Berra, Yogi (1925—)

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Berra, Yogi (1925—)

Lawrence "Yogi" Berra is one of the most loved figures of the sporting world. The star catcher for the great New York Yankee baseball teams of the mid-twentieth century, he has built a legacy as a dispenser of basic wisdom worthy of his nickname.

Born to Italian immigrants in the "Dago Hill" neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, Berra acquired his moniker as childhood friends remarked that he walked like a "yogi" snake charmer they had seen in a movie. He grew up idolizing future Hall of Fame outfielder Joe "Ducky" Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals, and as a teenager left school to play baseball with his friend Joe Garagiola. Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey signed Garagiola for $500, but did not think Yogi was worth the money. A scout for the New York Yankees did, however, and Yogi started playing catcher in their farm system, until he turned 18 and the navy intervened.

After participating in D-Day and other landings, Berra returned to the United States and the Yankee farm club. He was noticed and promoted to the Yankees in 1946 after manager Mel Ott of the rival New York Giants offered to buy his contract for $50,000. At the time, Yankees general manager Larry McPhail said of Yogi's unique stature that he looked like "the bottom man on an unemployed acrobatic team." Jaded Yankee veterans and the New York press were soon amused to no end by his love for comic books, movies, and ice cream, and knack for making the classic comments that would come to be known as "Berra-isms" or "Yogi-isms." One of the first came in 1947 when a Yogi Berra Night was held in his honor. Berra took the microphone and stated, "I want to thank all those who made this night necessary."

Many more sayings were to follow over the years. He described his new house thusly: "It's got nothing but rooms." When asked why the Yankees lost the 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Yogi answered, "We made too many wrong mistakes" (a quote later appropriated by George Bush in a televised debate). Asked what time it is, he replied, "Do you mean now?" Some sayings simply transcended context, zen-fashion: "You see a lot just by observing." "If the world was perfect, it wouldn't be." "When you get to a fork in the road, take it." After a time interviewers began making up their own quotes and floating them as "Yogi-isms." Stand-up comedians and late-night talk show hosts followed soon after.

A sensitive man, Yogi often seemed genuinely hurt by willful misquotes and jokes about his appearance and intelligence, but his serene nature triumphed in the end. He was also a determined competitor who could silence critics with clutch performances. In 1947, he would hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history as the Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers. When Casey Stengel, a character in his own right, became the Yankee manager in 1949, Yogi gained a valuable ally and soon developed into the best catcher of the time, along with Dodger Roy Campanella. He would go on to set World Series records for games played and Series won, as well as leading in hits, doubles, and placing second behind Mickey Mantle in home runs and runs-batted-in (RBIs). Later, as a manager himself, he would lead the Yankees in 1964 and the New York Mets in 1973 to the World Series. Yogi was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Managing the Yankees again in 1985, he would be fired after standing up to tyrannical Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, an achievement some would liken to a World Series in itself. After not speaking for 14 years, a period during which Berra would not visit Yankee Stadium even when his plaque was erected in centerfield, the pair would suddenly reconcile in early 1999. As Yogi had said about the 1973 Mets pennant drive, "It ain't over 'til it's over."

—C. Kenyon Silvey

Further Reading:

Berra, Yogi, with Tom Horton. Yogi: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1989.

Okrent, Daniel, and Steve Wulf. Baseball Anecdotes. New York, Harper & Row, 1989.