Name: Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra
Born: May 12, 1925 (St. Louis, MO)
Died: September 22, 2015 (West Caldwell, NJ)
Yankee Years: 1946-63
Primary Number: 8
Yankee Statistics: 2,116 G, 8,355 PA, .285/.348/.483, 124 wRC+, 2,148 H, 358 HR, 321 2B, 49 3B, 1,430 RBI, 704 BB, 403 CS, 49% CS%, 59.6 rWAR, 63.8 fWAR
April 9, 1999 was a special day at Yankee Stadium. Fresh off the greatest season in baseball history, Yankees played their home opener in the Bronx in front of 56,583 fans who were thrilled to see a new championship flag raised by Whitey Ford and Phil Rizzuto. But the franchise legend who everyone had their eyes on was a diminutive catcher, back in Yankee Stadium after a self-imposed hiatus.
He got a huge ovation and visited Bobby Murcer and Tim McCarver on the Fox telecast. The powerhouse Yanks were threatening, and as the hapless Tigers worked through the rain to intentionally walk Tino Martinez and load the bases for Chili Davis, Yogi Berra murmured a hunch on air: “Chili will probably hit one out.”
Sure enough, just a couple minutes later:
Yogi could only chuckle as the booth howled in amazement.
This was the essence of Yogi’s magic. Incredible moments like this one would sometimes just happen because he was involved, and he had the perfect mix of baseball smarts and fortune to help it come to pass. Yogi knew that this was a stressed rookie pitcher tasked with facing an experienced pro who knew how to take advantage and hit one out. But for all this to go down after 14 years away from Yankee Stadium and during his brief guest appearance on the broadcast?
Gateway to Stardom
You could honestly make a decent-sized library out of books and periodicals devoted to the career of Lawrence Peter Berra. This is one of the most well-known players in sports history, so famous that even people who don’t even remotely care about baseball know who he is (or at least his quotes). In our little corner of the internet, we can only be so comprehensive without essentially adding another tome to the shelf. But we’ll make sure to hit the main points.
Although Berra would call New York and the tri-state area his home for the vast majority of his life, he was born in St. Louis. He grew up in a very Italian neighborhood, and in fact, future broadcasting star Joe Garagiola lived across the street from him on Elizabeth Avenue (part of a neighborhood called “The Hill”). Back then, Garagiola and his friends knew him as “Lawdie” because while parents Pietro and Paolina Berra had Americanized his name from “Lorenzo Pietro” to “Lawrence Peter,” it was easier for his mother to call him “Lawdie” than “Lawrence.”
So, where did “Yogi” come in? Sources vary. Pick your favorite story. Here’s what Marty Appel has in his comprehensive Yankees history book, Pinstripe Empire:
“He loved to play ball as a kid and had a habit of sitting in a yoga position on the ground while his team was at bat. His friend Bobby Hofman (later a major league infielder, and the Yanks’ director of scouting and player development in the eighties) called him ‘Yogi,’ and when the story emerged that became his nickname. It was his ticket to national fame.”
And for another version, here’s Yogi biographer Carlo DeVito in Yogi: The Life and Times of an American Original:
“In fact, many of the boys from the Stags went to matinees together. ‘We’re all movie nuts, the whole gang, but Yogi is the worst,’ Garagiola said.
One of the features was a travelogue about India. One of the many pieces was about a Hindu fakir, a snake-charmer who sat cross legged with a turban on his head. Once his feat was accomplished, the fakir stood up to walk away from the camera. The yogi waddled, and [Bobby] Hofman cracked, ‘That yogi walks like Lawdie Berra.’
Berra indeed has a distinctive walk, and according to Garagiola, Berra is the only guy he knows who scuffs the inside of his shoes as he shuffles. As Garagiola pointed out, you could see Berra from up in the stands, and no matter the number on his jersey, only one guy in the majors walked like that. ‘From the moment that yogi on the movie screen started to walk, Lawdie Berra had a new name. He became Yogi to everyone, and I mean everyone,’ said Garagiola. Even his parents, who could never pronounce his real name, now called him Yogi.”
Hofman is cited in both, so the nickname likely emerged from that feature and then became a recurring bit at practices since the boys played baseball together all the time.
In any case, Berra was the star among his friends and already a ferocious hitter in his youth. He was so infatuated with baseball that he couldn’t bring himself to get interested in school (which he quit after eighth grade), much to the frustration of his teachers. One even asked him, “Don’t you know anything?” He responded, “I don’t even suspect anything.”
It’s a funny story, but it also belies Yogi’s intelligence. He quickly proved himself savvy in business decisions and of course became one of the best baseball minds of his era. The local St. Louis Cardinals were interested in the top young players of the American Legion team, and both Garagiola and Berra went to a tryout. The latter was a better hitter, but the scouts believed that Garagiola had a bit more polish to him and was also already an impressive defender behind the plate. The “polish” aspect is debatable, but it is true that Berra was not much of a catcher yet.
So while Cardinals GM Branch Rickey offered both teenagers contracts, Garagiola’s bonus was for $500; Berra’s was for half that. Yogi insisted that he was at least his buddy’s equal and wanted the $500, but Rickey wouldn’t relent. American Legion manager Leo Browne had a contact in New York with George Weiss, and he pointed the Yankees’ farm director in Berra’s direction. Following the Yanks’ loss to those very same Cardinals in the 1942 World Series, Weiss dispatched bullpen coach Johnny Schulte to “The Hill” in order to get a read on Berra. Schulte was confident enough in what he heard that he didn’t need to formally see Yogi play. New York gave Berra the bonus he wanted and he was officially a Yankee.
Some hold the belief that despite the bonus snafu and Rickey’s dismissive quotes about Berra at the time, it was all part of a plot to get him to the Dodgers. After all, Rickey left St. Louis for Brooklyn after the ‘42 campaign and he did send Yogi a (belated) telegram encouraging him to come to Dodgers training camp. But if this was a scheme, then why didn’t he do the same with Garagiola? It’s possible that enough other Cardinals personnel liked him that Rickey felt he couldn’t hide him, too.
I think it’s more likely that while Rickey was interested enough in Berra to take a flier on him at his new job in Brooklyn, he simply whiffed on the initial decision. He was a brilliant analyst, but no one bats 1.000, especially when scouting teenagers. (Just look at the top international free agent rankings from a decade ago for an example.)
From Norfolk to Normandy to Newark to New York
As it was, Berra played his first professional season down in Class B for the Norfolk Tars, where he hit .253/.313/.396 with 32 extra-base hits in 111 games. But since it was 1943 and Yogi was an able-bodied young man without children, it was probably only a matter of time before he was drafted into World War II. So he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was able to train close to the minor-league club in Norfolk before seeing action.
Berra was right in the thick of it for the turning point. Barely 19 years old, he was a gunner for the USS Bayfield and on one of the first rocket boats sent out to protect the troops landing on Normandy beach for D-Day in June 1944. (Late in life, he still remembered being in awe of the noise and display, which reminded him of fireworks.) Berra also took a piece of shrapnel or a bullet to the hand during the invasion of northern France, but he did not want his mother to know he got hurt, so he never filed paperwork. Although he should have at least a posthumous Purple Heart, his family has been unsuccessful in their attempts due to military record confusion.
Yogi returned home in time for the start of the 1946 season, where he would be on the doorstep of the majors with the Newark Bears. He had caught the eye of Hall of Famer and Giants manager Mel Ott at Naval base games in Connecticut and was already in demand, but the Yankees held firm. Smart move: Berra hit .314/.360/.534 with 15 homers in just 77 games, with his last helping Newark clinch a playoff berth.
The Bears would lose to the Montreal Royals, who had their own soon-to-be extremely famous up-and-comer. But Berra got to spend his final weeks of the 1946 season in the majors, where he’d always dreamed of playing. On September 22nd, he made his first career start, catching former MVP Spud Chandler in the first game of a doubleheader at the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium. Yogi made a strong first impression, homering in just his second at-bat and going yard in his next start against the Philadelphia A’s as well.
A career was born, and Yogi never played another day in the minors.
The Tools of the Trade
Berra’s pal, Garagiola, was fortunate enough to play on the Cardinals as they won the 1946 World Series over the Red Sox. So while Yogi was thrilled to have made the majors, he wanted more. He didn’t have to wait very long.
Berra was still choppy behind the plate, so new manager Bucky Harris also used him quite a bit in the outfield. On a team loaded with stars like Rizzuto, Tommy Henrich, and the legendary Joe DiMaggio, Yogi was just happy to play his part. And the 22-year-old lefty could rake, batting .280/.310/.464 with 15 doubles, 11 homers, and a 115 OPS+. Even in just 83 games, he impressed sportswriters enough to earn down-ballot MVP votes. Of note: Berra did not make the All-Star Game, but it would be another 16 years before there was another Midsummer Classic without the eventual 18-time All-Star.
The Yankees won 97 games to seize back the American League flag for the first time in four years. Yogi’s first taste of postseason play was actually a quiet one for him personally, as Rickey’s Dodgers held him to a 3-for-19 series. In Game 3 at Ebbets Field, however, he get to deliver his first World Series homer, which also happened to be the first pinch-hit blast in the 44-year history of the Fall Classic.
The Yankees took the series in seven and Berra had already matched Garagiola with a World Series ring of his own. Although he was a well-regarded catcher for nine years and got to announce several Fall Classics for NBC, Garagiola never made it back to another one on the field. Yogi had 13 more ahead of him as a player.
Berra earned his first All-Star nod in ‘48, but the Yankees slipped to third behind Cleveland and Boston. Weiss had ascended to the GM role, and since he was never a big fan of Harris in the first place, he used the third-place finish as an excuse to dismiss him — much to his players’ dismay. In came a longtime Weiss favorite, but someone who had a career managerial record of 581-742 with only one winning season to his name: Casey Stengel.
The Stengel pick drew plenty of skepticism, but the “Ol’ Perfesser” was smarter than he let on. Sound familiar? It thus shouldn’t be a surprise that in short order, the skipper took a shine to Berra after watching him in spring exhibitions. Few questioned whether Yogi could hit MLB pitching at this point, but his play behind the dish continue to leave a lot to be desired, so there was some thought to using a better defender back there. Stengel quashed that talk and stuck Berra at catcher for 109 games in 1949. Yogi was his man.
Stengel also made the effort to reach out to former All-Star catcher Bill Dickey, as he and Weiss brought the Yankees great back into the fold to mentor Berra. In their very first session, Dickey noticed four different things that his successor was doing wrong, but he praised the 23-year-old’s work ethic and willingness to do whatever it took to get better. Whether it was improving the accuracy of his throws to second, his footwork behind the plate, game-calling acumen, ball-blocking technique, or anything else, Yogi was game.
The determination paid off. Weiss had been pestering Dickey for quite awhile about whether or not Berra could do it. In the end, Dickey said, “Yes, he’ll make it, and he’ll be a pretty good catcher.” The Hall of Famer was right on the money, as Berra became one of the most respected backstops in the sport and later set records for most consecutive errorless games at 148 from 1958-59 (plus 950-straight chances without a miscue).
Because the baseball gods liked Yogi so much, even when something bad happened in the field, he would often get a second chance. Allie Reynolds was going for his second no-hitter of 1951 and facing the always-intimidating Ted Williams for his final batter, he managed to induce a popup. Yogi dropped it. Giving the Splendid Splinter another chance to end the no-no should’ve been a death knell. Instead, Williams popped it up again. This time, Yogi snared it, and Reynolds made history.
Even Stengel had been hesitant about fully trusting Yogi to call the game, but his pitchers overruled Casey’s micromanagement pitch-calling. Although they might have thought that Yogi looked funny (and he endured plenty of teasing early on), they trusted him. It worked out to the tune of five World Series championships in a row during Stengel’s first five years at the helm from 1949-53.
Yogi exulted in all of it:
All while becoming a terrific backstop, Yogi remained a menace at the plate, and during this five-year dynasty, he hit .294/.358/.502 with 109 doubles, 132 homers, and a 132 OPS+. His 30 homers in ‘52 set an AL record for catchers that stood (appropriately) for 30 years, and until Gary Sánchez came along, only Jorge Posada matched him in Yankees history. Berra was a bad-ball hitter but he also had the Tony Gwynn/Luis Arraez-esque bat control to not strike out very often.
It was a dangerous combination for opposing pitchers, who knew that Yogi could do damage on essentially any pitch, whether it was a poke to the outfield or a shot into the short porch in right.
Yogi also earned his first of three career MVPs by winning the award in 1951. He would do so again in ‘54 and ‘55, while also finishing in the top three on three other occasions (including the ‘50 season, when he made a staggering 148 starts behind the dish). In what is sometimes considered an interregnum period in Yankees history between the end of Joe DiMaggio and the ascent of Mickey Mantle, Berra was the indestructible cog that made the dynasty run for five titles in a row.
“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
The good times didn’t last forever, even as the Yankees put up their best regular season in 12 years in 1954. Cleveland had finished second for three seasons in a row, but they were just too good in ‘54 with 111 victories, and the pennant streak was snapped. New York promptly snatched the flag right back in ‘55 as Yogi polished off his third MVP. Another long-suffering Yankees rival got their goat then though, as Jackie Robinson, Johnny Podres, and the Dodgers exacted revenge for ‘41, ‘47, ‘49, ‘52, and ‘53 by winning the 1955 Fall Classic.
So the world wasn’t perfect after all. Then again, sometimes it was, as the following year would prove.
Berra ceded the MVP honors to the Triple Crown-winning Mantle, albeit while posting a career-high 142 OPS+ and matching his 30-homer mark from ‘51. The Yankees won another pennant in ‘56, and Yogi got to jump into Don Larsen’s arms when the unlikely right-hander spun the only perfect game in postseason history. Berra went yard twice in the 9-0 blowout in Game 7, and the Yankees were champions again.
Yogi was far from done after ‘56, but his heavy-endurance days donning the tools of ignorance were over. That was the last year he started 120 games or more at catcher. Gradually, Stengel and company began to put less pressure on his knees, so he started less often and began to make appearances in the outfield again.
This wasn’t purely strategic on Berra’s behalf though, as the Yankees had another talented catcher who they knew they needed to give time to in Elston Howard. Yogi was a wonderful teammate to Ellie, welcoming him to the team and becoming a close friend while also teaming up with Dickey to refine Howard’s game behind the plate. (To be clear, Howard needed less of an overhaul than Yogi originally did, though Yogi was always happy to work with him.)
Yogi won three more World Series as his career wound down. The Yankees avenged a loss to the Milwaukee Braves in ‘57 by beating them in ‘58, and after an off-year in ‘59, Berra thought that he’d paved the way for another title in 1960 as he clubbed a three-run blast to put New York in front in Game 7 against the Pirates.
Instead, the Pirates rallied, and Yogi had to watch the gut-punch of Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer from the most painful view imaginable: directly under it, in left field.
That was Stengel’s last game in New York, though Yogi’s former teammate Ralph Houk replaced him and still held Berra in great regard. A brilliant time-share behind the plate with Yogi, Howard, and Johnny Blanchard combined for 64 homers of their own in 1961, though Mantle and Roger Maris obviously took the spotlight. Yogi belted the last of his 12 career World Series long balls that October as the Yankees dismissed the Reds to win it all. Against the Giants, they did so again in ‘62.
The 1963 campaign would end in a World Series sweep at the hands of the now-Los Angeles Dodgers. Yogi was no longer a regular, though he still hit .293/.360/.497 with a 139 OPS+ in 64 games of part-time play at age-38. He was actually already serving on Houk’s coaching staff, and once the season was over, the Yankees came to him with an idea. They wanted to bump Houk up to the front office and make Yogi the manager. He was game.
Yogi ended his career with more homers than any catcher in baseball history at 358. To date, he is still one of just four to ever club at least 350 and accrue 60 fWAR. The other three are prestigious names who followed him: Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Mike Piazza. Only Bench could dare lay claim as at least Yogi’s equal on both offense and defense.
I’ve drawn quite a bit of info from David Halberstam’s brilliant Summer of ‘49. He wrote another magnificent baseball book called October 1964, and I really cannot recommend that enough for more background on Yogi’s managerial career. Being that he is being honored here primarily for his work as a player though, I must be regrettably brief-ish. (But please read that book. Halberstam was a gem.)
In 1964, Yogi had a tough combination of high expectations, uncertainty surrounding his control of a team with many of his friends, and an aging, more injury-prone club that—unbeknownst to anyone at the time—was about to go into the tank for the rest of the decade. In mid-August, they sat in third place and as far as 5.5 games out. Right around that time came the “Harmonica Incident” with infielder Phil Linz, where Berra was at least able to assuage the public that he could hand down discipline when needed.
A few days later, the Yankees began to catch fire and put in one last stretch of glory with a 29-11 record down the stretch to edge out the White Sox and Orioles for their fifth consecutive pennant. They came so close to winning another championship, too. Alas, the ascendant Bob Gibson and Yogi’s boyhood team, the Cardinals, were ready for the moment. They beat the Yankees in seven games. Shortly thereafter, Berra was called to the Yankees’ offices. He thought that they would be negotiating a new contract. Instead, he was fired.
The Yankees were actually already in talks to hire the man who helped beat them, St. Louis skipper Johnny Keane. It was a pretty brutal blow to someone who meant so much to the organization, let alone the New York fan base. It didn’t work out either, as the Yankees got even older and far worse in a hurry and didn’t really recover for another decade.
In the meantime, Berra didn’t have any trouble finding a job. He jumped to join Stengel’s coaching staff with the still-new Mets and briefly unretired to play in a few games in early 1965. He stayed on their staff as Stengel retired and handed the reins to Wes Westrum and later, more successfully, Gil Hodges. Yogi was the first-base coach when the “Miracle Mets” shocked the world and went from the Senior Circuit basement to World Series champions in 1969.
Yogi later managed the Mets himself following Hodges’ tragic early passing in 1972. The next year was the origin for his most famous quote. With New York mired in last place and double-digit games out of first in mid-July, he supposedly said “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” after a big comeback win.
Berra was talking about that particular game, but he was more right than he knew.
After the end of play on August 30th, the Mets were 10 games under .500 and still in the cellar. Thanks to a weak year from the NL East though and the heroics of Tom Seaver and Tug McGraw, the Amazin’ Yogis were able to use a 21-8 September to claim the division title. The 82-79 Mets upset the heavily favored 99-63 Reds in the NLCS and took the defending champion A’s to a seventh game in Oakland before finally falling. It was an unforgettable year, but the Mets stumbled in ‘74 and Berra got canned in August of ‘75.
Yogi’s next act was to rejoin the Yankees on old friend Billy Martin’s staff. He came back at the right time, as in ‘76, New York won their first pennant since firing Yogi 12 years prior. They lost to Cincinnati, but Berra got to add two more World Series rings to his collection with triumphs over the Dodgers in ‘77 and ‘78. It wasn’t the easiest time to be a coach given the “Bronx Zoo” chaos with Martin, superstar Reggie Jackson, and owner George Steinbrenner, but no one questioned what Yogi brought to the clubhouse. He remained a coach even as the managerial roulette kept going around and around.
After eight managerial changes since July 1978, the die landed on Yogi in advance of the 1984 season. He had seen enough of the owner’s roster meddling to really know when to put his foot down, as he did at the All-Star break per Bill Madden’s Steinbrenner biography:
“Finally, at about the fifth mention of ‘your team’ by the owner, Berra rose from his chair and glared menacingly at Steinbrenner.
‘I’ve heard enough of this shit!’ Berra shouted. ‘You keep saying this is my team? That’s a f*cking lie and you know it! This is your f*cking team. You put this f*cking team together. You make all the f*cking moves around here. You get all the f*cking players nobody else wants. You put this f*cking team together and then you sit around and wait for us to lose so you can blame everybody else because you’re a chickenshit f*cking liar!’
Now it was the coaches’ faces that were turning white. No one had ever seen Berra so enraged. As he started heading for the door, Berra abruptly reversed course and leaned over the desk. Flipping a pack of cigarettes off the desk right onto Steinbrenner’s chest, he yelled, ‘You want me to quit? I’m not quitting. You’ll have to fire me!’”
The Yankees played very well in the second half with Yogi more in control and a 51-29 record, but the vaunted 1984 Tigers weren’t letting anyone catch up to them.
With this outburst probably still in the back of his mind and with the Yankees off to a 6-10 start in 1985, Steinbrenner did, in fact, fire Berra. Players like Don Mattingly and Don Baylor were furious. It had been promised that Yogi would manage the full season, but at that point, Yogi knew what Big Stein’s promises were worth. Berra also took umbrage with the fact that Steinbrenner never talked to Yogi directly about letting him go, as when he had been fired before, the owners at least got in contact with him at some point. So he vowed to never return to Yankee Stadium as long as Steinbrenner was in charge.
Taking the Fork in the Road
True to his word, Yogi stayed away from the Bronx. He held firm on this decision even when the Yankees honored him and Dickey with plaques in Monument Park in 1988. They had retired No. 8 for both of them in ‘72, when Yogi was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but there hadn’t been a plaque until ‘88. Nonetheless, they had to do the ceremony without him. Berra was occupying himself as the Astros’ bench coach anyway (forming a bond with Craig Biggio).
Berra didn’t reconcile with the Yankees until 1999, when Suzyn Waldman helped arrange a meeting with him and Steinbrenner at Yogi’s new museum in Montclair, NJ. The Boss apologized, the two cleared the air, and finally, Yogi was back in the Yankees’ orbit. He was celebrated on Opening Day ‘99 and then came back again for “Yogi Berra Day” on July 18th. As a nice touch, Don Larsen was part of the festivities and threw out the ceremonial first pitch to the man who caught his perfecto. Berra had used the glove belonging to that day’s catcher, Joe Girardi, and handed it back to him with a handshake.
It was wonderful to have Berra in the background as the Yankees won more championships and made other memorable playoff runs. He was often an instructor in spring training as well, so he was a common sight whenever they aired exhibition games or practice footage. Yogi was always there for the big moments, and he threw the ceremonial first pitch at the new Yankee Stadium when it opened in 2009. He was a Cooperstown regular, a local movie critic, and a real advocate. And as he had been for quite some time, he was a common figure to see in commercials; everyone knew Yogi, after all.
We were lucky enough to have Yogi around for 90 years before he passed away in September 2015. His beloved wife of 65 years, Carmen had died the year before, and he had been making fewer appearances. It wasn’t a shock. But it still hurt like hell. On a personal note, my parents had loved Yogi for decades. He was the first Yankee who my dad was drawn to, even before Thurman Munson (granted, a stuffed Yogi Bear from childhood might have helped with that). My dad passed away many years ago, but every time I saw Yogi on TV, I thought of him.
As part of a commercial for the 2008 All-Star Game, the last big event at the old Yankee Stadium, Yogi said that he wouldn’t miss it because of all the memories he made there. They were alive in his heart. All our memories of Yogi are still crystal clear as well. But we can’t say that we don’t miss him.
Staff Rank: 7
Community Rank: 5
Stats Rank: 6
2013 Rank: 6
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Creamer, Robert W. Stengel: His Life and Times. New York: Fireside, 1984.
DeVito, Carlo. Yogi: The Life and Times of an American Original. Chicago: Triumph Books, 2008.
Halberstam, David. October 1964. New York: Fawcett Books, 1995.
Halberstam, David. Summer of ‘49. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.
It Ain’t Over. Directed by Sean Mullin. New York: Sony Pictures Classic, 2022.
Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010
The New York Times
Williams, Dave. SABR Bio
Yankeeography: “Yogi Berra”
“Yogi Berra was at D-Day.” NBC News, 14 June 2004.