Yogi Berra, the man with 10 World Series rings and three MVPs, has been named the recipient of yet another meaningful award: the first Bob Feller Act of Valor Award, given for "possessing the values, integrity and dedication to serving our country that Bob Feller himself displayed."
The award is well-deserved. Seaman 2nd Class Lawrence P. Berra fought in the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944.
Berra served on a rocket-launching ship, a 36-foot-long craft manned by an officer and six sailors. Armed with 48 rockets, twin .50-caliber machine guns and two .30-caliber machine guns, the rocket ships were loaded for bear, and Berra was in harm's way because service on a rocket ship was considered hazardous duty. As he later told writer Bill Madden:
We stayed there, out in the water on patrol, for about 12 days while the Army went in. From where we were, going back and forth from Omaha to Utah Beach, we couldn't see all the bloodshed that they showed in Saving Private Ryan, but I did see a lot of guys drown.
Stationed about 300 yards offshore, Berra's ship fired its rockets at German targets inland and used its machine guns to fight off German planes and to fire at targets on the beach.
The invasion pyrotechnics awed Berra. He later told writer Peter Golenbock:
It was like the Fourth of July. The battleship Nevada was bombarding the coast, firing over our heads, and we could see flashes, different colors, and the tracers were flying. I was looking up, watching, and our captain kept yelling at me, "Keep your head down."
Berra approached war with a fatalistic outlook. "I didn't even think about death," he told the Star-Ledger this week. "I figured if you got hit with a bullet, you wouldn't know it. So I just did what I was supposed to do."
Berra's well-known luck held out. A few days after the invasion, several of his shipmates went ashore to check out Utah Beach, but Berra stayed on the ship. One of them stepped on a landmine and was killed.
When the war in Europe ended, Berra was assigned to the naval base at New London, Connecticut, and wanted to play on the base's baseball team. The manager, Jimmy Gleeson, a baseball lifer, didn't believe that the short, squat Berra was a ballplayer, "He thought I was a wrestler," Berra said. Once Berra took the field, however, Gleeson saw that he was a ballplayer.
Berra's Navy service accelerated his Yankee career, which had consisted of one pre-war year in Class B. The New London team scrimmaged against the Giants at the Polo Grounds and Giant manager Mel Ott was so impressed that he offered the Yankees $50,000 to buy Berra's contract. Yankee owner Larry MacPhail had no idea who Berra was but knew that if a sharp talent evaluator like Ott liked him that much, the Yankees had a pretty good player on their hands. When Berra was discharged in 1946, MacPhail assigned him to the Yankees' Triple A team in Newark. Berra hit .314/.360/.534 and made his debut in the Bronx that September.
The award is named for the late Hall-of-Fame pitcher Bob Feller. Feller joined the Navy on December 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, and fought in many of the major naval battles in the Pacific. He served for four years, missing the 1942, 1943 and 1944 seasons and most of the 1945 season.
Two major-league players and more than 100 minor-league players were killed in World War II, including Herman Bauer, the brother of Yankee outfielder Hank Bauer. More than 300 major-league players and more than 3,000 minor-league players served in the armed forces during the war.