Yogi Berra passes away; HOF legend was 90
A loss that unquestionably transcends the game has sent all of baseball into deep mourning. Yogi Berra -- Hall of Famer, all-time Yankees legend, World War II veteran, master of misstatement and beloved international icon, is gone. Berra died Tuesday night -- on the 69th anniversary of his Major League debut -- at age 90.
The announcement came early Wednesday morning and was announced via the Yogi Berra Museum's Twitter account.
His passing has created a void that cannot be filled, even by the myriad anecdotes -- some accurate, others exaggerated -- about him and the dozens of records he established. No American sports figure other than Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and perhaps Arnold Palmer and Joe DiMaggio was more recognized by the general public in the 20th century. And though his profile had become significantly lower in the last decade, Berra had retained a conspicuous place in the American consciousness. He was extraordinarily popular.
He still is routinely cited, quoted and appreciated by presidents and plumbers, commissioners and comedians, wideouts and waitresses, goalies and garbage collectors, authors and auto mechanics, admirals, network anchors and professional wrestlers. All felt a kinship with the bow-legged catcher from The Hill in St. Louis who was the inspiration for a cartoon and known everywhere by his unique nickname.
"While we mourn the loss of our father, grandfather and great-grandfather, we know he is at peace with Mom," his family said in a statement released by the museum. "We celebrate his remarkable life, and are thankful he meant so much to so many. He will truly be missed."
Berra is most readily linked to championships in the game he played from 1946, when he broke in with the Yankees, until '65, when he made a brief return to active duty and took his final at-bat with the Mets. His teams played in the World Series 14 times and won it 10 times. No other player has a comparable October resume.
"Yogi Berra's character, talent, courage, extraordinary experiences and inimitable way with words made him a universally beloved figure in baseball and beyond," Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "Born to Italian immigrant parents in St. Louis, Lawrence Peter Berra grew up to serve his country on D-Day as a member of the U.S. Navy. Upon his return from his service, he often played in the substantial shadows of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, and yet he quietly became no less than one of the most accomplished players in baseball history himself.
"Yogi Berra was a beacon of Americana, and today Major League Baseball and all of its clubs stand together in mourning his passing and celebrating his memory. On behalf of the game he served with excellence and dignity, I extend my deepest condolences to Yogi's children and grandchildren, his many friends throughout our game and his countless admirers."
Retired as a player, he managed the Yankees to the World Series in 1964 and the Mets to their "Ya Gotta Believe" World Series appearance nine years later. It was during the Mets' worst-to-first rush in late summer '73 when a phrase widely attributed to him became popular and, over decades, frequently invoked by those fighting diminishing chances -- "It ain't over 'til it's over." Some question exists, however, as to whether he said those six words.
Reporters covering the Mets that day recall his words as, "You're never out of it until you're out of it."
His words, manner and unmistakable physical image, when combined with his nickname, created a phenomenon that defied the limits of the dictionary. Steve Jacobson, a former Newsday columnist, wrote: "Yogi looks just as it sounds; it's 'onomata appearance.'"
No! Say it ain't so. He was a good man, my former manager and friend! RIP Yogi. https://t.co/X5SauCYQty- Dave Winfield (@DaveWinfieldHOF) September 23, 2015
Berra's face was readily recognized throughout the land, and he was instantly identifiable from behind when he wore his signature No. 8 uniform jersey. With apologies to Willie Stargell, Kobe Bryant, Cal Ripken Jr., Carl Yastrzemski, Troy Aikman, Bill Dickey and Sammy Baugh, Berra's No. 8 ranks first in the American roster of 8's.
But even when he wore one of his favored cardigan sweaters instead -- Berra once purchased three of differing colors, "navy blue, navy green and navy brown," he said -- he was easily recognized because of his distinctive shoulders, bowed legs and droopy posture.
Berra gained fame and distinction, though, mostly because of the on-field success he shared -- and fueled, because he played the game at a level few others ever have attained and because he hit as almost no else has. He routinely swung at pitches out of the strike zone, hit with power, seldom struck out and often delivered in the most challenging circumstances. Long before the words were attributed to him, it wasn't over until it was over if the game was tight and Mr. Berra still had an at-bat pending.
He was universally regarded as a tough out and a tougher out in late innings. "There's no way to pitch him," Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn said. "You can't expect to throw one by him." Wynn walked Berra 20 times and struck him out 11 times in 204 confrontations. Berra batted .311 with eight home runs against him.
Berra's skills as a catcher and batter sometimes were obscured by his comic-book image. But his baseball jewelry -- 13 World Series rings, the three American League MVP Awards that bear his name (1951, '54 and '55) and the slew of World Series records he holds (most games, at-bats, hits, singles, doubles and games caught) are irrefutable evidence of his talent and impact as a player.
He batted .285, hit 358 home runs and drove in 1,430 runs. No player whose primary position was catcher has driven in run more runs. He averaged just fewer than 5.5 strikeouts per 100 at-bats, never striking out more than 38 times in a season, and 102 RBIs per season in an 11-season sequence that began in 1948, the first year he appeared in more than 100 games.
DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were his teammates from 1946-51 and 1951-63, respectively; still, Berra led the Yankees in RBIs for seven successive seasons beginning in 1949. He was among the four leading MVP candidates each year from 1950 through '56, placing second twice. He received MVP votes in 15 straight years.
Casey Stengel, who made his managerial mark with Berra's teams from 1949-60, often cited a reluctance to go to war without the left-handed-hitting catcher he called "my assistant," whose swing was so conducive to Yankee Stadium home runs. Moreover, Berra became a respected receiver after being tutored by Dickey in the late '40s and into the '50s.
Not only was he skilled and knowledgeable, he was lucky as well. "If he fell in a sewer," Stengel once said, "he'd come out with a gold watch."
Case in point: A foul tip off the bat of the Indians' Larry Raines shattered the bar of Berra's mask in 1957 and injured his nose. "I got cut, and I think it broke," Berra said in 2011. "Good thing that it happened. I had sinus trouble and migraine headaches my whole life until then. Everything cleared up after I got hurt."
Good fortune followed the footprints Berra made. He was a particularly well-compensated coach with the Mets in 1969 when they staged, arguably, the greatest upset in World Series history. He returned to the Yankees in 1976, the year they won the pennant for the first time since he managed them to the World Series in '64. The Astros won the National League West championship in 1986, Berra's first season wearing their Crayola uniforms.
Had some great times & laffs with the Legendary Yogi Berra. One of a kind! RIP Sir!- Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) September 23, 2015
And Yankees owner George Steinbrenner kiddingly lamented not having had Berra, then a Yankees coach, make the call on the coin flip that determined the site of the team's 1978 AL East tiebreaker against the Red Sox. "Having him in the dugout worked, though," Steinbrenner said following the Bucky Dent game.
Steinbrenner's image took a direct hit in late April 1985 when he dismissed Berra as manager after merely 16 games, breaking his pledge to retain him through the season. The dismissal prompted Berra to add the Yankees to his personal black list. He eliminated the Stadium from his list of places to visit -- he didn't even attend the 1988 ceremonies when plaques honoring him and Dickey were added to Monument Park -- until 1999, when Steinbrenner, prompted by Suzyn Waldman of WFAN Radio, publicly apologized.
As his luck would have it, Berra's first day back at the Stadium -- it was Yogi Berra Day -- coincided with David Cone pitching a perfect game for the Yankees, some 43 years after Berra caught Don Larsen's perfect game in the World Series, the last perfect game by a Yankees pitcher.
Lawrence Peter Berra was born in St. Louis on May 12, 1925, to parents who had immigrated from Italy 16 years earlier. He was one of five children. Because his mother had trouble pronouncing Larry, his first nickname was Lawdie. Joe Garagiola, later a big league catcher and baseball announcer, was his across-the-street neighbor. Hall of Fame announcer Jack Buck later lived on Elizabeth Avenue, subsequently renamed Hall of Fame Place.
Bobby Hofman, a childhood friend who eventually played shortstop for the New York Giants and worked for the Yankees, hung the nickname Yogi on him after noting Berra's resemblance to a Hindu holy man the two had seen in a movie. In his early years with the Yankees, Berra was most often called Larry.
At 18, he joined the U.S. Navy and served as a machine gunner on the USS Bayfield during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He often said that his military service in Word War II was more significant to him than anything he did on the baseball field. Once he established himself in the big leagues, Berra and teammate Phil Rizzuto settled in New Jersey and became close friends, and, in the 1950s, business partners as co-owners of a bowling alley in Clifton, N.J. The Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, located on the campus of Montclair State University, adjacent to Yogi Berra Stadium, opened in December 1998.
Because of his military service, his commitment to education and personality traits that underscored his uncommon decency, Berra was nominated to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. A petition seeking to have the Obama administration bestow the prestigious award on him was posted on the White House's official website on May 11, 2015. The petition stated: "Yogi Berra should be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A man of unimpeachable integrity and respect, he befriended the first black and Latino baseball players in Major League Baseball. He is currently an ambassador for Athlete Ally, which promotes LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights in sports.
A million ways and reasons to remember Yogi Berra, but his welcoming of Elston Howard, #Yankees first African-American, is at the top.- Bob Klapisch (@BobKlap) September 23, 2015
"He enlisted in the U. S. Navy during World War II ... and continues to be an avid supporter of our armed forces. Berra greatly values education. While with the Yankees, he created a scholarship at Columbia University that is still active 50 years later. His namesake, the Museum and Learning Center [at Montclair State University in New Jersey] serves 20,000 students annually with character education programs and teaches the values of respect, sportsmanship and inclusion that Berra has demonstrated throughout his life and career."
Berra is survived by sons Larry, Tim and Dale. Carmen, his wife of 65 years and the unofficial leader of the Hall of Fame wives, died in March 2014 after she and her husband had left their longtime home in Montclair to live in an assisted living facility in nearby West Caldwell. When Yogi turned 90 in May, he had 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Tim played one season in the National Football League and Dale played 11 in the big leagues. And, of the three sons, Larry, the oldest one, most resembles his father. He has the mannerisms, phrasing and body type most like Yogi's.
No funeral arrangements have been announced.
An irony developed during Berra's career. A man of relatively few words gained renown because of what he said -- or purported to have said. Even the title of a book of "Yogi-isms" can be questioned for its authenticity. Berra at one time denied having spoken the words that the title attributes to him -- "I really didn't say everything I said" -- though others heard him speak the phrase.
His remarks helped sculpt his image. And many made sense in complex ways. The quotes, his successes in a major market and the way he was depicted early in his playing career helped make Berra into a popular and effective pitch man for 60 years. He endorsed Gillette razors in 1950, and his commercial for Aflac still was running in 2010. He also endorsed Yoo-Hoo, Entenmann's, Stove Top Stuffing and dozens more products.
Moreover, his widely recognized name seemingly inspired the name of cartoon character Yogi Bear in 1958, though the character's creators, Hanna-Barbera Productions, somehow -- and it still seems preposterous -- denied the link.
Berra was referred to only as "Yogi" in the Aflac commercial and in others because additional identification never was necessary. Baseball has had its share of Babes, Dukes, Leftys and Whiteys, but the game has had only one Yogi. How many celebrities get by without mention of their surnames -- Lucy, Elvis, Ike, Cher, Marilyn, LeBron, Dizzy, Madonna, Ringo?
Yogi was one of one, even though Yogi Pacheco pitched from 1991-93 in the Cubs' farm system. Or as Wes Westrum, a New York catching contemporary of Berra's and also a master of malapropisms, famously said, "When they made him, they threw away the molding."