Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yogi Berra 1925-2015

Yogi Berra, the baseball Hall of Famer also known for his witticisms, has died of natural causes at the age of 90 at his home in New Jersey.  He had lived at an assisted living center in West Caldwell since 2012, when he moved from Montclair.

Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925 to parents who had immigrated from Malvaglio, Italy, and grew up in an Italian neighborhood in St. Louis known as "The Hill".  One of his childhood friends was future major league catcher Joe Garagiola.  Another friend gave Berra the knickname "Yogi" after they had watched a movie travelogue about India.  After dropping out of school in the eight grade and working odd jobs to help his family, he was signed by the New York Yankees, who unlike the St. Louis Cardinals or St. Louis Browns were willing to give him a $500 bonus.  After some time in the minor leagues, Berra joined the U.S. Navy and took part in D-Day and the Allied assault on Marseilles, where he earned a Purple Heart.

In 1946, Berra returned to baseball and joined the Yankees' farm team the Newark Bears, getting called up to the major league team in September.  He played with the Yankees from then until the end of 1963.  As a player, he because a notorious "bad ball hitter" who rarely struck out despite hitting for power.  He also became an excellent defensive catcher and was regarded as an expert handler of pitchers.  He sometimes played outfield to give himself a break from catching, and during his late 30's was still patrolling then-notoriously large left field in Yankee Stadium.

During his career, Yogi Berra took part in his share of baseball history.  During the 1955 World Series, he was behind the plate when Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers stole home.  A year later, he caught Don Larson's perfect game, also against the Dodgers.  He was in left field when Bill Mazeroski's walkoff home run sailed over his head, thus winning the 1960 World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Berra won three American League MVP awards and two Gold Gloves.

In 1964, Berra stopped playing and became the Yankees' manager, but was fired after losing that year's World Series to the Cardinals.  In 1965, he was hired as a player-coach by the New York Mets, but only played in a few games.  He stayed with the Mets as a coach until 1972, when he was named manager.  He guided the Mets to the World Series in 1973, where they would lose to the Oakland A's. In doing so, he became one of the few managers to reach the World Series from both major leagues.  He would later again manage the Yankees before being fired by George Steinbrenner 16 games into the 1985 season, thus breaking a promise to keep him for the entire season.  Afterwards, Berra coached for the Houston Astros for four years.  In 1972, he was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame, and had his number 8 retired by the New York Yankees.

In 1958, Yogi Berra was given a namesake in the cartoon world, a mischievous pic-a-nic basket stealing critter named Yogi Bear.  (I must confess that for a long time, I wasn't sure about who was named after whom.)  Berra was married to the former Carmen Short from 1949 until her death in 2014.  He is survived by three sons, including Dale Berra, who played major league ball for three teams.

Read more at the Sporting News, ESPN, Fox News, CBS Sports and The New York Times.  During his later years, Yogi Berra appeared in several TV commercials, including one in which he totally befuddled the AFLAC duck.

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