Yogi Berra, Yankees’ MVP Catcher, Wayward Wordsmith, Dies at 90

Remembering Yogi Berra: 1925-2015

Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees catcher who played in more World Series games than anyone and was enshrined in American pop culture for his homespun philosophy -- “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” -- and the head-scratching way he expressed it, has died. He was 90.

Berra’s death was announced by Major League Baseball in a Twitter post. The St. Louis native had to miss Yankees Old-Timers’ Day in July 2010 after being injured in a fall at his Montclair, New Jersey, home.

https://twitter.com/MLB/status/646568878911287296

Long before he became celebrated for his wayward way with words, Berra was hailed as one of baseball’s best players and fiercest competitors.

Berra starred on Yankees teams that dominated baseball during his 18 years playing in pinstripes, from 1946 to 1963. He played in 14 World Series and was on the winning side 10 times, both records. He also holds World Series career records for at-bats (259) and hits (71).

The American League Most Valuable Player in 1951, 1954 and 1955, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, the same year the Yankees retired his uniform, No. 8.

“He would beat you in some way, whether it was with his defense behind the plate, a great throwing arm or that clutch hitting that every winning ball club must have,” recalled former Yankee pitcher Don Larsen, who threw the only perfect game in World Series history in 1956, with Berra behind the plate.

Managing Winners

After his playing career ended, Berra managed the Yankees to the 1964 American League pennant and the New York Mets to the National League title nine years later, cementing his status as one of New York’s most beloved sports figures.

Berra’s post-career fame came largely from the folksy adages widely attributed to him, including “You can observe a lot just by watching” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

So prolifically quotable was Berra that it became hard to tell which phrases he truly coined. As Berra put it, “I didn’t really say everything I said.”

Reliable witnesses heard him declare, “It’s déjà vu all over again” after Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris slammed back-to-back home runs in 1961, Allen Barra wrote in a 2009 biography. Yet on at least one occasion Berra denied having said that.

Berra also has suggested that another ballplayer, Rocky Bridges, may have been the first to utter, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

‘Happy Mistakes’

On the other hand, thousands surely heard Berra say, “I want to thank everybody for making this day necessary,” since he came up with that formulation in remarks to fans in St. Louis during his first full year with the Yankees in 1947.

And there’s little doubt that Berra, describing a popular restaurant, said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

William Safire, in his “On Language” column in the New York Times, credited Berra as a master not of the malapropism but what Safire called the bonapropism, or “happy mistakes: words or phrases that are seemingly off the mark, but unintentionally hit the mark right on the button.”

Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925, the youngest of five children of Pietro and Paulina Berra, immigrants from northern Italy. A childhood friend gave him his famous nickname because Berra reminded him of a yogi -- a person who practices yoga -- featured in a travelogue on India they saw at a movie theater.

Branch Rickey

He left school after eighth grade and worked in a shoe factory to support his family, while playing American Legion baseball. When Berra was about 17, Branch Rickey, general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, offered him $250 to sign a contract. Berra declined, insisting on getting the same $500 signing bonus that his friend, Joe Garagiola, had recently received from Rickey. The Yankees offered $500, and Berra signed with them instead.

He played in the minor leagues until he turned 18, when he joined the U.S. Navy and was part of the Allied invasion of Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Discharged just before his 21st birthday in 1946, Berra worked his way up the Yankees’ minor-league system and joined the team at season’s end.

Championship Run

He played on his first World Series-winning team in 1947 and, in the process, struck the first pinch-hit home run in series history. From 1949 to 1953, as the Yankees won five consecutive championships, Berra was a standout on teams that included Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.

At 5 feet, 8 inches tall, Berra didn’t have the imposing presence of most sluggers. As Roger Kahn wrote in “The Era,” his 1993 book on New York baseball from 1947 to 1957:

“Thick body. Baggy knickers. Shirt puffing at the waist. Absolutely the shortest neck in town. Yogi Berra doesn’t look like an athlete until he poles a buzzing fastball all the way into the third tier behind right field.”

In the 1955 World Series, won by the Brooklyn Dodgers, Berra was involved in one of baseball’s most celebrated plays, when Brooklyn’s Jackie Robinson stole home just under Berra’s tag. Berra argued with the home-plate umpire and insisted, for decades afterward, that Robinson was out.

Facing the Dodgers again a year later, Berra was on the receiving end of Larsen’s perfect game -- 27 consecutive outs, with no Dodgers reaching base -- in Game 5 of the rematch. The photograph of Berra jumping into Larsen’s arms after the final out is one of baseball’s most recognizable images. Berra knocked in 10 runs during the seven-game series, which the Yankees won, marking his seventh championship.

Berra, then 38, was named Yankees manager after the 1963 season and insisted on a one-year contract so he could step down if he didn’t succeed. He also retired as a player, saying, “Managing, I think, is tough enough as a job.”

Surprise Firing

Under Berra, the 1964 Yankees outlasted the Chicago White Sox to win the American League pennant before losing to the Cardinals in a seven-game World Series. To the surprise of many in baseball, the Yankees declared that not successful enough and fired Berra.

He crossed the city to join the Mets of the National League as a coach and in 1969 under manager Gil Hodges, Berra was part of the Miracle Mets’ run to their first championship. He took over as manager for the 1972 season after Hodges’s death and led the team to the National League pennant in 1973.

The Mets fired him during the 1975 season, and he returned to the Yankees as a coach the following year, in time to partake in two more World Series titles, in 1977 and 1978.

Named manager, Berra led the Yankees to a third-place finish in 1984 before being fired early the following season. The decision by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to deliver the news through an intermediary, rather than personally, so angered Berra that he vowed never to step foot in Yankee Stadium while Steinbrenner was in charge.

‘Unforgiveable’ Treatment

“What bothered me most was the disrespect; to me, that was unforgiveable,” Berra later wrote. He ended his career as a coach with the Houston Astros from 1986 to 1989.

Steinbrenner did apologize, in 1999. Berra’s wife, a witness to their meeting, said Steinbrenner told Berra that the way he fired him was “the worst mistake I ever made in baseball.” Their makeup meeting was held at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University, near Berra’s home.

Berra sat in Steinbrenner’s box on opening day of the 1999 season. Three months later, the Yankees held Yogi Berra Day, and with both Berra and Larsen in attendance, Yankees pitcher David Cone threw the 16th perfect game in baseball history.

In a statement after Steinbrenner died on July 13, 2010, Berra said, “George and I had our differences, but who didn’t? We became great friends over the last decade and I will miss him very much.”

Berra’s wife, Carmen Berra, whom he married in 1949, died in March 2014. They had three sons, Larry Jr., Tim and Dale. The youngest, Dale, played with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Yankees and the Astros during an 11-year career in Major League Baseball.

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