Tuesday 6 December 2016

Obituary: Yogi Berra - American baseball legend

Born: May 12, 1925; died: September 22, 2015

Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30

Berraisms: Yogi Berra started his baseball career with the New York Yankees
Berraisms: Yogi Berra started his baseball career with the New York Yankees

Yogi Berra, who has died aged 90, became one of the most famous figures in the history of baseball during a 20-year playing career with the New York Yankees.

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Short, squat, and hardly the prototype of the sporting icon (he was once described as propelling himself with "a swift, purposeful waddle"), Berra played in the position of catcher and was highly proficient with the bat.

After appearing in 14 World Series, winning 10 championships, he went on to have a successful career as a manager, becoming one of only seven to win the World Series with both American and National League teams.

He was particularly noted for his fractured relationship with the English language, and Yogi Berraisms were eagerly sought after by collectors. Famous examples included: "It ain't over till it's over"; "This is like déjà vu all over again"; "When you come to a fork in the road, take it"; "Baseball is 90pc mental, the other half is physical"; and "Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours".

The story goes that on one occasion, when Mary Lindsay - wife of New York's mayor John Lindsay - told Berra: "You certainly look cool", he replied: "Thanks, you don't look so hot yourself."

Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925 in St Louis, Missouri, the son of a brickyard worker who had emigrated from Milan in 1909, and grew up on Elizabeth Street in an area known as 'The Hill', the Italian district of the city. Among his childhood friends was Joe Garagiola, later catcher with the St Louis Cardinals.

Berra later recalled: "I wanted to be a ballplayer. My [three] brothers wanted to be ballplayers too. But my Pop comes from Italy, and he didn't know anything about this baseball business. The family needed extra money, and he wanted his boys to work at something that would bring in steady wages."

Accordingly, after leaving school aged 14, Berra worked in a coal yard, drove a lorry for a soft drinks company, then found a menial job in a shoe factory.

In 1941 he joined the Stockham Post American Legion junior baseball team. According to one story, it was one of his team-mates there who gave him the nickname Yogi after seeing a film with a yogi in it. Another version ascribes it to a childhood friend who was watching a movie about an Indian snake charmer to whom he thought Berra bore a striking resemblance. (It was widely believed that Berra was the inspiration for the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character, though the management denied it). Either way, the name stuck. To his brothers, however, he remained "Lawrence"; to his parents, "Lawdy".

In 1942 Berra was approached by the St Louis Cardinals' general manager, Branch Rickey, who offered to sign him for $250. Berra refused, and Rickey is said to have claimed that the young man would never make a successful major league player.

The New York Yankees' scout took a different view, and signed him to a minor-league contract for $500. "Things weren't so tough at home any more with the other boys working," Berra recalled. "This time my Pop said 'Yes'."

At first assigned to the Norfolk (Virginia) Tars, the Yankee farm in the Class B Piedmont League, Berra embarked on his career as a catcher, and during a double-header (two games played between the same teams on the same day) he drove in 23 runs.

America's entry into the Second World War interrupted his progress, and aged 18 he joined the Navy, taking part in the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach. He also served in North Africa and Italy.

On his return to baseball, Berra was spotted by the Giants' manager, who unsuccessfully offered the Yankees $50,000 for his contract. In 1946 Berra was apprenticed to the Newark Bears of the International League, where he hit 15 home runs and had an average of .314 (anything over .300 is considered excellent) before joining the Yankees in the last week of the major league season. He hit a home run the first time he came up to bat.

At first he could be erratic both as a catcher and as a batter, but the Yankees kept faith with him and were duly rewarded. In 1948 Berra hit 14 home runs, and batted in 98 runs for an average of .305. In 1950 his batting average was .322, and he hit 28 home runs.

As a catcher, he led the American League in double plays (getting two opponents out in a single play). One of the most notable days of his career came when he caught Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

Berra was a talker behind the plate, bantering with opposing batters in order to distract them. Hank Aaron (who broke the career home run record set by Babe Ruth) recalled how, during the 1958 World Series, Berra kept telling him to "hit with the label up on the bat". Finally Aaron turned to the catcher and said: "Yogi, I came up here to hit, not to read."

Berra won the American League's Most Valuable Player accolade on three occasions, in 1951, 1954 and 1955. He holds numerous World Series records, including most games by a catcher (63), most hits (71), and most times on a winning team (10). He also hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, in 1947 (a pinch-hitter is a batter brought on as a substitute).

In 1964 Berra was appointed the Yankees' manager. Although he won the American League pennant, he was fired after losing to the Cardinals in a seven-game series. He then signed with the New York Mets as a player-coach, and in 1972 became the Mets' manager; the next year they won the National League pennant. He was sacked in 1975 and returned to the Yankees as a coach the following year.

In 1984 George Steinbrenner hired Berra to manage the Yankees; they finished third that year. After 22 games of the 1985 season, however, Berra was replaced, and in 1986 he became a coach with the Houston Astros, remaining there until his retirement in 1992.

He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Berra was a partner in a bowling alley venture in New Jersey, and made a large number of television commercials.

His preferred reading matter was comic books and mystery novels. The Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, at Montclair State University in New Jersey, which opened in 1998, is a sports education centre for young people and is home to Yogi Berra memorabilia.

Berra married, in 1949, Carmen Short, with whom he had three sons - Dale, who played shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Yankees and Astros; Tim, who played football for the Baltimore Colts in 1974; and Larry, a former minor league catcher. Carmen predeceased him in 2014.

© Daily Telegraph

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