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Yogi Berra, New York Yankees legend, dies at 90

Yankees catcher Yogi Berra at spring training in

Yankees catcher Yogi Berra at spring training in March 1957. Credit: AP

Yankees legend Yogi Berra, one of the most accomplished baseball players and colorful personalities in sports history, died Tuesday at age 90.

Berra, who played 18 years with the Yankees and is baseball's all-time leader in World Series games, at-bats and hits, died Tuesday of natural causes at an assisted living facility in New Jersey, according to Dave Kaplan, the director of the Yogi Berra Museum.

"Yogi Berra's legacy transcends baseball," Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said in statement Wednesday morning.

Berra's death came 69 years to the day of his major league debut -- a career that began with a home run at the original Yankee Stadium.

"Though slight in stature, he was a giant in the most significant of ways through his service to his country, compassion for others and genuine enthusiasm for the game he loved. He has always been a role model and hero that America could look up to," Steinbrenner said. "While his baseball wit and wisdom brought out the best in generations of Yankees, his imprint in society stretches far beyond the walls of Yankee Stadium. He simply had a way of reaching and relating to people that was unmatched. That's what made him such a national treasure."

In his later years, Berra followed the path of former teammates Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle as the most revered former Yankee and a name that transcended the ballpark.

"To those who didn't know Yogi personally, he was one of the greatest baseball players and Yankees of all time," retired Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter wrote on The Players' Tribune, a website founded by Jeter. "To those lucky ones who did, he was an even better person."

Success on and off the field

Berra was an indelible image in the minds of a generation of baby boomer baseball fans and their parents -- but there was much more to his career and personal life.

There were his years of consistent and clutch hitting in Yankee pinstripes; his development into a top-notch defensive catcher; his seasons managing the Yankees and Mets; his enormous popularity during and after his career; his success as a product pitch man and entrepreneur; and, of course, his penchant for "Yogi-isms," those unintentionally ironic phrases that fractured the English language yet often made sense when the words were re-examined.

"Yogi Berra's character, talent, courage, extraordinary experiences and inimitable way with words made him a universally beloved figure in baseball and beyond," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement Wednesday.

For decades, scratchy highlight films featured Berra in three memorable scenes from the fabled Yankees-Brooklyn Dodgers October rivalry during an era many believe was baseball's golden age.

In Game 1 of the 1955 World Series, Berra was the catcher when Jackie Robinson stole home in the eighth inning. Berra was so livid he jumped up and down and screamed at the umpire, certain his tag had beaten Robinson's slide.

In Game 7, Berra sliced a fly ball down the leftfield line that appeared to be a certain game-tying double. But Sandy Amoros made a spectacular reaching, running catch in the corner and turned it into a double play. The fielding gem helped the Dodgers win their only World Series as Brooklyn's team.

In Game 5 of the 1956 Series, Berra's uniform No. 8 is clearly visible as the catcher leaped into pitcher Don Larsen's arms after the only perfect game in postseason history. "It was the most excited I ever saw him," Larsen told Newsday in 1996.

People frequently joked about Berra's appearance. He was short and squat. He had large ears and a goofy grin he flashed often. He may have looked to some like a cartoon character, but he was deadly serious about baseball. He did not have blazing speed, but his feet, his bat, his reflexes and his mind were quick and nimble.

Outfielder as well as catcher

He was a capable outfielder early and late in his career, and a defensive stalwart at catcher during his prime years.

Berra had a strong, accurate arm, knowledge of opposing hitters and a deep understanding of the game that inspired confidence in his pitchers.

Most importantly, Berra was a superb lefthanded hitter. He was tough to pitch to because he could hit pitches in and out of the strike zone, and tough to defend because he could spray the ball to all fields.

"I can't deny that I've always been a bad-ball hitter. I like to swing at anything that looks good to me, as long as I can reach it," Berra said in his autobiography "Yogi" written with Ed Fitzgerald. "A bad pitch isn't a bad pitch anymore when you hit it into the seats."

Opponents feared Berra most in clutch situations. Overshadowed in the Yankees' batting order by DiMaggio or Mantle throughout his career, he was no easy touch. "Berra is the toughest man in baseball, when the game is up for grabs," veteran manager Paul Richards once said. "He is by far the toughest man in the league in the last three innings."

He batted .285 over 18 seasons with 358 home runs, plus another 12 in World Series play, was voted to 15 All-Star teams and was named most valuable player of the American League three times. "He was a great clutch hitter and a smart catcher," shortstop Tony Kubek, a teammate from 1957 to 1964, wrote in his book "Sixty-One." "Basically, Yogi played like a guy who had tremendous insight into the game."

So it was no coincidence that the Yankees won 10 world championships during his career, which culminated with his election to the Hall of Fame in 1972. "Not bad for a kid from The Hill," Berra said of his Cooperstown enshrinement in a 1999 interview.

He was referring to the poor, Italian section of St. Louis, where Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925, and raised. The Hill was a sports-mad neighborhood where Berra and dozens of kids, including boyhood friend Joe Garagiola, a future major league catcher and announcer, played ball year-round.

"Yogi was always the one you wanted with you. He was the best at baseball, the best at football, even the best at pitching horseshoes," Garagiola recalled in "The Wit and Wisdom of Yogi Berra," written by Phil Pepe.

Berra and his friends went to the movies one day, and the short subject was a travelogue about India. The film showed a Hindu mystic known as a yogi, who was sitting with his arms folded and his knees crossed, looking sad. One of Berra's friends thought the character "looked just like I used to look, sitting down after a ballgame," Berra told John Tullius in the book "I'd Rather Be a Yankee." From then on, Lawrence Peter Berra became Yogi Berra.

And soon after, he became a Yankee farmhand. His American Legion manager recommended that a Yankee coach who lived in St. Louis, Johnny Schulte, check out Berra, which eventually led to him signing for a $500 bonus.

Served in Navy during WWII

He joined the Yankees' farm team in Norfolk, Virginia, for the 1943 season where he showed promise. He spent 1944 and 1945 in the Navy, serving at D-Day. In 1946, he had a terrific season playing for the Yankees' Newark farm team in the International League, before the Yankees promoted him late that season.

Berra became a Yankee for good beginning in the 1947 season. He was a raw backup catcher and adequate outfielder in '47 and '48. During those two seasons, he learned the intricacies of catching from Yankees coach Bill Dickey, who had retired after the 1946 season. By 1949, he was the team's regular catcher, wearing Dickey's old No. 8, which was later retired in honor of both players.

"Berra improved more as a defensive catcher . . . than any catcher I ever saw. He became one of the all-time great catchers," Dickey told Anthony Connor in the book "Voices From Cooperstown."

Berra was one of 12 Yankees who played for manager Casey Stengel on consecutive World Series winners from 1949 to 1953. He batted a career high .322 with 124 RBIs in 1950 and won the first of his three MVP honors in 1951 when he batted .294 with 27 homers and 88 RBIs. He also won MVP honors in '54 and '55.

In 1956, Berra hit .298 with 30 HRs and 105 RBI. He blasted three homers to help the Yankees win the final Brooklyn-New York World Series. Though Yogi's '56 season was overshadowed by Mantle's Triple Crown and Larsen's perfect game, he called the latter "the highlight of my career. It's never happened before or since. The glove I used in that game is the only thing I saved from my career. It's in my museum."

Berra remained a productive hitter until his playing days with the Yankees ended after the 1963 season. He managed the team to the 1964 pennant but was fired when the Yankees lost the Series to St. Louis.

Berra rejoined his old boss Stengel as a Mets coach in 1965, even playing four games for New York's young National League team. He was promoted to manager in 1972 and won a come-from-behind pennant in 1973, making him only the third man in history to that point to have managed a pennant-winner in both leagues.

"Yogi Berra was a baseball legend who played a key part in our history," the Mets said in a statement Wednesday. "He was kind, compassionate and always found a way to make people laugh. With us he was a player, coach and managed the 1973 'Ya Gotta Believe' team to the National League pennant. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."

Berra was fired by the Mets in 1975 and returned to the Yankees as a coach under manager Billy Martin in 1976. He managed the Yankees for a second time in 1984 and for 16 games in 1985 before being fired by owner George Steinbrenner.

The proud and loyal Berra was so outraged by Steinbrenner's act that he refused to come to Yankee Stadium for 14 years. He did return to coaching with Houston from 1986 to 1989, but appeared miscast wearing the rainbow-burst Astros' uniform of that era.

Two sons played pro sports

Off the field, his life was always an unqualified success. He had a long and happy marriage to Carmen Berra that produced two sons, Dale, who played major league baseball, and Tim, who played in the National Football League. Carmen died in 2014.

"While we mourn the loss of our father, grandfather and great-grandfather, we know he is at peace with Mom," the Berra family said in a statement. "We celebrate his remarkable life, and are thankful he meant so much to so many. He will truly be missed."

During his playing days, Berra showed shrewd business sense by rising to the presidency of the company that made Yoo-Hoo, a popular chocolate soft drink. He had successful ventures in bowling alleys, racquetball clubs and product endorsements, earning millions more than he ever did as a player. He opened the Yogi Berra Museum on the campus of Montclair State University in New Jersey in 1998, another rousing success story.

"He found good advice and he took it," second baseman/teammate Bobby Richardson said of Berra's financial acumen.

But many family members and friends felt his life was incomplete without a return to Yankee Stadium. Prospects appeared grim for most of the 1990s, but as Berra himself once said in a classic Yogi-ism, "It ain't over 'til it's over."

With the help of Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman, who intervened, Steinbrenner and Berra reconciled in the winter of 1999, setting the stage for one of the most memorable days in the history of the franchise.

On July 18, 1999, Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium attracted a crowd of nearly 42,000 who witnessed the reunion of Berra with Yankee teammates like Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford, Larsen, Gil McDougald, Richardson and even a player he managed from 1984 to 1985, the popular Don Mattingly.

In the game that followed, David Cone pitched a perfect game against Montreal, conjuring up images of the Larsen masterpiece that Berra had caught 43 years earlier. "Nothing bad happens when Yogi Berra is around," Yankees manager Joe Torre said that day.

Kubek echoed those sentiments when he wrote in his 1987 book: "The fact is that people just like Yogi. I don't know if it's because of his nickname, his looks, or because of the things he says . . . I only had to be around Yogi for a few minutes to be reminded that he remains one of the most popular men in sports."

Funeral arrangements had not been announced. The Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center will host a news conference Thursday to honor Berra. Members of Berra's family, and representatives of the museum and Major League Baseball are expected to attend.

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