-best 13 gold gloves including ten in a row, is your man. But, in my opinion, the best all-around catcher, combining offense, defense and post season championships was Yogi Berra, and I say this as a lifelong Dodgers fan who grew up hating the Yankees.
Lorenzo Pietro Berra was born on May 12, 1925 in St. Louis, MO. His parents Pietro and Paulina, were first-generation Italian immigrants. He had three older brothers and one sister. As a young child Yogi’s name was Americanized to Lawrence Peter, but his family nicknamed him “Lawdie” because his mother had difficulty pronouncing “Lawrence” or “Larry.”
Yogi’s family lived in a working class predominantly Italian neighborhood in St. Louis known as “The Hill.” One of his neighbors was Joe Garagiola, who also became a major league catcher and an accomplished sports personality. In their youth they were friends and competitors. Ironically, Garagiola was generally considered to be the better player. More on that later. The iconic sports announcer, Jack Buck, also lived in that neighborhood for a time. (Some of you may recall Buck’s famous “call” of Kirk Gibson’s dramatic game-winning homerun for the Dodgers against the A’s in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series – “I don’t believe what I just saw!”)
Pietro was a basic laborer with an “old country” attitude who believed in hard work. He didn’t understand leisure pursuits like baseball and thought they were a waste of time. He strongly urged, even demanded, his sons to commence working as soon as possible. He didn’t want his sons, especially Yogi’s older brothers, who were also outstanding athletes, to “waste time” with sports. In the traditional Berra family Pietro’s word was law. Luckily, Yogi’s brothers convinced Pietro to allow Yogi to pursue a professional baseball career. He began by playing for local American Legion teams while still in high school.
It was during his tenure with one of the aforementioned American Legion teams that Lawrence Peter became known as “Yogi.” The story is that one of his friends, having seen a newsreel about India, said his habit of sitting around with his arms and legs crossed resembled a yoga. The moniker caught on and stuck with him the rest of his life.
How Yogi became a Yankee was the result of one of the strange ironies that sometimes occurs in baseball. Both Berra and Garagiola were being scouted by various teams. In 1942 the hometown St. Louis Cardinals could have signed either one, but they chose Garagiola. As I mentioned Garagiola was generally considered to be the better prospect, but supposedly the Cardinals’ president, Branch Rickey, secretly preferred Berra. However, he knew he was going to leave the Cardinals for the Dodgers the next year. So, he figured he would sign, Garagiola, “hide” Berra for the time being and sign him with the Dodgers after he had switched teams. Alas, Rickey outsmarted himself; the Yankees swooped in and signed Berra for a mere $500, which became one of the best bargains in baseball history.
WWII intervened. Berra served in the Navy. Notably, he served as a gunner’s mate on a transport ship during the D-Day invasion. During the operation he suffered a minor hand wound for which he was given a Purple Heart. He was discharged in May 1946.
He then began his professional career with the Newark Bears, the Yankees AAA affiliate. He was mentored by ex-Yankee catcher and Hall of Famer Bill Dickey. That arrangement gave rise to one of Yogi’s many famous sayings when he told reporters that Dickey was “learning me his experience.”
Yogi’s odd physical appearance gave rise to a great deal of taunting by opposing players. Baseball players were and to a certain extent still are, notorious “bench jockeys.” It is traditional to “pick” on opposing players to try to “get under their skin.” It is supposed to be in fun, but often they “cross the line.” For example, it was common to call Jews K**e and Italians D**o. Those of you who saw the movie “42” about Jackie Robinson saw an extreme example of this. Thus, opponents noted Yogi’s looks (Let’s just say he was not a candidate for GQ.) and squat build and called him names like “monkey” and “dumb.” Yogi let his performance on the field be his response. Also, when asked about his odd appearance by reporters he famously retorted that he had “yet to see anyone hit with his face.”
Yogi played a total of 19 years in the majors, 18 of them with the Yankees and one with the NY Mets. His statistics compare favorably with those of any other catcher, for instance:
1. His lifetime batting average was .285.
2. He hit 358 homeruns and drove in 1,430. He led the team in RBIs for seven consecutive seasons even though he had several all-time greats as teammates, such as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
3. He was an All-Star 18 times.
4. He was one of only six players to win the AL MVP three times – 1951, 1954 and 1955. Furthermore, between 1950 and 1956 he never finished lower than 4th in the MVP race.
5. He appeared in 21 WS as a player, coach or manager. Thirteen of those were as a player. His teams won ten of them, which is the most in history.
6. He caught the only perfect game in WS history (by journeyman pitcher Don Larson in Game 5 of the 1956 WS).
7. He was not a mere support player on those great championship Yankee teams; he was an integral part of those teams, one of the main reasons that they won.
Yogi had a unique batting style. He was a notorious “bad ball” hitter, yet he rarely struck out. Over his 19-year career he averaged just 22 strikeouts a year, a rate that is unheard of in today’s game. Therefore, he was extremely difficult to pitch to. He was as capable of hitting a pitch at his eyes or his toes as he was to hit a strike. Furthermore, he was a renowned clutch hitter. Longtime manager Paul Richards characterized him as “the toughest man in the league in the last three innings.” Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn called him one of the “best clutch hitters in the game.”
However, Yogi’s skills were not limited to offense. Behind the plate despite his squat build he demonstrated great quickness and agility. In addition, he was a great handler of pitchers. Yankee pitchers loved pitching to him. In the words of former Yankee pitcher Tom Sturdivant “I can’t say enough [about] Yogi Berra. It gives a young pitcher a lot of confidence to have a fellow like Berra calling the pitches. No one could set up the hitters better.” Additionally, Yogi was one of only four catchers to field 1.000 in a season. Later in his career he became a good left fielder as well.
After his playing days were done Yogi became a coach and a manager. In 1964 he became manager of the Yankees. It is never easy to manage former teammates. In August of that year the team was struggling, and there were serious doubts among the players, sportswriters and fans about Berra’s ability to manage. One of his perceived faults was that he seemed to be lax with respect to discipline. Most people thought he would be fired after the season, or perhaps sooner. Then, came the infamous “harmonica incident.” Phil Linz, a utility infielder, was playing the harmonica on the team bus. Berra, sitting in the front seat, became annoyed and ordered him to cut it out. Linz, in the back, didn’t hear him. He asked Mickey Mantle what Berra had said. Mantle, always the jokester, said that Berra had said “play it louder,” which Linz did. Berra came back and angrily slapped the harmonica out of Linz’ hands.
The incident was blown up in the news, but in retrospect it became the turning point in the season. Berra had established his authority. The Yankees went on a hot streak and won the pennant. Berra went from being incompetent and about to be fired to competent and likely to be retained. Unbeknownst to everyone, however, the Yankees hierarchy had already decided to fire Berra after the season and replace him with the Cardinals manager, Johnny Keane. The Cardinals had also been underperforming, and its management was intent on firing him after the season as well.
Winning the pennant didn’t save Berra’s job. In a strange twist he was replaced by the Cardinals manager, Johnny Keane, whose team had also put on a late surge to win the NL pennant, had beaten the Yankees in the WS, and then also been fired. Berra always harbored resentment over the disrespectful way in which he was fired. The team owner, George Steinbrenner, rather than doing the deed face to face, delegated the job to the Yankees general manager. As a result, Berra stubbornly refused to set foot in Yankee Stadium for 14 years. His estrangement did not end until George Steinbrenner personally traveled to Berra’s home to apologize.
Later, Yogi became manager of the Mets. In 1973 the team had high hopes, but they were victimized by an unlikely string of injuries. Midway through the campaign the team was mired in last place and seemingly hopelessly out of the race. Few thought they had a chance. However, the players still believed in the team. In fact, they had adopted a famous rallying cry, “ya gotta believe.” Late in the year a reporter asked Berra if the season was “over.” Berra uttered what became one of his signature lines: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Everyone laughed at the absurdity of it all, but it turned out that Berra was right. The Mets got their injured players back and went on to win the pennant.
The Mets fired Berra in 1975, but he went on to coach the Yankees and Houston Astros both of which won during his tenure. Berra became known as a good luck charm. Wherever he went the team won. Regarding his good fortune former manager Casey Stengel once remarked that “[Berra would] fall into a sewer and come up with a gold watch.”
Among many awards, Berra was elected to the HOF in 1972. Also, in 1972 the Yankees retired his #8. In 1998 The Sporting News ranked him as #40 on their list of all-time great players, and the fans voted him onto the MLB All-Century Team. In 2015 Berra was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2021 he became only the 30th baseball player to have his likeness put on a commemorative stamp.
After his retirement, trading on his gift for uttering malaprops and odd witticisms, Berra became a pitchman for various products. My favorite ones were the Aflac commercials.
Yogi was married to his wife, Carmen for 65 years from 1949 until she passed away in 2014. They had three sons, each of whom played professional sports – Dale (MLB), Tim (NFL), and Larry (minor league baseball).
No Yogi Berra blog would be complete without including some of his many witticisms (in addition to the ones I already mentioned). So, here goes:
“It’s deja vu all over again.”
“You can observe a lot by watching.”
“When you come to a fork in the road take it.”
“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
“Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.”
“I really didn’t say everything I said.”
You’ll notice that even though each of these sounds odd, or perhaps even nonsensical, they all contain an element of truth and logic. That was Yogi. He was much smarter than he appeared to be.
Yogi passed away on September 22, 2015 at the age of 90. Rest in peace, Yogi. You were one of a kind, and you will be sorely missed.