His husky build on top of his short, 5’ 7” stature, didn’t make for the most athletic frame. And his unorthodox style of play cast a constant shadow of doubt that he could ever make it as a professional ballplayer. But what he lacked in size and support, he made up for with his heart and undying passion for the game, which is what makes Yogi Berra the greatest catcher, and one of the top players of all time, to ever grace the baseball diamond.
Lawrence Peter Berra was born May 12, 1925 in St. Louis, Missouri and was one of five children from his Italian immigrant parents, Pietro and Paolina Berra. “Lawdie”, as his mother often called him due to her thick Italian accent, picked up the nickname “Yogi”, as a kid and it stuck for life. It was said to fit him after watching a childhood movie about an Indian snake charmer that he closely resembled, along with the way he’d sit Indian-style before an at-bat or when he was sad after a loss.
At just 17-years-old in 1942, Yogi was playing in the minors for the St. Louis Cardinals with his childhood best friend, Joe Gargiola. The Cardinals GM, Branch Rickey, signed Gargiola for $500 and approached Yogi with a contract worth $250, but he rejected the offer. Rickey then stated that Berra would “never amount to more than a triple-A ballplayer at best”. A scout for the Yankees thought otherwise though, and convinced the organization he was worth the $500.
Yogi’s baseball career was put on a hiatus the following year however. When he turned 18, he joined the Navy and didn’t take his duties lightly. June 6, 1944, better known in American history as D-Day, Yogi served his country when they needed him most and contributed during the invasion of Omaha Beach in Normandy. He survived the horrific events and returned to the game he loved after the war ended.
While playing for the New London Connecticut club upon his return, Giants Manager, Mel Ott, recognized his talent and offered the Yankees an astounding $50,000 for Yogi’s contract. Yankees GM at the time, Larry MacPhail, had no clue who Yogi was, but figured he was worth hanging onto if he was that highly sought after. Beginning the 1946 season with the Newark Bears of the International League, Yogi finally made his debut with the New York Yankees that September and the rest, as they say, is history.
Yogi came into the league and became an immediate nuisance to opposing pitchers with his unusual batting style. There was no soft spot in the strike zone against Yogi because he was a wild swinger, said to wave the bat at just about anything. That normally works in favor of the pitcher, but Yogi was an exceptionally tough out because despite his erratic at bats, he always seemed to connect with the ball. “If I could hit it, then it’s a good pitch,” Yogi would so often say.
Pitches in the dirt, he’d lift and send over the fences. An eye-level pitch, he’d rip into and nail a line-drive into the outfield gaps. It didn’t matter the placement of the pitch, if Yogi liked it, he swung, and more often than not, it resulted in a hit. In 1950, Yogi only struck out 12 times in 597 at-bats. Five times in his career, he had a season where he tallied more home runs than he did strikeouts.
From 1949-1955, Yogi was a part of a powerful Bomber lineup that included other All-Star sluggers in Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMagio. Un-phased by strength around him, Yogi still managed to lead the Yankees in RBIs in each season during that same seven-year span. He consistently came through with the bat, even with the pressure on. During the 1947 World Series, Yogi hit the first pinch-hit home run in championship history.
As rare as it is to have a catcher who is as productive offensively as Yogi was, his presence controlling games behind the plate was equally important. He was said to be a bit of a trash talker when he caught, as a way to distract batters and get inside their heads and it would often help. Yogi was there to catch the first of just two postseason no-hitters thrown in history, when Don Larsen did it in the 1956 World Series.
When thinking of championship baseball in the Bronx, names like Derek Jeter, Reggie Jackson, and other Yankee greats quickly come to mind. But it is Berra who holds the crown in this spot. Playing on the field for the big stage, is where Yogi especially excelled and it shows in the numerous series records he holds. Most World Series games played (75), most games caught (63), most hits (71), most singles (49), most doubles (10), and most putouts by a catcher (459). All of these incredible achievements which will forever be marked in the history books and may never be passed.
Regularly putting all of his talent on display for the entire baseball world, has rightfully earned Yogi much well-deserved recognition. He was voted into the All-Star game 15 times. He’s also been awarded with the AL MVP three times in 1951, 1954, and 1955 and is just one of four players to tackle this task.
When his playing days in pinstripes finally came to a close after the 1963 season, which ended with the Yankees being swept by the Dodgers, Yogi couldn’t be kept away from the game. He began his coaching career the following year, taking over as Manager of the Yankees. This was short-lived however, and he was quickly dismissed after his team lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. In 1965, Yogi took his talents to the in-city rival, New York Mets, as a player/coach, until taking his lat at-bat on May 9 of that season. He remained a coach there for the next eight years until taking over as Manager after the sudden death of Gil Hodges in 1972.
Halfway through the next season, the Mets were in dead last amidst a narrow division race. “It ain’t over til it’s over,” Berra famously said though, and he backed it up by leading the Mets to the World Series. They lost in seven games but Yogi’s will to win was unmistakeable.
Berra’s term as Manager with the Mets ended with his firing in 1975 and in 1976 he went back to the Yankees to coach. He was there with them when they won their first three straight AL pennants as well as the 1978 and 1979 World Series. Before the 1984 season, he was named Manager again, after being assured he’d have the job through 1985. 16 games in though, George Steinbrenner sent a mule to fire Yogi, rather than tell him personally. This created bad blood between the two that went on for years. Yogi went on to be a bench coach for the Houston Astros from 1986-1989 until finally retiring.
Yogi was no stranger to the World Series during his days in baseball. He’s been on a Yankee championship team for a record ten times as a player, and made 21 total World Series appearances as a player, coach, and manager. He’s also the only manager in history to lead a team to the series in both the AL and NL.
1972 marked a historic year for Berra after being inducted into the Hall of Fame. The same year the number, 8, was dually retired for Yogi and the catcher he replaced, Bill Dickey. Then in 1988, the two were revered once again with plaques hung in their honor in the infamous Monument Park at Yankee Stadium.
On July 18, 1999, the 14-year spat between Steinbrenner and Berra was finally ended. To publicly mark Yogi’s return, he was honored with “Yogi Berra Day” which also celebrated the anniversary of the perfect game he caught in the 56 World Series.
The list of accomplishments goes on and on as Yogi achieved the improbable and unexpected throughout his playing career and went on to succeed in ways that many never thought he’d be capable of. His caliber of play on the field and desire to be a winner is remarkable and may never be matched again. Even though New York has seen their fair share of great catchers to follow, like Thurman Munson, Joe Girardi, and Jorge Posada, Yogi Berra will forever be immortalized as the best catcher in Yankee and baseball history. Yogi will forever have a place in the heart of New York with his unforgettable face as the permanent ambassador of the Yankees and the game.