Farewell to Yogi Berra: A Hall of Fame character (and player)

23 09 2015
My baseball autographed by Yogi Berra

My baseball autographed by Yogi Berra

You can think of a few baseball players and athletes who were as great as Yogi Berra at their sports. But I can’t think of another athlete nearly as great as Yogi who was known more for his character and humor than for his play on the field.

RIP, Yogi. I never saw you play, but admired you from the first things I learned about you as a young Yankee fan.

I love this opening of Mike Stewart’s Associated Press obituary:

The lovable legend of Yogi Berra, that ain’t ever gonna be over.

The Hall of Fame catcher renowned as much for his dizzying malapropisms as his unmatched 10 World Series championships with the New York Yankees, died Tuesday. He was 90.

Berra, who filled baseball’s record book as well as “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” died of natural causes at his home in New Jersey, according to Dave Kaplan, the director of the Yogi Berra Museum.

And this ending to the obit is classic Yogi, too:

His wife once asked Berra where he wanted to be buried, in St. Louis, New York or Montclair.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Why don’t you surprise me?”

Yogi was already in the twilight of his career when I started following the Yankees in 1960. Elston Howard had taken over the primary catching duties for the Yankees and Yogi was a backup catcher (63 games that year) who also played right (17 games) and left field (20 games) and pinch-hit (32 games).

From 1949 to 1956, Berra was exclusively a catcher, squatting behind the plate 140 or more games four of those years and winning three MVP awards. But when his catching skills and durability began declining, and Howard was clearly the better catcher, Yogi stuck around the Yankees as a role player for four more seasons before becoming the manager in 1964. It was an extraordinarily graceful twilight to his career.

One of the first pieces of baseball trivia that I remembered came from the 1961 season — not from the record home run chase of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, but from the homers hit by the Yankees’ three catchers. Howard (28), Berra (22) and third-string catcher Johnny Blanchard each hit over 20 homers that year, still (I think) the only time three catchers have done that. Berra hit most of his homers as an outfielder, but that was still a fun bit of Yankee trivia that has stayed with me now 50-plus years.

As a boy, I was a bigger fan of other Yankees — Mantle, Maris, Bobby Richardson, Whitey Ford and Howard. But Yogi’s charm captured my fancy early and grew as the decades passed and he became and remained baseball’s classiest aging character.

Championship career

I’ll get back to Yogi’s wit and his post-retirement class. But first I want to give credit to baseball’s all-time championship player. As I noted earlier this week, Yogi usually loses the arguments about who was the best catcher ever. Johnny Bench usually wins that argument, and I might concede it without a fight.

But there’s no argument that he was the all-time champion in baseball history. Yogi played on Yankee World Series champions 10 times: 1947, ’49-’53, ’56, ’58, ’61-’62. And he played on four more teams that lost World Series, three times in seven games. He won Most Valuable Player awards in 1951, ’54 and ’55. No catcher has ever won more (Bench won two and Dodger Roy Campanella matched Yogi with three in the same time period).

Yogi’s career stats are among the best ever for any catcher: 358 homers, 1,430 RBI, a .285 batting average, 15 straight All-Star selections. But his World Series achievements are most amazing:

  • 75 games played, a record.
  • 259 at-bats, a record.
  • 71 hits, a record.
  • 49 singles, a record.
  • 10 doubles, tied with Frankie Frisch for the record.
  • 41 runs scored, just one behind Mantle’s record.
  • 117 total bases, second behind Mantles record of 123.
  • 12 homers, third behind Mantle (18) and Babe Ruth (15).
  • 39 RBI, one behind Mantle’s record.
  • 32 walks, third behind Mantle (43) and Ruth (33).
  • His 10 RBI in 1956 rank third for a single World Series, behind Richardson (12) and Mantle (11).

Also in 1956, Yogi caught Don Larsen’s perfect game, still the only World Series no-hitter. That was one of three no-hitters Yogi caught, the other two by Allie Reynolds in 1951. (More on the no-hitters later in my series on Yankee starting pitchers, which pauses today for this post on Yogi.)

Yogi may not get enough credit for his handling of pitchers. Ford was the only Hall of Fame pitcher he caught, but Berra’s handling of their pretty-good pitchers resulted in a dynasty that remains unmatched. He called most of the pitches for 20-win seasons by Vic Raschi (3 years in a row), Eddie Lopat, Reynolds, Bob Grim and Bob Turley, plus the best seasons of several other pitchers who never reached the 20-win level.

Managing career

Yogi was only a manager for five full seasons and parts of two others, always in New York. But he’s still one of only a few managers to lead teams from both leagues to the World Series. He replaced Ralph Houk (his former backup catcher) as Yankee manager in 1964 and led the Yankees to their fifth straight World Series. They lost a seven-game classic to the St. Louis Cardinals.

After that year, Yogi went to the Mets as a player-coach (under his old Yankee manager, Casey Stengel), playing his last four games in 1965 but moving mostly into coaching. (He played enough, though, to win the catcher spot on my all-time team of players for both the Yankees and Mets.) He won his 11th ring as a Mets coach in 1969 under his old Dodger rival, Gil Hodges.

After Hodges died in 1972, Berra took over as manager. He led the Mets back to the 1973 World Series, losing (again in seven games) to the Oakland A’s.

He returned to the Yankees as a manager in 1984, and I was looking forward to seeing him at Royals Stadium when I moved to Kansas City in 1985. But George Steinbrenner fired him early in the season with a 6-10 recored, before the Yankees played in Kansas City.

His record as a manager was 484-444, with winning records in five of his seven full or partial seasons.

Yogi the character

The Yogi BookYogi the player would get his due today, but it’s Yogi the character that I (and most baseball fans, I bet) am remembering most fondly today.

My boys learned early that we didn’t leave the ballpark, even in a blowout. Countless times, I quoted Yogi to them: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” It’s truly illustrative of Yogi’s humor. He got misportrayed as mangling the English language and somehow hiding pearls of wisdom in dumb things he said, but I think he was clever and funny and used the language artfully, if not always skillfully. That saying, one of a lifelong string of Yogi quotes, shows: Baseball has no clock. So there’s no point at which you can say the game is over until the final out has been recorded. What better (and more clever) way to say that than “It ain’t over till it’s over“? And my sons, all born a decade or more after Yogi died retired, knew we didn’t leave the ballpark until it was over.

Driving Mr. Yogi(Like many Yogi-isms, that one might have been apocryphal or exaggerated, but they all stuck, whether he said them or not, and sounded like he could have said them.)

Yogi’s late-in-life friendship with Ron Guidry, his spring-training driver when Berra could no longer drive, was another example of his character and class. Yogi could afford cabs or a professional driver, but instead, he deepened his relationship with a Yankee of a younger generation. What other ballplayer’s relationship with a driver would be worth a whole book? (Don’t worry, I’m not going to start a rant about why Guidry belongs in the Hall of Fame. I think links to earlier rants should suffice.)

My Yogi autographs

A ball signed by lots of Yankees, including

A ball signed by lots of Yankees, including “Larry Berra.” The other signatures visible here are Robert “Bob” Cerv and Irv Noren.

I used to have two autographs from Yogi Berra. But only one said “Yogi.” That’s the ball at the top of this post, the faint signature barely still visible. I think Mimi gave that to me for a birthday or Christmas present years ago. The second autograph was on one of two balls Mimi’s Aunt Marie presented to my sons when we visited their home in New Jersey in 1989. We had just been to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame inductions (Bench was one of the inductees), and the boys were pretty excited and talking lots of baseball. So Mimi’s aunt decided they were the right relatives to receive a couple family treasures she had kept for years in a closet or drawer. She brought us two baseballs, wrapped in cellophane, that her late husband used to take to Yankee Stadium to seek autographs. I was delighted to see so many names of Yankees from the early 1950s. One that especially stood out was “Larry Berra.” Yogi’s given name was Lawrence Peter Berra, and apparently early in his career, before everyone knew him as Yogi, he was signing “Larry.”

Another ball autographed by

Another ball autographed by “Larry” Berra. I didn’t crop it tighter, because one of the autographs below was his longtime backup catcher (and later his manager), Ralph Houk. Also on this section of the ball are autographs by Wilcy Moore, Gil McDougald and Frank Crosetti.

Since we have three sons and only two of these Yankee balls, I kept them on my desk for many years. But I knew they were really gifts to my sons. So a few years ago, I added one of my own baseballs (signed by Maris and other members of the 1968 Cardinals) and wrapped them up as Christmas gifts. The boys drew them still wrapped and two ended up with Yankee autographs and one with a lot of Cardinals.

Update: I used to have three Berra autographs, two of them signed “Larry.” When I texted the boys asking for the “Larry” autograph, Mike texted back that he had it and would send it when he got home from work that night. Well, Tom soon after sent a photo of his ball, with the first “Larry” autograph above. I thought it was a little odd that Mike didn’t know which autographs he had. But when he was sending me autographs from his baseball (I’ll be using some of them in upcoming posts), there was “Larry.” I remember showing people an autograph of “Larry,” but didn’t remember that he was on both of the balls.

Everyone loved Yogi

Perhaps the best measure of Yogi’s enduring appeal to baseball fans was that he was baseball’s most beloved character, but played on baseball’s most hated team. Even more than Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, both of whom won grudging respect from Yankee haters, Yogi was the Yankee you had to like.

Other reading about Yogi Berra

SABR bio by Davie Williams

New York Times obituary

ESPN obit

The Yogi Book

Driving Mr. Yogi

Source note: Unless otherwise noted, all statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

Yankee starting pitchers

This post interrupted my series on Yankee starting pitchers. It will resume tomorrow (probably). The first two installments:

Yankees are among the best almost everywhere but starting pitcher

Yankee starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame

Next: Yankee 300-game winners (who mostly pitched for other teams)



21 responses

23 09 2015
Yankees among the best almost everywhere but starting pitcher | Hated Yankees

[…] Yogi Berra often loses the best-catcher-ever debates to Johnny Bench, but he’s always in the discussion. With three MVP awards and more championships than anyone, plus still-impressive offensive numbers, Yogi figures prominently in discussing best catchers ever. And Yankee Bill Dickey would be on anyone’s top-10 list, maybe even top five. […]


23 09 2015
My first visit to Yankee Stadium: May 28, 2005 | Hated Yankees

[…] might be wondering why I stayed. Well, I grew up in the age of Yogi Berra, so I’m a believer in it-ain’t-over-till-it’s-over. I didn’t want to miss […]


23 09 2015
Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera: best teammate tandem ever | Hated Yankees

[…] Yogi Berra holds even more World Series records than Mantle: most games, at-bats, plate appearances, hits, doubles, singles, championships. […]


24 09 2015
Yankees’ 300-game winners: Clemens, Niekro, Perry, Johnson | Hated Yankees

[…] series paused yesterday to bid farewell to Yogi Berra. Next: Catfish Hunter and other Yankees who went to the Hall of Fame primarily for their […]


26 09 2015
Yogi Berra was the best of the greatest catcher tradition of any team | Hated Yankees

[…] paid tribute to the amazing career, life and wit of Yogi Berra, who died at age 90. Today I want to honor Berra again by explaining how he anchored a team with, […]


6 10 2015
Black and Latino players in the Baseball Hall of Fame were nearly all automatic selections | Hated Yankees

[…] Fame is a three-time MVP: Roy Campanella, elected in his sixth year on the writers’ ballot. (Yogi Berra, a three-time MVP catcher of the same era, was elected in his second year.) Elston Howard, an MVP […]


8 10 2015
Comparing borderline white Hall of Famers with black and Latino contenders | Hated Yankees

[…] at age 26, his path to the starting lineup was blocked by one of the best catchers of all time, Yogi Berra, who collected his third MVP trophy in 1955, Howard’s rookie season. Howard made three […]


9 10 2015
Few teams integrated as slowly or reluctantly as the Yankees | Hated Yankees

[…] when Howard broke in with the Yankees, he had the misfortune of playing at the same position as Yogi Berra, one of the best catchers of all time, who won his third MVP award the year Howard debuted with the […]


13 10 2015
Yankees who succeeded as starters and relievers | Hated Yankees

[…] the departure of Goose Gossage after the 1983 season left the Yankees without a closer, so manager Yogi Berra tried Righetti in the role. He was a perfect fit. Rags saved 31 games in 1984, 29 in 1985 and then […]


14 10 2015
Yankees who pitched no-hitters: Don Larsen, Allie Reynolds … | Hated Yankees

[…] matter. Catcher Yogi Berra was embracing Larsen while Mitchell stood at the plate with his bat, on the wrong side of […]


20 10 2015
Comparing Yankees to other teams in starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame | Hated Yankees

[…] this just to the offensive firepower, though. In that same 18-year stretch the Yankees had Yogi Berra‘s career and most of Mickey Mantle‘s, but just the final five years of Joe […]


30 10 2015
Were the 1986 Red Sox better than the 2015 Royals? | Hated Yankees

[…] it ain’t over, we agree on that. I quoted Yogi Berra, former Yankee legend and Mets manager, on that topic in a post just […]


30 11 2015
World Series champs nearly always feature Hall of Famers | Hated Yankees

[…] New York Yankees. Hall of Famers: Yogi Berra, 22; Phil Rizzuto, 29; Joe DiMaggio, […]


31 12 2015
My health affected all my blogs this year | The Buttry Diary

[…] sure I’d have blogged about Yogi Berra’s death and Alex Rodriguez’s return to the Yankees whether I was in treatment or not. I’d […]


10 01 2016
Yankees have more borderline Hall of Fame contenders than any other team | Hated Yankees

[…] time. And best catchers of an era usually make it.  I don’t think any catchers between Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench will make it to Cooperstown (not counting Joe Torre, who was enshrined as a […]


4 04 2016
The 5 best first basemen in Yankee history | Hated Yankees

[…] series was interrupted by the death of Yogi Berra, which prompted a post on the Yankees having a far greater tradition at catcher than any other team […]


11 04 2016
The 5 best center fielders in Yankee history | Hated Yankees

[…] be even stronger than catcher: You don’t have a clear No. 1. As great as Bill Dickey was, Yogi Berra was the clear top choice at catcher, what with his three MVP awards and all his World Series […]


15 04 2016
The 5 best managers in Yankee history | Hated Yankees

[…] had five Hall of Famers in their primes: Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle (overlapping just a year), Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Phil […]


19 07 2016
Do we have a Yankees team with no future Hall of Famers? | Hated Yankees

[…] always had at least one Hall of Famer, a string that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and more players bound for Cooperstown. Frankly, the string should have continued in […]


27 10 2016
A wonderful gift from the widow of Roger Maris | The Buttry Diary

[…] was hooked. I became a lifelong Yankee fan because of Maris (and Mantle and Richardson and Ford and Yogi Berra and Elston Howard and the rest of the […]


27 10 2016
A wonderful gift from the widow of Roger Maris | Hated Yankees

[…] was hooked. I became a lifelong Yankee fan because of Maris (and Mantle and Richardson and Ford and Yogi Berra and Elston Howard and the rest of the […]


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