LITTLE FALLS, N.J. - This time, it was everyone else's turn to thank Yogi Berra for making this day necessary.
For the people who gathered at the Yogi Berra Museum Tuesday, it really was necessary to wish a Happy 90th Birthday to an American icon, to salute one of the greatest baseball players of all time, to unveil a set of championship rings that replaced ones that were stolen, to honor one of baseball's keenest minds (regardless of his famous malapropisms) and to celebrate a good and kind soul.
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"It's great to see so many people love him just as much as we love him," said Lindsay Berra, his granddaughter and emcee of the event, who urged friends and fans to sign an online petition to get the Hall of Famer awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"After a lifetime of giving to baseball and just giving to everybody, there is not much left that we can give him," said Lindsay, a writer for MLB.com. "He is the embodiment of the American dream."
She praised the values of the son of Italian immigrants who became a beloved national figure for his nickname, his record 10 world championships with the Yankees and many "Yogi-isms" such as telling the hometown crowd that honored him: "I want to thank you for making this day necessary."
"It brings a human element to him," said Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, who noted that Berra always had fun with his reputation. But Idelson pointed out Berra was a sharp baseball thinker as a catcher, coach and manager who won an unlikely pennant for the 1973 Mets and turned Craig Biggio into a second baseman and Hall of Famer.
Matt Galante, a former Yankees minor leaguer who became close with Berra when they coached together with the Astros, recalled the 1986 National League Championship Series against the Mets. Galante asked Berra about how to pitch to Gary Carter. "He said, 'Well look, the first at-bat, we did this, this, this and that, next at-bat we did this.' He knew every pitch in the game, for every batter," Galante said.
Berra did not speak Tuesday, he just received. He got an eight-minute fanfare from Hillside Elementary School's Drums of Thunder and accepted proclamations officially declaring it Yogi Berra Day in both New York and New Jersey. Elston Howard's widow Arlene was there, along with former Yankees Willie Randolph, Mickey Rivers and Rick Cerone. All three of Berra's sons were there, as were 10 of his 11 grandchildren (Nick, 23, is in Lithuania with the Army's Second Cavalry) and his one great-grandchild.
There was cake, and of course there were stories.
Idelson remembered sitting with Berra in Cooperstown early one morning when the latter asked why it always seems to rain on Hall of Fame weekend. The Hall's president explained that they are at the base of a nine-mile-long lake between two mountain ranges. "There's a pregnant pause for five or six seconds," Idelson said. "Then he asks, 'Why don't you move it to another weekend when it doesn't rain?' "
Galante recalled an Astros trip to St. Louis, when Berra asked traveling secretary Barry Waters to book a room for his mother-in-law. The secretary got Yogi's credit card information, then, standing at the registration desk, asked for the woman's name. "He says, 'The name is Mom.' Barry says, 'No, no. I need a name.' Yogi said, 'I've been calling her Mom all these years. Her name is Mom.' "
Larry, Yogi's son, never will forget that his mother Carmen, who died last year, couldn't wait to share a Yogi-ism that occurred when they were watching the film "Papillon."
"My mother said, 'Boy, Steve McQueen really looks good in this movie.' My father said, 'Yeah, he probably made it before he died,'" Larry said. "She called me at 1 in the morning. She said, 'If I don't call you now, I'll forget it.'"
No one ever will forget Yogi Berra, about whom the stories are not over until they're over.