New York Yankees catcher and cultural icon.
Baseball great Yogi Berra died Tuesday of natural causes. He was 90.
Berra was a New York baseball stalwart, playing for the Yankees for most of his career and the Mets for a single year, then later coaching and managing both teams. But he was born May 12, 1925, in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Italian immigrants. Born Lawrence Peter Berra, he earned his nickname from an early teammate, Jack McGuire, who pointed out Berra’s resemblance to a Hindu yogi while sitting cross-legged.
Signing with the Yankees in 1946, Berra joined a team that was recovering from losing some of its best players to World War II — Berra himself had served in the U.S. Navy. A catcher, he became one of the stars of the team’s postwar years, alongside teammates including Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. These were spectacular years for the Yankees: In Berra’s 18 seasons with the team, they went to the World Series 14 times and won 10 times. Berra holds the records for most World Series appearances as well as most World Series wins.
But Berra wasn’t just cashing in on the talent of his teammates: He was a formidable player in his own right. An All-Star in 15 consecutive seasons, he was the American League MVP three times. In the early years of his career, his manager, Casey Stengel, described him to the Sporting News as “a very strange fellow of very remarkable abilities.” Those abilities went beyond his signature position behind the plate. From 1949 to 1956, he led the Yankees in RBIs. And his 358 career home runs made him a record-holder — more home runs than any other catcher, a record that stood for a decade and a half. His RBI total — 1,430 over the course of his career — is still a record among catchers.
Berra retired from the Yankees in 1963, signing on as manager of the team. He was quickly fired after the Yankees lost that season’s World Series bid, then signed as a coach by the Mets. In addition to coaching, he played in several games in his first season as the Mets’ coach. He was with the Mets until 1975 and later became bench coach for the Houston Astros.
Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, and the Yankees retired his No. 8. In retirement, he became involved with the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center at New Jersey’s Montclair State University.
Berra was famous not only for his baseball talents, but also for his amusingly mangled aphorisms. Some of his most popular quotes include, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it;” “The future ain’t what it used to be;” and, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” Berra once famously responded to an inquiry about his unusual quotes by replying, “I really didn’t say everything I said.”
Another of Berra’s most famous sayings was, “You should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise, they won’t come to yours.” However oddly stated, it was an attitude that exemplified the baseball legend’s friendly manner — admired by fans, he was a dear friend to his colleagues. And they showed up by the hundreds at his funeral at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Montclair, New Jersey. The devout Roman Catholic was eulogized by Major League Baseball veteran and close friend Joe Torre in a service over which New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan presided.
Torre remembered his friend with fond words, including: “Yogi Berra personified the American dream. You were a champion every single one of those 90 years.” He was among many who made statements in the wake of Berra’s death, ranging from the touching to the funny — as in Yankees mentee Derek Jeter’s reminiscence of the advice Berra gave him when Jeter was experiencing a slump: “I’ve got your solution. … Try swinging at strikes.”
Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench tweeted an image of the gracious telegram he received from Berra after Bench broke his home run record in 1980. The telegram included one of those famous Yogi-isms: “I always thought the record would stand until it was broken.” Berra followed it with an earnest expression of his good-heartedness: “It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
Another of the many tributes to Berra could be seen from miles around: The day after his death, the Empire State Building was lit in the blue-and-white pinstripes of the Yankees uniform. The following day, the Yankees remembered Berra in a pregame ceremony that included a No. 8 wreath laid behind home plate, the playing of “Taps” and a moment of silence.
Berra was preceded in death by his wife, Carmen Berra, in 2014. Three sons survive him.
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