Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees poses for a photo in the 1950s. (Credit: Getty Images / The Sporting News)

Yogi Berra was a true American hero

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Whenever Yogi Berra came to a fork in the road, he took it, going from being a quiet son of immigrants in St. Louis to a Hall of Fame catcher, a Yankees icon and one of the most recognizable and beloved figures in American life. As for the immense popularity that has lasted more than a half-century, to quote half of his most famous saying, "It ain't over.'' Nor will it ever be.

Smiles overtook sadness in the thousands of tributes that were poured out after Berra's death Tuesday night at 90. The word "Yogi'' translated to joy for a country that was on a first-name basis with him as it has been with few, if any, other athletes.

The Yankees honored him with a dignified pregame ceremony Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, but they didn't stop there. On the big screen high above Monument Park, they showed current players reciting famous "Yogi-isms.'' Current catcher Brian McCann had the privilege of saying, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it,'' something Berra first said while providing directions to his New Jersey home for lifelong friend Joe Garagiola.

The past week has been a poignant, smiling recounting of a man who became larger than life precisely by never trying to be. Smallish and squatty, Berra never really looked like a ballplayer. He had neither the athletic grace nor magnetic power, respectively, of former teammates Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. That was part of Berra's charm, along with being hilarious without ever trying to be funny (it is not certain that he ever actually said, "It's not over 'til it's over,'' but it seemed to fit).

He came from America's heartland, flourished in New York City and settled in the suburbs. He was from the generation that served in World War II, then came home and helped shape the country. Berra was a big star on the dynasty team in what was then the national pastime. He was a beloved fixture at three Yankee Stadiums: the original, the rebuilt and the new one next door.

Berra was durable as a catcher, working both ends of a doubleheader 117 times, and as a personality. While modern players are not often moved by the exploits of old-timers, Yogi was fully respected and befriended by Yankees nearly 50 years after he retired. He could move around the clubhouse as one of the guys, razzing Derek Jeter about having 10 championship rings, twice Jeter's total. He rebuffed the shortstop's rejoinders about the difficulties of modern multi-phase playoffs.