Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra dies at 90

Yogi Berra, a Hall of Fame catcher with the New York Yankees, won three Most Valuable Player awards and appeared in the World Series more than any other player in history.

He was also a jovial figure whose knack for tangled tidbits of wisdom – “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”; “It ain’t over till it’s over” – transcended sports to make him one of the most universally beloved figures in American life. Berra, 90, died Sept. 22 at his New Jersey home, according to the Associated Press.

Berra was a short, squat player who sometimes looked out of place among his more majestic teammates. When he was playing minor league baseball, his own general manager said he resembled “the bottom man on an unemployed acrobatic team.”

But no one found more success on a baseball diamond. In his 19-year career, Berra played in 14 World Series and was on the winning team 10 times – records unmatched by any baseball player.

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He had only an eighth-grade education, but his offhand sayings, which often seemed to encapsulate an acute observation or basic human truth, entered the American vernacular.

Asked what time it was, he once replied, “Do you mean now?”

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” he said, as if offering cryptic advice on seizing opportunities and forging an individual path.

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” he said, after his teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit consecutive home runs. But the statement has come to imply that everything old is new again.

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“It ain’t over till it’s over,” Berra declared, describing the long, unpredictable nature of a baseball season – or life itself.

After his baseball days, Berra’s twisted syntax and oft-caricatured face made him a likable pitch man for Kraft salad dressing, Miller Lite and Aflac insurance. But through all his comic turns, he always retained a fundamental dignity and never became a figure of derision.

He came to symbolize the Yankees during their greatest era of success and was seen as a man of integrity who forced George Steinbrenner to apologize.

In 1985, during Berra’s second stint as the Yankees’ manager, he was fired by Steinbrenner, the team’s tempestuous owner. Steinbrenner didn’t speak directly to Berra but had one of his lieutenants deliver the message. Berra considered it an unfogivable act of rudeness and refused to have anything to do with the Yankees – a team whose legend he helped create – as long as Steinbrenner was the owner.

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When a plaque honoring Berra was placed in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, he did not attend the unveiling. Old-timer games drew such Yankees greats as Joe DiMaggio, Mantle and Whitey Ford, but with each passing year the fans’ whispers turned into anguished shouts: “Where’s Yogi?”

Finally, in 1999, Steinbrenner paid a visit to Berra’s museum in Montclair, N.J., and said he was sorry. Steinbrenner, who died in 2010, later called his handling of the matter “the worst mistake I ever made in baseball.”

One thing that sometimes gets forgotten, amid Berra’s comic quips, is how great a player he was. From 1949 to 1953, he was the most important member of the only team in major league history to win the World Series five straight years.

Baseball historians rate Berra as one of the finest catchers in the history of the game, rivaled only by Johnny Bench, who played with the Cincinnati Reds from 1967 to 1983. In his monumental 2001 book “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,” baseball writer and statistical analyst Bill James named Berra the greatest catcher who ever played the game.

“Berra could throw, he could catch the ball, he could call the game, and he knew baseball like nobody else,” James wrote.

Yet many observers believe he has never received the full credit he deserved. Baseball writer Jayson Stark, in his book “The Stark Truth,” called Berra the most underrated player in history.

At first glance, Berra didn’t look like much a ballplayer. He was 5-7 1/2 and about 190 pounds, with an awkward running gait that drew hoots from spectators and opposing players.

But when he had a bat in his hands, the taunts turned to silence. A left-handed batter, Berra was called a “bad-ball” hitter because he often connected with pitches outside the strike zone, yet he seldom struck out.

In 1950, perhaps his finest year, Berra had only 12 strikeouts in 597 at-bats. He had a batting average of .322 that year – the best of his career – with 124 runs batted in and 116 runs scored. He finished third in the Most Valuable Player voting, behind teammate Phil Rizzuto and Billy Goodman of the Boston Red Sox.

A year later, despite less gaudy statistics, Berra won his first Most Valuable Player Award. He was chosen again in 1954 and 1955 making him one of two catchers to win the MVP award three times. Roy Campanella, his contemporary with the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the other.

“No other position demands such intellgience, instinct, and leadership skills, and at no other position are great players so underappreciated,” sports journalist Allen Barra wrote in his 2009 biography of Berra. “Yogi is, by all objective measurements I can find, the greatest player at baseball’s most demanding position.”

Berra hit .300 or better three times, the benchmark of batting excellence, and had a career batting average of .285. He slugged 20 or more home runs 11 times and drove in at least 100 runs in five seasons. (He had another four years with 90 or more RBI.) When he retired in 1965, his 358 home runs were the most ever for a catcher at the time.

Asked to explain his thinking when he approached the plate, Berra offerend a typically gnomic response: “You can’t think and hit at the same time.”

Berra had a major part in one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time, between the Yankees and their New York rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Six times between 1947 and 1956, the two teams met in the World Series.

After Brooklyn won its lone championship in 1955, the two teams met again the next year in another dramatic Subway Series.

In Game 5, on Oct. 8, 1956, a journeyman pitcher named Don Larsen threw a perfect game for the Yankees, not allowing a single Dodger to reach first base. It remains the only no-hitter in World Series history.

Berra was Larsen’s catcher that day. After the final pitch, a called strike three to pinch hitter Dale Mitchell, Berra ran toward the mound and leapt into Larsen’s arms, creating one of baseball’s most enduring images.

But the series didn’t end with that game. The Dodgers bounced back the next day to beat the Yankees, 1-0, tying the series at three wins apiece. The next day, at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, Berra carried his team to victory.

Batting cleanup, he hit two home runs, scored three runs and had four runs batted in. Behind the plate, he caught a three-hit shutout from Johnny Kucks, as the Yankees won won Game 7, 9-0, to claim another World Series title.

When Berra joined the Yankees, DiMaggio was in the twilight of his career. Mantle would emerge in the 1950s, and Ford was the team’s best pitcher. But the anchor of the lineup that won 10 World Series was Berra.

“He did so many subtle things,” sportswriter Joe Posnanski wrote in Sports Illustrated in 2011. “He knew how to coax a pitcher through a jam. He knew the weaknesses of every hitter in the game. He knew how to inpsire his teammates and how to challenge them.”

Lawrence Peter Berra was born May 12, 1925, in St. Louis, one of five children of immigrants from northern Italy. His family settled in a predominantly Italian section of St. Louis called “the Hill,” where Berra grew up across the street from Joe Garagiola, a lifelong friend who also became a major league catcher and later a broadcaster known for his wit.

Berra quit school after the eighth grade and sold newspapers, drove a soft-drink truck and worked in a shoe factory and coal yard. Mostly, though, he played baseball.

He was a teenager when he became known as Yogi. The most reliable explanation is that Berra’s friends thought he resembled an Indian yoga master they saw in a travelogue at the movies. Even Berra’s family stopped calling him Larry in favor of Yogi.

In 1942, he and Garagiola attended a tryout for the St. Louis Cardinals. Garagiola was offered a contract, but Berra was passed over. Later that year, the Yankees signed him for a bonus of $500.

After one year in the minor leagues, Berra joined the Navy and served as a gunner aboard a landing craft that was among the first wave of Allied ships to reach Normandy beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Later, during a naval assault in southern France, he was grazed by a Nazi machine-gun bullet.

By 1946, Berra was out of the Navy and playing for the Yankees’ top minor league club in Newark. He was called up to the Yankees late in the season and hit home runs in his first two major league games.

The Yankees assigned Bill Dickey, a recently retired catcher who would later enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame, to mentor the awkward Berra in the complex art of catching.

Berra blossomed into a excellent defensive catcher, with sure hands and a strong throwing arm. He inserted “falsies” – rubber brassiere liners – in his catcher’s mitt to relieve the constant pounding on his hand. He became the Yankees’ full-time catcher in 1948 and that year was named to the first of 15 all-star teams.

“Throughout the late 1940s and most of the 1950s,” Barra wrote in his biography, “the Yankees had the best pitching in baseball, even though they seldom had the best pitchers.”

Ford was the only Yankees pitcher of that era to reach the Hall of Fame. The only thing the pitching staff had in common was that Berra was the catcher who called the pitches.

His manager for most of his career was Casey Stengel, a fellow Missourian who was also known for his humorous malapropisms. Stengel quickly grasped his catcher’s astute knowledge of the game and called him “Mister Berra, my assistant manager.”

Almost from the beginning of his career, Berra developed a reputation for unintentionally comic pronouncements. When he was feted at a tribute in his home town, he said, “I want to thank everyone for making this night necessary.”

Explaining why he no longer frequented a particular restaurant, he said, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

When introduced to Ernest Hemingway, who was described to him as an “important writer,” Berra asked, “What paper you with, Ernie?”

One of Berra’s comments, addressed to his players when he was a manager, carries a Zenlike truth: “You see a lot just by observing.”

Over the years, the list of “Yogi-isms” underwent variations and grew to the point that Berra had to declare, “I really didn’t say everything I said.”

Berra’s final full season as a player was in 1963. He became the Yankees’ manager the next season and led the team to the World Series. When the Yankees lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals, he was fired.

He returned to the playing field for four games in 1965 with the New York Mets before becoming a coach. He was named manager in 1972, and one year later the Mets won the National League pennant. They lost the World Series to the Oakland Athletics, and Berra was dismissed in 1975.

After becoming manager of the Yankees a second time in 1984, Berra was infamously fired just 16 games into the next season. Only when Steinbrenner apologized in person did Berra end his 14-year boycott of the Yankees. In the meantime, Berra coached for several years with the Houston Astros and became familiar to a new generation as an advertising pitchman.

Throughout his playing career, Berra acted as his own agent and was known as a smart bargainer. He and a teammate, Rizzuto, owned a bowling alley in New Jersey, and Berra became wealthy from early investments in the Yoo-Hoo soft drink company. (Asked once if Yoo-Hoo was hyphenated, he said, “It isn’t even carbonated.”)

Off the field, Berra led a life of orderly regularity. He was always early for appointments and didn’t take part in the late-night carousing that Mantle, Ford and Billy Martin were known for.

Berra married Carmen Short in 1949, and lived for decades in Montclair, N.J., where a museum bears his name. She died in 2014.

Survivors include three sons, all of whom became professional athletes: Larry Berra was a minor league catcher; Dale Berra was a major league infielder for 11 years; and Tim Berra played one year in the NFL for the Baltimore Colts. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In 1972, Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and his No. 8 was retired by the Yankees. (His mentor, Dickey, had worn the same number earlier, and it was retired to honor both Yankees catchers.)

After reconciling with Steinbrenner in 1999, Berra attended spring training each year and received thunderous ovations at Yankee Stadium. He became, over time, a revered figure, even to people who had never seen him play baseball.

Berra appeared in commercials well into his 80s, capitalizing on his knack for whimsically philosophical pronouncements. By then, he was seen as an elder of the game, a fount of timeless wisdom who had a comment for every occasion in life, including death.

“Always go to other people’s funerals,” he said. “Otherwise, they won’t go to yours.”