Yankees great known for his way with words passes away at 90
BY HERB FISCHER
Sadly, it is now officially “over.” One of the quirkiest American and New York City legends of the last century—master of the unwitting malapropism—and, arguably, the most iconic Yankees catcher in the team’s illustrious history, died of natural causes in his sleep at a West Caldwell, NJ assisted living facility. Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra was 90.
A native of the hardscrabble streets of St. Louis, Berra—a classic squat catcher whose bat knew no strike zone—signed with the New Yankees in 1943, making his major league debut in 1946. He was embraced immediately by New Yorkers for his earthy demeanor and his productive ability in crucial spots, without the obvious athletic gifts of speed, raw power or physical grace.
Berra had an uncanny knack of almost always reaching the playoffs, and carrying the Yankees through 10 World Series championships on the strength of a magic bat which he swung like a tennis racket. His flailing bat compiled 358 career home runs and 1,430 runs batted in.
An incredible play caller, a skill which Berra would later use as a skillful manager of the Mets and Yankees, Berra caught Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, the only perfect game in MLB postseason history. Berra retired following the 1963 season. He spent one season as the Yankees manager, then joined the New York Mets in 1965 as coach—and briefly as player again.
Berra remained with the Mets for the next decade, the last four years of which were spent as manager. Berra returned to the Yankees in 1976, coaching them for eight seasons and serving as manager for two.
However, early in the 1980s, Berra, and his impatient boss—Yankees owner George Steinbrenner—made dubious national and New York tabloid headlines—when Berra’s eight years tenure as manager ended with his firing after only three weeks into one season, given a lackluster start by the team. He then went on to coach the Houston Astros.
One of seven managers to lead both American and National League teams to the World Series, Berra appeared in 21 World Series and won 13 of them—as a player, coach, or manager.
Berra forever sunk deep roots in the five boroughs and northern New Jersey. For instance, for the remainder of his life, Berra envisioned and helped build the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, which he opened on the campus of Montclair State University in 1998.
Berra was probably one of the three most prominent and productive “bad ball” hitters in modern baseball history, often reaching for pitches far outside the strike zone for important game-winning hits. Some contemporary talented bad ball hitters—Vladimir Guerrero, Tony Gwynn, Andres Galarraga—perhaps had more athletic talent than Berra—but lacked his flair for winning important baseball games.
Books have been written compiling as many as 100 of Berra’s strangely meaningful malapropisms. You can find one accidentally germane to almost any discipline—economics, international politics, the weather, sports. “It gets late early in that ballpark,” or relevant to the dollar’s declining value: “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.” Or, unwittingly on philosophy: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
You can learn many life lessons following the arc of Berra’s baseball career and the way he lived his life. “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And certainly, one of Berra’s quotes perhaps best summarizes this most authentic of men: “You can observe a lot just by watching.”