From The Los Angeles Times
Yogi Berra, a Hall of Fame catcher with the dynastic 1950s New York Yankees, known equally well among sports fans and non-fans for his absurdly profound “Yogi-isms” and his TV commercials, has died. He was 90.
Berra died of natural causes Tuesday at his home in New Jersey, according to Dave Kaplan, the director of the Yogi Berra Museum.
“While we mourn the loss of our father, grandfather and great-grandfather, we know he is at peace with Mom,” Berra’s 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.”
Had Berra been nothing more than a very good ballplayer — and he was a star among stars on those Yankees teams, counting among his teammates Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Billy Martin, Whitey Ford and Don Larsen — his fame would have been assured. But with his public utterances, spoken in all sincerity, Berra became the kind of delightful character Americans love to love.
The things he said — and those attributed to him — are widely quoted today by presidents, professors and public speakers of all stripes, among millions of others.
His most famous Yogi-ism, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” has become a part of the American idiom, but he also advised:
— ”Never answer an anonymous letter.”
— ”You can observe a lot by watching.”
— ”We made too many wrong mistakes.”
— ”It’s déjà vu all over again.”
— “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
And more besides.
It was long believed that some New York sportswriters dressed up or made up Yogi-isms to make their stories better and Berra admitted as much when asked about it, replying, “I really didn’t say everything I said.”
If he hadn’t been a ballplayer, though, no one would ever have heard what he had to say. Nor would anyone have seen a stumpy little Italian from St. Louis work his way into the American consciousness to the point that a TV cartoon character — Yogi Bear — was named after him.
And Berra was a ballplayer’s ballplayer, known for his hustle, his adroit handling of temperamental pitchers, his clutch hitting and his running commentary to batters while he was behind the plate. He also was known as a stabilizing influence on a team of revelers.
Casey Stengel, Yankees manager during much of Berra’s career in New York, ranked him second only to Joe DiMaggio among the best players he had managed.
A baseball “lifer,” Berra stayed with the game well into his 60s, serving two stints as manager of the Yankees and one as manager of the New York Mets — he also played his last season with them — after completing his distinguished 19-year playing career. He also was a coach with both of those teams, and the Houston Astros as well.
Berra, who hit a home run in his first major league at-bat, was honored as the American League’s most valuable player in 1951, ’54 and ’55, played in 14 World Series — the Yankees won 10 of those — coached or managed in seven more, and was voted onto the AL All-Star team 15 times and into the Hall of Fame in 1972.
He hit better than .300 in four seasons, had 11 seasons with 20 or more home runs, and five with at least 100 runs batted in. Behind the plate, he called three no-hitters, most famously Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. That game ended, with the Yankees ahead, 2-0, on a called third strike. Berra, still wearing his catcher’s mask, ran to the mound and jumped into Larsen’s arms, providing baseball with one of its most enduring photographs.
Born Lawrence Peter Berra, the youngest of four Berra boys — he also had a younger sister — on May 12, 1925, in St. Louis, Yogi grew up playing any number of sports in the Italian neighborhood everybody called “the Hill.” Known as Lawdie, his mother’s pet name for him, he and his brothers liked everything athletic but were passionate about baseball. Their immigrant father saw that as a waste of time, however, and sent each of the boys out to work early in life so they could help with family expenses during the Great Depression.
Young Yogi — he became Yogi when a friend saw a movie about an Indian snake charmer, a yogi, who walked like Berra — completed eighth grade, then went to work in a coal yard, drove a delivery truck and worked in a shoe factory. Always, though, he had his mind on baseball and finally, with strong support from his brothers, persuaded his father to let him pursue the sport. After playing, mostly as an outfielder, for several seasons on an American Legion junior team, he and boyhood pal Joe Garagiola tried out in 1942 with the hometown Cardinals, whose general manager at the time was Branch Rickey.
Garagiola was signed for a $500 bonus. Berra was offered a $250 signing bonus but turned it down, figuring he was worth more. Rickey disagreed, predicting that Berra would never amount to much as a baseball player.
Berra signed the next year with the Yankees for a $500 bonus and was sent to the minor league Norfolk Tars, where he became an error-prone catcher but showed promise as a hitter. He was promoted to the Yankees’ Kansas City farm team in 1943 but joined the Navy instead and served as a gunner’s mate during the D-day invasion of Normandy. During the fighting, it’s said, he earned a Purple Heart but refused to accept it because he didn’t want to alarm his mother.
Back in baseball after World War II, he was sent to the Newark Bears for the 1946 season, then was called up late in the season by the Yankees. He struggled in his first few seasons, swinging at bad pitches and developing a reputation as a wild-armed catcher, one frequently “hidden” in the outfield.
At one point, he was advised to think when he went up to the plate and swing only at good pitches. Berra took the advice to heart on his next at-bat, promptly struck out and stormed back into the dugout, muttering, “You can’t hit and think at the same time!”
When Stengel took over as manager in 1949, he brought in Bill Dickey, a fabled Yankee catcher in the ’30s, to work with Berra. Under Dickey’s tutelage, Berra blossomed, both as a catcher and a hitter, becoming so confident behind the plate that he began talking to hitters, and others who happened to be around home plate.
“Personally, I talk to everyone,” he wrote in a first-person story that appeared in The Times in 1956. “I talk to umpires. I talk to my pitcher. And, most of all, I talk to the hitters — all of them, that is, except guys fresh up from the minors. Rookies have to put all their concentration on the pitch, so I carefully avoid chewing the fat when they come to bat.
“But a veteran should be able to take some conversation, even a little ribbing, in his stride. So I’ll bend his ear, no matter how tense the situation.”
According to Berra, only Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams ever told him to shut up. Berra said he went right on yakking.
As a hitter, Berra held the distinction of leading the Yankees in runs batted in for seven consecutive seasons, from 1949 to 1955, when Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle otherwise dominated the lineup. And in five seasons, he had more home runs than strikeouts.
His love affair with baseball almost ended on a sour note when Yankee owner George Steinbrenner fired him as manager 16 games into the 1985 season. Berra said he understood the firing but took issue with Steinbrenner’s sending someone else to give him the news.
Berra boycotted Yankee Stadium, and all things Yankee, until 1999, when Steinbrenner apologized and asked him to throw out the first pitch at the season opener. He was also honored that season with a “Yogi Berra Day” at Yankee Stadium.
That was not the first “Yogi Berra Day.” They had one for him in 1959 at Yankee Stadium and another in St. Louis in 1947, when as a Yankee rookie he was in town for a game against the old St. Louis Browns.
After having been announced as a hometown boy made good, Berra responded, “I want to thank everybody for making this day necessary.”
During and after his playing career, Berra appeared frequently in TV commercials. He was the longtime official spokesman for Yoo-Hoo, a chocolate-flavored drink, and also pitched beer, potato chips, a fast-food chain and cat food. His most noted spot as a pitchman was for the insurance company Aflac that first aired in 2002, and co-starred him with a duck.
In the late ’90s, friends and admirers built the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center next to Yogi Berra Stadium on the campus of Montclair State University in New Jersey, where Berra maintained an office.
Berra’s wife of 65 years, Carmen, died in March 2014. He is survived by their sons Lawrence; Timothy, who played for a season in the NFL; and Dale, who had his own major league career; 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.