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Yogi Berra's legacy transcends baseball

Yankees fan Melanie Schowalter and her son Hudson,

Yankees fan Melanie Schowalter and her son Hudson, 7, look at pictures and other memorabilia while remembering Yankees great Yogi Berra at the Yogi Berra Museum Learning Center in Little Falls, N.J., on Sept. 23, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

MONTCLAIR, N.J. - Had Yogi Berra seen the number of fans entering his museum Wednesday, he may have said something like, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

A steady flow of fans visited the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center at Montclair University in New Jersey to honor Berra, a legendary Yankee who died Tuesday night at the age of 90. "His popularity transcends the game of baseball," said Dave Kaplan, the director of the museum. "He's an American icon, an American treasure. But he's probably an even better person off the field than he was on the field."

Near the entrance, fans placed flowers and balloons beside a bronzed statue of Berra down on one knee in his Yankees uniform. A handwritten letter to Berra left on the statue said millions of fans will miss him because, "You gave so many the greatest gift -- you made them smile."

Admission to the museum, a nonprofit institution that charges $6 for adults, was free Wednesday. Kaplan said the museum normally receives 30 to 50 visitors on a typical weekday. But Wednesday, many more came to pay their respects and share Yogi stories.

Bob Groder, of Springfield, New Jersey, spoke of the time he met Berra at a restaurant. Berra mistook Groder and his party for another family and, thinking he knew them, offered to buy a round of drinks.

"When he found out he mixed us up, he didn't care," said Groder, 57. "He kept chatting with us. It was only ten minutes but it's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

Milwaukee Brewers fan Mark Schowalter, of West Orange, New Jersey, visited with his wife and two children.

"We just wanted to pay tribute to this great man," Schowalter said. "Somebody I really want my son to look up to."

His son, 7-year-old Hudson, gazed at Berra's jerseys, read love letters that Berra wrote to his wife, and gripped the barrel of one of Berra's bats.

"I know about Yogi Berra," he said. "He kind of has said crazy things. He was not one of those cocky famous people, he was one of the nice ones."

Niki Russo -- who used to visit the museum with her late father, Joe -- placed flowers by the statue and began to cry.

"He was what my dad always said to look for in people," said Russo, 21, of Union City, New Jersey. "Yogi loved the game, but he loved life more than the game."

Kaplan said the museum will remain dedicated to continuing Berra's legacy and instilling in children the values that he displayed through his life.

"He is a wonderful example of a life well lived," Kaplan said. "He touched so many lives in so many different ways. He was very genuine, very accessible, unlike so many famous people. The one thing that always struck me about Yogi was he valued friendship more than fame. He was one of the most beloved people in this country, and you could understand why."

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