MONTCLAIR, N.J. (AP) – A gold catcher’s mitt was placed on top of his remains. But on a day filled with stories from a lifetime in baseball, Yogi Berra was remembered for being more than one of the game’s greats.
He was the man who served his country courageously on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in 1944. He was the man who delighted in the joys of family and someone who brought roaring laughter with his words wherever he went.
The beloved New York Yankees catcher – a three-time American League MVP and Hall of Famer who played on 10 World Series teams – also brought out sports royalty from all corners to an overflowing church, much in the way he helped fill ballparks for a generation.
“He was always so good, so honest, so human and so real,” former Yankees manager Joe Torre said in his eulogy. “You didn’t have to be a baseball fan to know who Yogi was.”
Berra, who in Torre’s words “personified the American dream,” died a week ago at 90 years old. He was cremated and his remains were placed by the altar, an American flag prominently displayed.
Among those at the service were ex-Yankees Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada and club president Randy Levine. Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson, was there as was football Hall of Famer Harry Carson.
Torre, now MLB’s chief baseball officer, recalled for the gathering at the Church of the Immaculate Conception one of many spring training car trips with Berra. As they were riding along, Berra asked that they pull over.
“Yogi gets out of the car in uniform,” Torre says. “People saw him in his No. 8 uniform and were saying, ‘No, this isn’t happening.’ Yogi went in unassuming and asked, ‘Can I use your bathroom?'”
Torre also added to the lexicon that has made Berra a linguistic treasure.
“We were going to play golf together, but then he had to cancel because he said he was shooting a commercial,” Torre said. “I asked Yogi what the commercial was for. He said, ‘Amtrak.’ It was Aflac. I think Amtrak sent him a check, too. Yogi Berra personified the American dream. You were a champion for every one of those 90 years. “
Torre called Berra a “good-luck charm for us” because on the day in 1999 that Berra returned to Yankee Stadium after ending a 14-year feud with late owner George Steinbrenner, David Cone pitched a perfect game. Current Yankees manager Joe Girardi was catching then, using a mitt Berra used to catch a ceremonial first pitch from Don Larsen, the pitcher who threw a perfect game to Berra during the 1956 World Series.
The good luck didn’t stop there. Torre spoke of a playoff series in Oakland in 2001 when the Yankees lost the first two games.
“I threw a hat in the bag to go to Oakland, and I was talking to my team before the third game and I was wearing this ‘It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over’ hat,” he said. “I remember the team meeting and we talked about just winning one game. That’s when Jeter had the flip play.”
The Yankees won the pennant that year, but lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series in seven games.
Torre said Berra’s old friend Joe Garagiola from his St. Louis days – son Joe Garagiola, Jr. represented his father at the funeral – used to refer to Yogi as his “3 a.m. buddy.”
“Meaning,” Torre said, “he’s the guy who you might not talk to for six months, but you’d get on the phone at 3 a.m. to call and he’d be right there.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York drew similarities between Berra and a visitor who just left the United States and returned to Rome.
“I hosted a man named Pope Francis who has simplicity and a loyalty to kindness,” Dolan said. “Think about it. The two have the same smile, the open face, the ‘Aw shucks’ attitude, the exciting grasp of life. They even have the same big ears. Are they not similar? One’s a pope, the other’s a catcher.”
Dolan, an avid baseball fan, ended his homily by melding two of Berra’s most celebrated remarks.
“There’s no fork in the road to eternal life,” Dolan said. “In that respect, it ain’t over.”
Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark gave the final blessing. Dolan shared a word with the family before leaving and hugged Berra’s eldest son, Larry.
There was a military presentation of colors, with two members of the U.S. Navy unfurling a flag while a bugler played “Taps.” The flag was presented to Larry Berra, and Tim Berra carried the remains of his father out of the church.