Yogi Berra was born this week in 1925 and much good has come from his life. In the past 85 years, his service in the U.S. Navy, his career in baseball, and his common-man wisdom have made him one of the most beloved celebrity athletes in the nation.
Little about him, though, suggests an athlete. Even in his early twenties, Berra’s short, squat frame resembled a thumb following an unfortunate encounter with a hammer. But his unique physique was as recognizable to the public as his curious wit. When he returned to baseball in 1984 to manage the Yankees, Sports Illustrated made him their cover shot – with his back to the camera, under the title “Yogi’s Back!”
And it was his posture and physiognomy that earned him the nickname of “Yogi.” Living in a working-class neighborhood, he played baseball on a field without modern amenities – one without dugouts, or even chairs. When his team was on offense, the boy born Lawrence Berra would sit on the ground with his arms and legs crossed, waiting for his next at bat. If his team was losing, he’d strike a ponderous look. His friends thought the eighth-grade dropout resembled a Hindu holy man. The name “Yogi” stuck.
As a catcher, Yogi was considered a “field general,” but many baseball fans do not know that he was a Seaman Second Class. Indeed, he spent June 6th, 1944, 300 yards off of Normandy’s Omaha Beach – D-Day’s deadliest – firing rockets at German soldiers. He would later serve in North Africa. He signed up because “there was a war going on.”
The Yankees signed him because he could hit. Early in his minor league career, for example, he knocked in twenty-three runs in a double header. By 1947 he was in the major leagues, benefiting immensely from playing behind the great Bill Dickey, who, as Berra put it, “learned me his experience.”
He bridged the careers of the iconic Joe DiMaggio and the golden boy Mickey Mantle, whom Berra described as “amphibious,” because “he hit from both sides of the plate.” The catcher (and occasional outfielder) played major league baseball for 19 seasons, and his teams won the American League pennant 14 times and the World Series 10 times. Those latter two milestones are records that still stand, or as Berra once put it: “the record will stand until it is broken.”
Not all of Berra’s accomplishments were team oriented. At a time when Ryan Howard – who struck 186 times last year – is awarded a contract extension of 25 million per year, it is amazing to reflect on the fact that Berra struck out only 12 times in 1950, a year in which he had 597 at bats and 28 home runs. On teams with stars such as Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris, Berra won three Most Valuable Player Awards. He was in the top five in MVP voting for seven straight years. According to Dr. Gary Oden, Professor of Kinesiology at Sam Houston State University, “those are impressive numbers. That’s Barry Bonds territory.” And that’s true. Only Barry Bonds received MVP votes in more seasons than Yogi Berra.
Berra was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.
When he was recognized for his accomplishments in his hometown, St. Louis, he simply thanked people “for making this night necessary.”
He managed both the Yankees and the Mets to the World Series, and he served as a bench coach for the Astros in 1986, when they came within a few outs of making the October classic.
Over the course of his baseball career and even in his semi-retirement, his national – if not his physical – stature has grown. In 1945 he met Harry Truman, and he has met every President since, with the exception of Barack Obama. Well, “not yet,” he told the New York Times; the President has “been traveling.”
He was once invited to what he thought was a “steak dinner” with the President, but it was actually a “State Dinner” at the White House. When asked how it went, Berra noted that “it was hard to have a conversation; everyone was talking.”
Interestingly, Berra has eight entries in Bartlett’s Quotations, more than any United States President. These entries include one relating to a presidential scandal, sort of: “Even Napoleon had his Watergate.”
But it’s not just presidents who still think of Berra these days. Each year twenty-thousand children visit the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Little Falls, New Jersey. Millions more are familiar with the cartoon character of Yogi Bear, created as an homage to the Yankee catcher in 1958.
Local youngster Ryan Brim is a catcher himself – for the little league (Huntsville) Yankees no less – and he is well aware of Yogi Berra from his study of baseball and, well, from watching AFLAC commercials. “He was a catcher for the Yankees, like me,” noted Brim, and “he has lots of cool catchphrases.” His favorite? “When you get to a fork in the road, take it.”
Berra has taken many forks in the road over his 85 years, outliving most of his ball-playing contemporaries. He has, however, lived by his admonition to “always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.” But Berra hopes that his funeral is a few years off, noting that “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Mike Yawn is a professor of political science at Sam Houston State University.