Berra, Yogi

views updated May 17 2018

Yogi Berra


American baseball player

As a player, manager, and linguist of sorts, Yogi Berra has endeared himself to baseball fans since World War II as a hard-working, rough-edged original. As a New York Yankee he developed into a masterful catcher as well as an outstanding hitter. He won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in 1951, 1954, and 1955, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. Including his work as a coach and manager, Berra has been involved in a record twenty-one World Series. His influence on the sport is reflected by a list of "25 Greatest Moments" in baseball compiled by The Sporting News in 1999: Berra figures in ten of the moments in one fashion or another. Throughout his career, Berra has also been famous for uttering "Yogi-isms," which pass as malapropisms except for their often strange, but persuasive logic. His best-known utterance is probably the assertion "It ain't over till it's over." He now appears in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, has published several books of his own, and is quoted in many contexts other than baseball.

Childhood in St. Louis

Yogi Berra grew up wanting to be a ballplayer, but first had some serious obstacles to overcome. Born Lawrence Peter Berra and raised in St. Louis, Missouri by his parents Pietro and Paulina Berra, he had three older brothers who also were passionate about baseball. However, they were all needed to help support the family. Berra left school after the eighth grade and worked in a coal yard, drove a delivery truck, and pulled tacks in a shoe factory. But the Berra boys also found time to play baseball, roller hockey, soccer, and football together. With others from the "Dago Hill" neighborhood, they formed a YMCA team called "The Stags." Berra has described his brothers as talented athletes and explained that he was lucky to be the youngest boy. Since they had improved the family's economic situation, he was able to get his father's permission to try for a baseball career. One of Berra's friends, Joe Garagiola, went on to become a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and a broadcaster.

Signed with Yankees

Berra polished his skills on the diamond playing for the Stockham Post American Legion Junior team beginning at age fourteen. He most often played left field for the team. In 1942 he and Garagiola tried out for the St. Louis Cardinals, who were then managed by Branch Rickey. Garagiola was signed, but Berra turned down a $250 signing bonus, half of what his friend had been given. Rickey is reported to have said that Berra wouldn't make it out of Triple A baseball. When Berra signed with the New York Yankees, he received $500 to play for the Norfolk, Virginia Tars in 1943. During his first season playing catcher, he made sixteen errors but showed promise as a hitter. In one two-day period the left-hand hitting and right-hand throwing novice batted in twenty-three runs. Berra's season average however, was just .253.

The next year Berra was advanced to the Yankees' Kansas City farm team, but did not play. Now eighteen, he joined the Navy and trained as a gunner. During the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Berra was part of the fighting for fifteen consecutive days serving as a Seaman 1st Class on the Coast Guard transport Bayfield. When he returned to the United States, Berra played on a Navy baseball team in Connecticut. He showed exceptional batting skills in an exhibition game against the New York Giants, which led to that team offering the Yankees $50,000 for his contract. The Yankees refused the offer, despite the fact that Yankee General Manager Larry MacPhail didn't know who Berra was. After his discharge from the Navy, Berra was assigned to the Bears, the club's Newark, New Jersey farm team. In 1946 Berra batted .314 and hit fifteen home runs for the Bears before being called up to the majors at the end of season. He made a big impression in a short period of time, hitting a home run in his first major league at bat, and another in his second game.

During his first years with the Yankees, Berra struggled with his habit of swinging at bad pitches and a wild arm behind the plate. When Casey Stengel began managing the team in 1949, he put Berra to work with former catcher Bill Dickey, who found fault with the young player's flatfooted style of throwing but also valued his speed, strength, and agility. Soon his student was showing improvement on offense and defense. In 1949 Berra became the starting catcher for the Yankees, a position he would hold until 1959. Behind the plate, he earned a reputation as a talker who tried to distract batters from the task at hand. Berra has said that Ted Williams was the only player who told him shut up, which he declined to do. Berra also gained greater ease when he was at bat. While he would still go for pitches outside the strike zone, Berra proved to be hard to strike out; in 1950 he was called out on strikes only twelve times in 597 at bats.


1925Born May 12 in St. Louis, Missouri to Pietro and Paulina Berra
1942Signs with the New York Yankees
1943Enlists in the U.S. Navy
1946Promoted to the major leagues
1947Hits first pinch-hit home run in World Series history
1949Marries Carmen Short on January 26
1963Retires from playing baseball full time
1964Named manager of the New York Yankees
1971Named manager of the New York Mets
1972Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame
1984Quoted in Barlett's Familiar Quotations
1984Promoted to manager of New York Yankees
1986Joins Houston Astros as coach
1992Retires from coaching

Developed Star Qualities

Playing for Stengel, Berra became a star on the Yankees team and was, in the manager's opinion, second only to Joe DiMaggio among the best players he had ever managed. Berra's awards and statistics bear this out. In addition to his three MVP awards, he was voted to the All-Star team fifteen times. During a nineteen-year playing career he hit over .300 in four seasons, had more than twenty home runs eleven times, and had five 100-plus runs-batted-in (RBI) seasons. His best season at the plate was 1956, when he hit .298, had thirty home runs, and batted in 105 runs. Berra played in fourteen World Series and accumulated several championship records, including the most games as catcher, at sixty-three; most hits, at seventy-one; appearances on a winning team, at ten; and the distinction of hitting the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history. When he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the former Yankee claimed 339 out of 396 ballots cast.

Arguably the best catcher in the American league during the 1950s, Berra called three no-hitters. The most famous of these was Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. In The Sporting News Berra reminded readers forty years later of the game's special drama: "You knew that he was pitching a no-hitter, but the game was so close you couldn't worry about anything but winning the game," he said. The Yankees were more concerned about going ahead in the Series than achieving a perfect game. When the game ended with a called strike three and a score of 2-0, Berra ran to the mound and jumped into Larsen's arms. A photograph capturing this moment is one of the most famous in baseball history.

Coach and Manager

After retiring as a player at the end of 1963, Berra was introduced to the tumultuous existence of major league managers as head of the Yankees. He took the team to the 1964 world championship, but was fired after losing the seven-game series to the Cardinals. He then accepted a coaching job with the New York Mets under Casey Stengel, who called Berra his "assistant manager." In 1972 he was promoted to manager, replacing Gil Hodges. The next year he led the team to a National League pennant, but would not last through his three-year contract. According to writer Joseph Durso in the New York Times, Berra was fired after two-thirds of the 1975 season because of a conflict with management. In Durso's words, Berra was "gunned down after a series of reverses that were not altogether his fault." The writer named a huge drop in attendance over the previous four years, poor trading results, and grumbling players, as among the team's pre-existing problems.

Berra quickly went back to coaching, taking a job with the Yankees before year's end. In 1984 he was again elevated to manager, this time under the supervision of owner George Steinbrenner . Berra had reportedly turned down the job twice before and was now replacing the temperamental Billy Martin . He was surely entering rocky waters here: Steinbrenner had made eleven management changes in the last eleven years. Berra's continued public appeal and potential in the manager's seat were noted in the New York Times by George Vecsey, who enthused: "Berra is one of a kind, a national institution. Nobody is hiring him for his value as a glib motivator of young millionaires. He is Yogi Berra, the man who knows all the secrets of the clubhouse, the man the players trusted during the turmoil [with Martin], the former manager whose mind never stopped churning with baseball details."

When Berra was sacked sixteen games into the 1985 season, it was a bitter parting. He had butted heads with Steinbrenner, including a 1984 squabble over the roster that ended with him throwing a pack of cigarettes at the owner. Lou Piniella , Berra's replacement as manager, asked him to return as dugout coach but was refused. Instead Berra accepted a job with the Houston Astros, a team owned by his friend John McMullen. The switch and Berra's model behavior during it were considered news-worthy. Steve Jacobson commented in The Los Angeles Times, "Yogi Berra is a breath of fresh air. I don't think I ever quite appreciated that before. He's a relief from the lies and the posturing and the greed of today's sports."

Related Biography: Baseball Player Joe Garagiola

Joe Garagiola became an extremely popular broadcaster following a nine-year major league baseball career that included play with the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and New York Giants. An injury to his left shoulder in 1950 hurt his effectiveness on the field and resulted to his transfer to baseball announcing booth, where he first appeared in 1955 working for his home team, the Cardinals.

With his national debut on the Jack Parr Show in 1957, Garagiola embarked on a career that included a remarkable variety of non-drama programming. He served as announcer and commentator on the baseball Game of the Week and post-season baseball competitions, as well as did news, game shows, talk shows, and advertising. He partnered with Barbara Walters on the Today show from 1967 to 1973, guest hosted the Tonight Show, and emceed the Sale of the Century and To Tell the Truth.

The former player's wide appeal came from his enthusiasm and sense of humor. And, although they didn't endear him to everyone, he also loved to tell stories about Berra and other old-timers. Garagiola's friendship with his former neighbor is well documented. The pair once took Sports Illustrated writer William Taaffe to the old neighborhood, where they lived across from each other on Elizabeth Street in consecutively numbered houses. It was, Taaffe said, a regular "pilgrimage" for two men who now live on opposite ends of the country. Like Berra, Garagiola is also an author: he has published two books on baseball and provided the forward for The Yogi Book.

Awards and Accomplishments

1947Plays in his first of 14 World Series Championships
1949Named to first of fifteen All-Star Teams
1949Played in World Series Championship
1951, 1954-55Named American League Most Valuable Player
1964New York Yankees win American League pennant with Berra as manager
1972Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame
1973New York Mets win National League pennant with Berra as manager

Berra reported for duty with the Astros after he took his first summer vacation in forty-three years. He laughed in the New York Times that his wife Carmen had objected, "Now I'm going to have to cook for you." Berra has, however, long been known as a family man, someone who scoffed at the idea of playing around on road trips and who is devoted to his grandchildren. He and Carmen have three sons: Lawrence Jr., Timothy, and Dale. In 1985 Berra had looked forward to managing Dale, an infielder who had been traded to the Yankees. But the situation soured with Berra's firing and with Dale's involvement in a drug trial in Pittsburgh. Berra's son admitted to using cocaine and received legal immunity in exchange for his testimony.

Laughing with Yogi

Firings and personal dramas have little to do with public interest in Berra. At five feet, eight inches and 185 pounds, Berra was teased about his physique as a player; he also attracted attention with his love of comic books, movies, and ice cream. But by far the greatest source of amusement has been Berra's verbal inventions, which have been remarked on since the beginning of his career. Some are simply examples of the ballplayer saying the wrong thing with comic effect, while others require more careful consideration. His now famous statement "It ain't over till it's over" has been quoted and copied countless times. Berra first said it in 1973, when he was managing the Mets. His team had been nine games out of first place in September before going on to win the division and the pennant, proving the appropriateness of the comment.

The popularity of Yogi-isms might even overshadow his fame on the baseball field. All kinds of public figures like to quote Berra, including George Bush, who borrowed his line "We made too many wrong mistakes" in a televised debate. Others admire the philosophical implications of his comment "If the world was perfect, it wouldn't be" and the wisdom of "Always go to other people's funerals. Otherwise they won't go to yours." On the subject of baseball, Berra is famous for saying, "Ninety percent of the game is half mental" and "If people don't want to come out to the ballpark, nobody's going to stop them." According to Berra, he is unable to identify a Yogi-ism himself and has to be told when he has just said something remarkable. But that hasn't prevented him from publishing several books on the subject, including The Yogi Book and When You Come To a Fork in the Road, Take It.

In 1989 Berra retired from the Astros. He has since been involved with several major projects, including the creation of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center at Montclair State University. The museum was the site of the 1999 reconciliation between Berra and George Steinbrenner. For fourteen years Berra had not stepped foot in Yankee Stadium, even when Steinbrenner had put up a plaque in his honor. The Yankees' owner now apologized, saying that firing Berra was "the worst mistake I've ever made in baseball," according to Time. Certainly, he could hardly have fired a nicer guy. Berra has become a perennial favorite, even a baseball legend, as someone who has been cheered for his athletic prowess, admired for his baseball know-how, and enjoyed for his quirky humor.


Address: Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, Montclair State University, 8 Quarry Rd., Little Falls, NJ 07424-2161.

Career Statistics

NYM: New York Mets; NYY: New York Yankees.


(With Ed Fitzgerald) Yogi: The Autobiography of a Professional Baseball Player, Doubleday, 1961.

(With Til Ferdenzi) Behind the Plate, Argonaut, 1962.

(With Tom Horton) Yogi: It Ain't Over, McGraw-Hill, 1989.

The Yogi Book: I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said! Workman, 1998.

(With David Kaplan and Dale Berra) When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It!: Inspiration and Wisdom from One of Baseball's Greatest Heroes, Hyperion, 2001.

Where Is He Now?

Berra lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife Carmen. He is the host of the Yogi Berra Celebrity Golf Classic, a fundraiser for special needs scouts in Newark, New Jersey public housing developments. In 2002 he agreed to write a book tentatively titled A Ring for Every Finger about the ten championship victories in which he played. In true Berra fashion, he was quoted in Publishers Weekly as saying, "I never realized I always wanted to do a book like this."

(With Dave Kaplan) What Time Is It? You Mean Now?: Advice for Life from the Zennest Master of Them All, Simon & Schuster, 2002.



Bortstein, Larry. "The Closer." The Sporting News (October 7, 1996): 54.

Durso, Joseph. "Yogi and the Snipers." New York Times (August 12, 1975): 23.

Jacobsen, Steve. "For Yogi Berra, It Still Ain't Over, And That's Refreshing." Los Angeles Times (April 2, 1989).

Kreiter, Ted. "Yogi Speaking." Saturday Evening Post (July-August, 2002): 48.

Taaffe, William. "Joe Garagiola: no longer TV's most happy fella." Sports Illustrated (October 3, 1988): 5.

Time (January 18, 1999): 97.

Vecsey, George. "Yogi's Back in Style." New York Times (December 17, 1983): 19.

"Where's Yogi? Everywhere, It Seems." The Sporting News (October 25, 1999): 68.

Sketch by Paula Pyzik Scott