Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yogi Berra dead at 90: Yankees legend, Baseball Hall of Famer was lovable character, American hero

September 23. 2015

For the millions of friends and fans of Yogi Berra, beloved American icon, Hall-of-Fame Yankee catcher and unintentional world philosopher, these are the saddest of possible words: It’s over.

Berra, who played on a record 10 Yankee world championship teams and 14 All-Star teams, won three American League Most Valuable Player awards, had two terms as Yankee manager and one with the Mets and coined dozens of goofy-sounding but aptly true sayings termed “Yogi-isms” such as “When you come to the fork in the road, take it” and “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over”, died Wednesday. He was 90.
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of a Yankees legend and American hero, Yogi Berra," the Yankees tweetedearly Wednesday morning. Just four months earlier, Berra had celebrated his 90th birthday.
Even before the “greatest living Yankee” torch was passed to him with the death of Joe DiMaggio in 1999, Berra was always at the top of the list as the most respected and beloved Yankee deity because of his clutch hitting on the field and his humility and genial disposition off it. In Berra’s 18 seasons with the Yankees from 1946-63, they went to the World Series 14 times, winning 10 of them, making him baseball’s all time “Lord of the Rings”.
It was in Game Three of the 1947 Fall Classic against the Dodgers that Berra etched the first line of his lengthy Hall-of-Fame resume when he became the first player in history to have a pinch-hit homer in the World Series. The homer was struck off Ralph Branca (who would go on to yield another far more famous postseason homer to Bobby Thomson in the 1951 Dodgers-Giants playoff game.) Berra and Branca later became lifelong pals and Yogi would often kid him that his homer off him was far more historic than Thomson’s.
In all, the durable Berra, who averaged 140 games caught from 1950-56, hit .285 with 2,150 career hits, 358 homers, 1,175 runs and 1,430 RBI in 19 big league seasons that included a four-game cameo with Mets in 1965, two years after he was fired as Yankee manager for the first time. It was Yankee manager Casey Stengel who referred to Berra as “my assistant manager” during those halcyon years, and the Baseball Writers Association seemed to agree that he was the most integral player on all those championship teams, voting him the MVP in 1951 (when he hit .294 with 27 homers and 88 RBI), 1954 (.307 with 22 homers and 125 RBI) and ’55 (.272 with 27 homers and 108 RBI).
A notorious “bad ball” hitter, the lefty-swinging Berra was regarded as having one of the keenest batting eyes of any player in history – evidenced by the fact that he struck out only 415 times in 7,555 at-bats, a remarkable 1/18.2 ratio for a power hitter.
“I just saw the ball good, maybe better than others,” was Berra’s simple explanation for being able to make contact so often. “I probably gave away a lot of at-bats when there was nobody on base, but when guys were on, that was different. I was different.”
It was upon his retirement in 1963 that the Yankee owners, Dan Topping and Del Webb, tapped him to become manager, replacing Ralph Houk, who was promoted to general manager. But while the Yankees were able to win the 1964 American League pennant by one game over the Chicago White Sox - despite the fact Whitey Ford was felled by a hip injury and sore arm the second half of the season, Mickey Mantle was hobbled by sore knees, shortstop Tony Kubek was hampered by neck and back ailments and the bullpen lacked a dependable closer until Pedro Ramos was acquired in a September trade - the perception was they had underachieved all season and that Berra was too easy on his former teammates.
The incident generally regarded as having sealed Berra’s fate with Topping and Webb was an August 20 bus ride from Comiskey Park in Chicago to O’Hare Field - after the Yankees had suffered a four-game sweep by the White Sox - in which backup shortstop Phil Linz began playing a harmonica. When Berra, sitting in the front row of the bus, ordered Linz to stifle it, the infielder didn’t hear him and, instead, at the urging of teammate Joe Pepitone, began playing it louder. This, in turn, sent Berra into a rage as he charged to the back of the bus, confronting Linz, and knocking the harmonica out of his hand.
“Phil and I never had any problems after that,” Berra said years later. “But Phil did good. He made a lot of money off harmonica commercials and endorsements.”
Even though Ford, the longtime Yankee ace, was kayoed by a blocked artery in his throwing arm in the first game of the ’64 World Series, Berra’s Yankees were able to take the St. Louis Cardinals the full seven games before finally succumbing. By then, however, the wheels were already in motion for his firing by Topping and Webb – ironically his replacement wound up being the man who had just defeated him, Johnny Keane, who decided to quit the Cardinals after learning they, too, in August, had made plans to replace him after the season.
“When (Topping and Webb) called me in, I thought they were going to give me a new contract,” Berra recalled to me in a 2002 interview. “I thought I had done a good job. But at least they told me to my face.”
It was a not-so-subtle reference to the next time he would be fired as Yankee manager – by George Steinbrenner after just 16 games of the 1985 season. That one, in which Steinbrenner had his general manager, Clyde King, perform the deed, resulted in a 14-year estrangement between Berra and the Yankees.
Vowing he’d never again set foot in Yankee Stadium as long as “that guy” owned the team, Berra kept his word until January 5, 1999 when a détente with Steinbrenner was arranged by Suzyn Waldman, WFAN’s Yankee beat reporter at the time, as part of a special show the radio station was doing from Berra’s museum in Montclair, N.J. After convincing Steinbrenner that Berra was ready to forgive him, the Yankee owner flew up from Tampa to personally apologize for the long-ago firing. Prior to going on the air, the two huddled in a private room at the museum for about a half hour, after which they emerged arm-in-arm with the grinning Yogi uttering: “It’s over.”
From there, Berra and Steinbrenner became the best of friends, with the Yankee boss staging a special day in Yogi’s honor, July 18, 1999, in which he presented him a check of $100,000 for the museum. Neither could have imagined the Yankees’ David Cone upstaging both of them that day by pitching a perfect game. At least it was opportune that Don Larsen, author of the only perfect game in World Series history – which Berra caught – also happened to be on hand that day as one of Yogi’s former teammates honoring him. Besides Larsen’s perfect game, Berra also caught both of Allie Reynolds’ no-hitters in 1951, the second of which became especially memorable when he dropped Ted Williams’ pop foul behind the plate that would have been the final out.
Berra always said that was his worst moment in baseball, although he was reprieved moments later when Williams hit another foul pop that he did catch.
Lawrence Peter Berra was born May 12, 1925, the youngest of Italian immigrants Pietro and Paulina’s four sons, and he grew up in the predoninantly Italian “Hill” section of St. Louis where his across-the-street neighbor and lifelong pal was Joe Garagiola. Garagiola would also go on to the major leagues as a catcher before embarking a second, much more successful career as a broadcaster, Today Show host and humorist. “Lawdie” as Berra was called by his childhood pals, quit school at 14 after finishing the eighth grade and worked numerous odd jobs, in a coal yard, driving a Pepsi truck, earning $25 a week which, with exception of $2, all went to his mother to help support the family.
In the summers, Berra and Garagiola played sandlot baseball for the Stockham Post American Legion team. It was during one of their games that Berra was resting between innings, sitting on the side lines with his legs crossed underneath him when another teammate and future major leaguer, Bobby Hofman, exclaimed: “Look at Lawdie over there! He looks like one them yogis!” And thus was born a nickname like no other.
There was a story told byBerra’s late wife, Carmen - whom he met at Stan Musial’s restaurant in St. Louis in 1947 where she was a waitress - in which he sent her an anniversary card and signed it ‘Yogi Berra’. When asked why he would sign his whole name on a card to his wife, Berra said: “I dunno. I guess it was out of habit” - to which Carmen countered: “I was actually glad he did, so I didn’t confuse him with all the other Yogis I know.”
When Berra was 17, a local bird dog scout in St. Louis, Leo Browne, recommended him to Yankees general manager George Weiss, who signed him for $500. Berra’s first minor league assignment was Class B Norfolk in 1943 where he played 111 games, all at catcher, and featured one incredible day in which he drove in 23 runs in a doubleheader.
“When I heard about the 23-RBI day, I figured he had a future,” Carmen once said.
They were married January 26, 1949, after Berra concluded a stint in the Navy in which he took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and they went on to have three sons, Larry, Tim, who played pro football, and Dale, who had an 11-year career in the major leagues, including two seasons with the Yankees.
Upon being discharged from the service, Berra reported to the Yankees’ Triple-A farm team, the Newark Bears in 1946 where he hit .314 with 15 homers and earned a late-season promotion to the Yankees after barely two seasons of minor league apprenticeship. Once he reached the big leagues, however, Berra was anything but a polished catcher and his first couple of seasons he played almost as much in the outfield as he did behind the plate while coming under the tutelage of Bill Dickey, the Hall-of-Fame Yankee catcher who preceeded him. In one of his classic “Yogi-isms”, Berra said frequently: “Dickey learned me all of his experiences.”
Berra would go on to surpass Dickey on all the Yankees’ all-time hitting lists.
After his first firing as Yankee manager after the ‘64 season, he left the organization and rejoined Weiss and Stengel as a player/coach with the crosstown Mets. In the spring of 1972, he was elevated to manager of the Mets when Gil Hodges died suddenly of heart attack. A year later, Berra led the Mets to an improbable National League pennant after winning the eastern division with an 82-79 record. Once again, though, he lost the World Series in seven games, this time to the defending world champion Oakland A’s. In August of 1975, with the Mets mired in fifth place, he was dismissed as manager by team chairman M. Donald Grant and that winter returned to the Yankees as a coach for his old teammate, Billy Martin. All the time he was gone, the Yankees failed to make the postseason, but beginning that ‘76 season, they made three straight trips to the World Series.
Throughout his baseball career and in all the years after as he served as one of the game’s all-time good will ambassadors, Berra became acclaimed world wide for his unintentional pronouncements/words of wisdom. About a popular restaurant in Minneapolis, he said:
“Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” In discussing the perils of playing left field in Yankee Stadium with its late-day shadows: “It gets late early out there.” When feted at an awards dinner: “I want to thank you for making this night necessary.” And his general philosophy about life: “You can observe a lot by watching.”
Berra is survived by his three sons, Larry, Tim and Dale, and millions of fans throughout the world who loved him simply for being so genuine.

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