HOUSTON -- Yogi Berra is synonymous with the Yankees, the team with which he won 10 World Series titles as a player and three Most Valuable Player Awards en route to the Hall of Fame. He’s one of the greatest Yankees to wear pinstripes and was one of the most
HOUSTON -- Yogi Berra is synonymous with the Yankees, the team with which he won 10 World Series titles as a player and three Most Valuable Player Awards en route to the Hall of Fame. He’s one of the greatest Yankees to wear pinstripes and was one of the most recognizable sports stars of the 20th century, but did you know Yogi also wore an Astros rainbow jersey, as well?
Hal Lanier hadn’t been on the job very long, hired by owner John McMullen to manage the Astros in the winter of 1985, when McMullen informed him that he would have a new bench coach: Yogi Berra, the Yankees legend. McMullen, who was from New Jersey, was a former minority partner of the Yankees and was friends with Berra, and he wanted Berra to assist a first-time manager in Lanier.
Lanier was a former Yankees player himself, having finished his 10-year Major League playing career with the Yanks in 1972 and '73 before moving into coaching. He knew Berra very well and welcomed the experience of someone who had managed the Yankees twice and Mets once. What’s more, Lanier’s father, Max, played in the big leagues, and Berra would come to their house in St. Petersburg, Fla., during Spring Training when Hal was a kid. Lanier and his sisters would serve Berra food and drinks.
“I knew Yogi at a very young age,” Lanier said in 2015. “I was told that I had to accept Yogi as bench coach, and I said, ‘Wow, what a great time this is going to be.’ Of course, that was my first year. He really helped me out a lot with the players during the game, after games. There would be somebody that would get sent down, and he talked to them and he helped me out, especially when we went to New York.
“There’s so much media attention there, and half of them went to Yogi and half of them went to me after a game. Yogi apologized for that, and I said, ‘Yogi, I wish they would all go to you.’ What a great baseball man, player, coach, manager, but what a great man he was off the field. I was very fortunate to be able to spend time with him and get to know him for three years.”
Berra spent three seasons as the Astros' bench coach. Lanier said he was instrumental in the team winning the National League West title in 1986 and provided invaluable help to the players. Veteran relief pitcher Larry Andersen once said Berra told him not to throw so much in the offseason.
“He said I could get ready in two weeks, and it really made a difference in my career,” Andersen said. “I was fresher during the whole season by not throwing so much during the offseason. That was right from Yogi.”
Hall of Fame second baseman Craig Biggio credits Berra with helping him get drafted by the Astros. While with Houston, Berra went with coach Matt Galante to Seton Hall to scout a top prospect for the 1987 MLB Draft. Biggio, like Berra, was a catcher.
The Astros wound up taking Biggio with their first-round pick, and he was in the big leagues a year later. Biggio, of course, played 20 seasons, amassed more than 3,000 hits, and joined Berra in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.
“I’m an Astro because [Berra] had something to do with it,” Biggio said.
Biggio, a native of Long Island, N.Y., used to live on the East Coast and would play golf and attend hockey games with Berra and McMullen, who also owned the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. Their friendship evolved to the point where Berra would call Biggio on his birthday each year until his death in 2015 at 90 years old.
“He’s just a great man,” Biggio said. “The man lived his life right. He’s one of the most recognizable people in the world, but you wouldn’t ever know it.”
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.