Berra, Lawrence Peter ("Yogi")

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BERRA, Lawrence Peter ("Yogi")

(b. 12 May 1925 in St. Louis, Missouri), Hall of Fame baseball player, coach, and manager who epitomized the winning tradition of the New York Yankees from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s.

Berra was the youngest son and one of five children born to Pietro Berra, a factory worker, and Paulina Longoni, a homemaker, who were first-generation immigrants from northern Italy. Joe Garagiola, the future major league catcher and sportscaster, lived across the street from Berra on "the Hill," an Italian neighborhood in St. Louis. Berra quit school after the eighth grade and in 1942 signed with the New York Yankees for a $500 bonus and $90 a month. He was assigned to the Norfolk (Virginia) Tars of the Class B Piedmont League. When he turned eighteen in 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and participated in the invasion of Normandy at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Berra received a distinguished unit citation and two battle stars for his military service. After the war he played for the minor league team in New London, Connecticut, and in 1946 he was promoted to the Newark (New Jersey) Bears of the Triple A International League. He joined the Yankees at the close of the 1946 season and played with them until 1963.

On 26 January 1949 Berra married Carmen Short. Berra and his wife had three sons; the youngest, Dale, enjoyed a ten-year major league career with the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees. Berra and his wife are longtime residents of Montclair, New Jersey.

Berra was initially a platoon catcher and outfielder, but after Casey Stengel joined the Yankees as manager in 1949, Berra blossomed into a star. Former Yankees catcher Bill Dickey took him under his wing, as Berra famously said later, to "learn me all his experience." Under Dickey's tutelage, he became an excellent defensive catcher. In fact, Berra was selected the Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1951, 1954, and 1955 and was a fifteen-time All-Star. He caught an average of 143 of the 154 regular season games for the Yankees from 1950 to 1955, and he called Don Larsen's no-hit perfect game from behind the plate in game five of the 1956 World Series––twenty-seven consecutive outs––against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He played 148 consecutive games without an error between July 1957 and May 1959. He was the only player who remained on the Yankees roster during Stengel's entire tenure as manager (1949 to 1960). Stengel referred to Berra as "my assistant manager," declared that except for Joe DiMaggio he was "the greatest player I ever had to manage," and recalled in his autobiography that Berra "has got a sports mind. And he did a beautiful job for me for many years."

Berra was also a formidable batter. He hit the first pinch-hit homer in World Series history in 1947. Though a notorious "bad ball" hitter, he was exceptionally difficult to strike out. In 1950, for example, he struck out only twelve times in 597 at-bats, and he struck out only 414 times in over 7,500 at-bats during his career. He hit thirty home runs in 1952, the major league record for catchers at the time. His best year was probably 1956, when he hit .298 with 30 home runs and 105 runs batted in (RBI) in 140 games. In 1961, Berra's last constructive season as a player, he hit twenty-two home runs for the team that set a major league record for team home runs in a season (240). By 1963 Berra was a part-time player and first-base coach. Though he played four games with the New York Mets in 1965, he effectively retired as a player after the 1963 season with 358 career home runs, a .285 career batting average, and 1,430 career RBI. He held records for most World Series played (fourteen), most Series games (seventy-five), most Series games by a catcher (sixty-three), most Series at-bats (259), most Series hits (seventy-one), most times on a world championship team (ten), and he held several Series fielding records. In addition, he hit twelve Series home runs.

He was also a successful major league manager, winning pennants with both the Yankees in the American League (1964) and the Mets in the National League (1973). "The first time I managed in the major leagues was in 1964," he reminisced. "I took a cut in pay to get the job. I would do it again." Though the Yankees finished in first place, Berra was fired after they lost to St. Louis in the World Series. In a public relations coup, he was hired as a coach by the New York Mets in 1965 when Stengel was still manager and succeeded Gil Hodges as manager of the Mets in 1972. He led the "Miracle" Mets in 1973 from last place the year before to the National League pennant. Berra was again fired after the 1975 season. He returned to the Yankees as a coach from 1976 through 1978, and the team won the pennant all three years. Though he managed the Yankees in 1984 to a third-place finish, he was fired early in the 1985 season. He joined the Houston Astros as a coach in 1986 and retired after the 1989 season but remained as an adviser to the team until 1992.

Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in January 1972 with over 85 percent of the votes of the Baseball Writers of America. "Getting into the Hall of Fame was my biggest thrill," he recalled in his autobiography. "Second? I guess the perfect game." The Yankees retired his uniform number 8 later that summer and dedicated a plaque to him in center field of Yankee Stadium in 1988. The late commissioner of baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti, once praised him: "Talking with Yogi Berra about baseball is like talking with Homer about the Gods." Though famous for his "Yogi-isms" (for example, "No one goes there anymore; it's too crowded," "It ain't over 'til it's over," "Never answer an anonymous letter," and "When you come to a fork in the road, take it"), Berra was an astute teacher of the game and regarded Don Mattingly, the Yankee first-baseman and captain, as his favorite player to manage.

While still an active player, Berra collaborated with Ed Fitzgerald on Yogi: The Autobiography of a Professional Baseball Player (1961). After his retirement from active coaching, Berra collaborated with Tom Horton on a second autobiography, Yogi: It Ain't Over (1989). Martin Appel, Yogi Berra (1992), is an illustrated, straightforward account of Berra's life for young adult readers. See also Joseph J. Bannan, et al., eds., Yogi Berra: An American Original (1998).

Gary Scharnhorst

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Berra, Lawrence Peter ("Yogi")

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