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Yogi Berra was a true American hero

Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees poses

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

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.

A big crowd, including former teammates and Hall of Fame officials, gathered at his museum in Little Falls, New Jersey, to celebrate his 90th birthday on May 12. At the time, his granddaughter Lindsay, a writer for mlb.com, said, "It's great to see so many people love him just as much as we love him . . . After a lifetime of giving to baseball and just giving to everybody, there is not much left that we can give him. He is the embodiment of the American dream.''

That included a rare knack for being present for unforgettable American moments. He was there at D-Day, one of the pivotal World War II combat operations, as a Navy gunner. "It was like the Fourth of July to me,'' he later said of the rockets, having totally dismissed the danger.

He was there for the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history (he hit it, at Ebbets Field in 1947). Berra attended the 1951 playoff game in which Bobby Thomson hit arguably the most famous home run in history, although he reportedly left early to beat the traffic. He had a close view of another epic homer, the one by Bill Mazeroski that ended Game 7 of the 1960 World Series (Berra, the leftfielder, later said he thought the ball was going to hit the fence). He was there for Don Larsen's World Series perfect game in 1956 (he caught it) and Roger Maris' record-breaking 61st homer (a teammate in 1961). Yogi saw Cleon Jones make the catch that concluded the Mets' 1969 miracle (he was a Mets coach) and witnessed Reggie Jackson's three homers against the Dodgers in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series and Bucky Dent's home run against the Red Sox in the 1978 playoff game (both as a Yankees coach).

"He'd fall in a sewer and come up with a gold watch,'' Casey Stengel, his manager with the Yankees (and briefly with the Mets), once said.

 

HE BECAME A FOLK HERO

 

It was more than sheer luck, of course. Berra had extraordinary talent that is becoming more palpable under study in the current era of statistical analytics. He also had a staggering grasp of the game. Craig Biggio, the Long Island native who absorbed Berra's wisdom when the older man was a coach with the Astros, said during his Hall of Fame induction speech two months ago: "Yogi was the smartest baseball man I was ever around.''

Biggio added, "Yogi would say things in a Yogi way. He'd walk by and say some things and I'd be confused. Then the next half-inning, the one thing \[he predicted\] would happen, then the next half-inning, the other thing would happen. I sat back down on the bench and said, 'Oh, my gosh, I've got a lot to learn about this game.' ''

He became a folk hero known for aphorisms such as "It gets late early out there,'' referring to the shadows in leftfield at the old Yankee Stadium. It is not known how many of these were manufactured by others to keep the legacy going. The subtitle of a book of quotes and photos released by Berra and his family was, "I really didn't say everything I said.''

The lovable persona often overshadowed the body of Berra's work as one of the greatest baseball players, and biggest winners, of all time. He won 10 World Series rings as a Yankees player and was on four other pennant-winners. He won the American League's Most Valuable Player award three times. As a manager, he led both the Yankees and Mets to the seventh game of the World Series. What's more, he had enough stature to persuade George Steinbrenner to travel to Berra's museum and apologize after a 14-year freeze between the Hall of Famer and the owner who fired him as manager in 1985 after 16 games.

America's images of Berra are vivid: Arguing that Jackie Robinson should have been called out on a steal of home in the 1955 World Series. Leaping into Larsen's arms after the perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Serving as spokesman for the chocolate drink Yoo Hoo (when he was asked if Yoo Hoo was hyphenated, Yogi reportedly said, "No, ma'am. It's not even carbonated''). Inspiring at least the name of the popular cartoon character Yogi Bear. Appearing in commercials for Aflac insurance ("They give you cash,'' he says, "which is just as good as money''). Wearing his retired No. 8 jersey at Old-Timers' Day and for all major events at Yankee Stadium. Wearing his Yankees cap and throwing the ceremonial first pitch of the World Series.

Although the Yankees have long been loathed by fans of opposing teams, there once was a play titled "Nobody Don't Like Yogi.'' As Mantle once said of him, "He was the guy who made the Yankees seem almost human.''

Stengel, also known for having a way with words, said during the 1949 season, "Mr. Berra is a rather strange fellow of very remarkable abilities.'' At Yogi Berra Day in 1959, Stengel said, "Outside of DiMaggio, the man behind the plate, Berra, is the greatest player I ever had to manage.''

 

REJECTED OFFER FROM CARDINALS

 

Lawrence Peter Berra came into the world on May 12, 1925, to Pietro and Paulina, who had emigrated from Malvaglio, Italy. To his family, he was known as "Lawdy,'' in deference to his mother's accented pronunciation. As a teenager, he went to the movies with friends on The Hill in St. Louis and saw a travelogue of India. The yoga expert -- a yogi -- shown in the clip reminded the friends of Berra, and one of sports' great nicknames was born.

Having dropped out of school after the eighth grade so he could work to support his family, Berra kept developing as a ballplayer. He earned a tryout in 1941 with the Cardinals at Sportsman's Park but, according to author Allen Barra in the 2009 book, "Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee,'' Berra was miffed that Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey offered only a $250 bonus. That was half of what Rickey offered Berra's pal Garagiola, so Berra rejected it.

Garagiola became a major-leaguer, appearing in the 1946 World Series, but his greatest acclaim came from his broadcasting career, fueled in large part by amusing stories about the catcher who signed with the Yankees in 1942.

But the war intervened and Berra enlisted in the Navy. He signed up to serve on a small Landing Craft Support boat, which would arrive before Army soldiers would make a ground attack. He operated a machine gun on June 6, 1944, off Omaha Beach in a battle that helped to turn the tide of war. He was wounded, decorated and unfazed. It was part of making him who he was.

After returning to the U.S. and making his way through the minor leagues, he made a memorable major- league debut on Sept. 22, 1946 -- exactly 69 years before his death -- and hit a home run at Yankee Stadium. He earned the first of his 10 World Series rings in his first full season, 1947, and nearly caught the first no-hitter in Series history (Bill Bevens allowed a hit to Cookie Lavagetto with two outs in the ninth).

During offseasons, he returned home to St. Louis and worked in the hardware department of a Sears department store. In 1948, he met Carmen Short, a waitress at Biggie's Steakhouse. They were married in January 1949 at St. Ambrose Catholic Church, where Berra's parents had been married. He later said she was the greatest teammate he ever had. They moved permanently to Montclair in 1959 and raised three boys, including Dale, who later played for the Yankees and was managed by his father. Yogi's reputation remained untarnished by being present for the 1957 incident at the Copacabana that ultimately got friend and teammate Billy Martin traded.

 

A GOOD CLUTCH HITTER

 

Berra received his first MVP award in 1951, edging teammate Allie Reynolds, whose no-hitter he caught on Sept. 28 (after muffing the first of Ted Williams' two foul pops and catching the second to end the game). He won again in 1954 and 1955. Known widely as a good clutch hitter and "bad ball'' hitter who could mash pitches out of the strike zone, he once had a record stretch of 148 games without an error. Barra's book and various other statistical analyses recently have made the case that Berra was the greatest all-around catcher in history. He finished with 358 home runs and only 418 strikeouts. The only other player in baseball history to have at least 350 home runs and fewer than 500 strikeouts was DiMaggio.

That raises another interesting issue. The Yankees often are identified as a haven for centerfielders because of DiMaggio, Mantle and Bernie Williams. But largely because of Berra, catcher is arguably the franchise's greatest position. Of the 21 retired Yankee numbers, five are for catchers. Number 8 was honored twice, for Bill Dickey and Berra, followed by 32 for Elston Howard, 15 for Thurman Munson and 20 for Jorge Posada.

Berra was connected to all of them. He succeeded Dickey ("Bill Dickey learned me all his experiences,'' according to one of the older Yogi-isms) and moved to left to accommodate Howard, the 1963 MVP. He was a coach when Munson was the 1976 MVP. He was around to needle and advise Posada, and the other catchers in between.

"He gave me a lot of advice. We talked a lot about throwing and hitters and just all the different things. He would be there when we were doing all our drills,'' said Joe Girardi, the former catcher and current manager, who accompanied McCann and catchers John Ryan Murphy, Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez to place an 8-shaped wreath behind home plate at the Stadium Thursday.

"I feel privileged and honored to be a part of that, to catch in the same circle that he caught in and walk in the same ballpark that he walked in. It's a real privilege,'' Girardi said. "Obviously, we all looked up to Yogi and what he meant, the champion he was. I think we all strive to get there, to have a ring for every finger. I think that's what we all would like to have. Anyone who had a chance to know Yogi had a chance to know a man who was extremely humble, had a love for life, a love for his family, a love for this game. You just wanted to be around him.''

Berra became a force behind the plate, going the entire 1958 season without making an error in 88 games as catcher. Some of his skill was purely psychological. Former Orioles slugger Boog Powell, in an interview shown this week on the MLB Network, recalled a typical at-bat with the chattering Berra behind the plate. Yogi would ask how the hitter was doing. Strike one. He would inquire about the family. Strike two. He would ask about dinner plans that night. Strike three. "Yogi would be smiling the whole time,'' Powell said.

 

MANAGED YANKEES AND METS

 

Despite his accomplishments and acumen, though, Berra was an unlikely choice as manager before the 1964 season. He had just retired and still was very friendly with the Yankees' biggest stars. On the way to the pennant and a seven-game loss to the Cardinals in his old hometown (the Cards' first appearance in the Series since 1946), his term was marked by the Phil Linz harmonica incident.

Linz, a utility infielder, was playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb'' on his harmonica on the team bus after a tough loss in Chicago. According to many accounts, Berra told him to stop but Linz didn't hear him and asked what he had said. Mantle, a pot-stirrer, told Linz that Yogi wanted him to play louder. When the music kept going, Berra erupted, stormed back and slapped the instrument away from Linz. Years later, Yogi said, "I wouldn't mind if he could play the darn thing . . . ''

That episode has been cited by management as evidence that the manager was not communicating with his players, although Ralph Houk, the general manager at the time, later insisted that the decision for change had been made earlier. In any case, Berra was fired after the World Series and replaced by Johnny Keane, the manager who had defeated him. Less than a month later, Berra was hired by the Mets to coach under Stengel. He also briefly came out of retirement to play eight games.

He remained with the organization through 1975. After Gil Hodges died of a heart attack in 1972 -- three months after Berra was elected to the Hall of Fame and three months before the Yankees retired his number -- he was elevated from coach to manager.

It was an eventful time at Shea Stadium, what with someone in ownership asking Berra at one point what he thought of Willie Mays. "I said, 'He's slow.' They said, 'Well, we just got him,' '' Berra recalled years later. Despite having a slowed Mays in centerfield, the 1973 Mets made one of baseball's most amazing comebacks, rising from last in late July and next-to-last in late August to win their division.

In an intense National League Championship Series, they knocked off Cincinnati's Big Red Machine. The matchup featured a fight at second base involving Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson and Reds superstar Pete Rose. Harrelson was one of Berra's go-to guys, whom the manager called "Shorty.'' Harrelson once asked Berra if that referred to his size or his position and Yogi told him, "Both.''

Late that summer, long before the Mets rallied to reach Game 7 against the A's, Berra said something to the effect of "You're not out of it until you're out of it.'' It became interpreted as "It's not over until it's over.'' That became his signature line and created a cottage industry of charting Yogi-isms, which he may or may not have actually uttered:

"How did yours come out?'' (having finished a comic book while teammate Bobby Brown, later a doctor, was reading "Gray's Anatomy'').

"I want to thank everyone for making this day necessary'' (on Yogi Berra Day at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis in 1947).

"You mean now?'' (when someone asked what time it was).

"The future ain't what it used to be.''

"If the people don't want to come out to the ballpark, nobody is going to stop them.''

"You don't look so hot yourself'' (to Mary Lindsay, wife of the New York mayor, when she commented that he appeared to be nice and cool during a heat wave).

Not every phrase was fabricated or exaggerated. His own family relished Yogi-isms. At the 90th birthday celebration, his son Larry recalled what happened late one night when his parents watched the movie "Papillon'' on TV.

"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.' ''

Berra was OK when the joke was on him, too. Former Seton Hall University coach Mike Sheppard, a longtime friend of the Yankees icon, invited Berra to team practice to watch Biggio, who had just been drafted by the Astros. For laughs, Sheppard told Biggio to hide and put a hefty team manager in an Astros jacket and catcher's equipment, pretending to be the prospect Yogi had yet to see.

Sheppard recalled Berra looking at the chubby kid, saying, "You've got to be [kidding] me'' and then adding, "We'll make a player out of him.'' Then he recognized the prank. Of course, a legendary catcher would catch on.

 

FEUDED WITH STEINBRENNER

 

It was no laughing matter for Berra, though, when Steinbrenner dispatched general manager Clyde King to fire him on April 28, 1985 -- only 16 games into the season -- after vowing that Berra's job was safe. Berra, disturbed that Steinbrenner did not fire him in person, asserted he would not return to Yankee Stadium as long as Steinbrenner owned the team and kept the promise for the next 14 years.

Ron Guidry, himself something of a Yankees legend, said at the time that Steinbrenner had miscalculated: "What George didn't understand was that Yogi was different from all the guys he had hired and fired. Yogi was the Yankees. Yogi is the Yankees.''

Steinbrenner eventually essentially agreed, apologizing and asking Berra to return. The Yankees welcomed him back to the Stadium with Yogi Berra Day on July 18, 1999. Berra caught the ceremonial first pitch from Larsen with Girardi's glove and shook hands with Yankees starter David Cone, who then threw a perfect game.

Berra's smile gave the impression he felt his life was one perfect game. He loved his Montclair neighborhood. He enjoyed other sports. His son Tim played for the Baltimore Colts in the NFL. Yogi, a friend of team owner John McMullen, was a regular at Devils games. "He was almost synonymous with the Devils every day in my early days there,'' former Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told the Bergen Record on Wednesday. "I must have seen him six days a week for several years. He was just a good friend. He loved the game of hockey.''

Love for baseball melded into a passion for golf with Berra. He looked forward every year to playing pro-ams at the Bob Hope Desert Classic -- eventually becoming an official ambassador for the tournament -- and Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational. At the latter event in 2007, Berra was paired with Trevor Immelman. The next spring Immelman won the Masters and got a phone call from the man who ranks as America's great good-luck charm.

As a regular at 5:30 Mass at Montclair's Church of the Immaculate Conception, Berra would have appreciated the excitement over Pope Francis' visit to New York, and probably would have been surprised that his own life story would go neck-and-neck with the papal trip in terms of attention. If the two men had a common trait, it was in exuding and eliciting warmth.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who played for Berra with the Yankees, keeps Yogi literally close to his heart. Mattingly wears uniform No. 8 in honor of his early mentor. In the dugout, Mattingly almost always covers his jersey with a windbreaker. But on Wednesday, with his team closing in on a division championship, he left off the jacket so people could see the "8.''

That same night, Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, also a Hall of Famer and a baseball icon, had this to say about Berra, whom he had known since the 1950s: "Everyone who loves this game of baseball realizes that we lost a gem. I was asked today, 'What is his legacy?' That made me think about him. And the legacy of Yogi Berra, I believe, is, as long as people talk about the game, whenever they mention the name 'Yogi Berra,' they will smile.''

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