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Yogi was military hero before a baseball star

Berra joined the Navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, fought during D-Day invasion

NEW YORK -- Long before he won 10 World Series titles and three American League Most Valuable Player Awards while serving primarily as a catcher for the Yankees, Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra was a distinguished and decorated member of the U.S. military, too.

Berra, who passed away at 90 on Tuesday night, enlisted in the Navy after the U.S. was drawn into World War II when Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941, thus interrupting what ultimately would become a Hall of Fame baseball career.

Complete coverage: Yogi Berra

Unlike some of the MLB stars of the day, who mostly played baseball for the military during the war, Berra actually served and fought, putting his life on the line.

Seaman Second Class Berra served on a small landing craft support missile boat, which attacked the coast of Normandy during the massive D-Day invasion of 1944.

"When the battle commenced at 6:30 a.m., the LCS [landing craft support boat] sprayed bullets and rockets across the heavily fortified beach fronts before the troops landed," Tom Verducci recalled on Wednesday for Sports Illustrated.

"Berra, then 19, manned a machine gun mounted on a ball turret in his LCS and stood tall with a boy's wonder -- too busy marveling at the tremendous explosions of lights and sound to consider the danger that would end the lives of 2,500 of his fellow Americans. In an LCS, only the steel walls of the boat and the grace of God stood between a sailor and death."

"You better get your head down in here," the officer barked at Berra, "if you want it on."

Berra earned a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Unit Citation, two battle stars and a European Theatre of Operations ribbon during the war, and in 2009 he was granted the Navy's Lone Sailor Award. An announcement from the Navy Memorial at the time said he exemplified the Navy's core values.

Video: Tom Verducci calls MLB Central to remember Yogi Berra

"Our honorees are living examples of how service to country changes lives and helps develop leaders," said retired Rear Adm. Edward Walker Jr., president and CEO of the Navy, at the 2009 Memorial.

In 2013, Berra received the first Bob Feller Act of Valor Award, inspired by the late Hall of Fame pitcher for the Indians, who also put his baseball career on hold and went into the military for four years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

"This distinctly unique award will reward those who can measure up to Bob Feller's courage and the strict standards by which he lived his life, every single day," award creator Peter Fertig said in a statement.

Video: 8 minutes in remembrance of No. 8 Yogi Berra

This is the man behind the malapropos and the loveable demeanor that came to be known throughout the world in the decades after his sacrifices and his prodigious baseball career.

Earlier this year, more than 100,000 people signed a petition that was placed on the White House site, imploring President Obama to award Berra the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The petition cited Berra's "military service and civil rights and educational activism" as the reason for the award, not his baseball exploits.

The response from the White House didn't comment on Berra's chances, noting that medal is awarded only at the president's sole discretion, but it certainly did expound on his qualifications.

"He demonstrated exemplary sportsmanship and character on his way to winning 13 World Series championships as a player and manager, with each new title feeling like déjà vu all over again," the White House said in its response. "He served our country in the U.S. Navy during World War II -- including the D-Day invasion, and has established himself as an advocate for civil rights, education, and inclusion of the LGBT community in sports.

"He's demonstrated many of the qualities of past Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, so -- as he might say -- it ain't over 'til it's over."

Baseball players previously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom include Hank Aaron (2002), Ernie Banks ('13), Roberto Clemente ('03), Joe DiMaggio (1977), Stan Musial (2011), Buck O'Neil ('06), Frank Robinson ('05) and Ted Williams (1991). President Obama presented the medal to Musial before he died in a ceremony that included basketball star Bill Russell and the first President Bush. 

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter.
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