Wednesday, October 1, 2003
Updated: October 18, 8:23 AM ET
Berra was great, which was as close to good as possible
By Nick Acocella
Special to ESPN.com
"I should have called Yogi, no question about it, if we were going to make a [managerial] change [in 1985]. So what I did is later try to go back and bring Yogi back to Yankee Stadium. One of the greatest moves I was ever dumb enough not to have made earlier," says George Steinbrenner on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
As a player, Yogi Berra carried a public image as a lovable, cuddly figure with a propensity for malapropisms along with one of the most potent clutch bats in the American League. As a manager, he tended to show a crustier side of his personality although this did not prevent him from winning a pennant with a New York club in each league.
No player won more World Series championship rings than Berra, who earned 10. A Yankee for 18 seasons, he also holds records for appearing in the most Series (14) and most Series games (75), and for having the most hits (71) and at-bats (259).
Spanning the eras of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Berra led the Yankees in runs batted in for seven straight seasons (1949-55). The winner of three MVP awards, the lefty-swinging catcher reached the 20-homer mark 11 times (10 consecutively) and topped 100 RBI five times. A 15-time All-Star, he had a lifetime batting average of .285 and slugged 358 home runs (313 of them as a catcher, a major league record when he retired).
A notorious bad-ball hitter who once whacked a one-bounce delivery by Early Wynn for a double, he still connected often enough to keep his yearly strikeout totals between 12 (in 597 at-bats in 1950) and 38.
The short, squat figure squared perfectly with the author of innumerable Yogiisms. Among the most widely quoted are:
"It ain't over 'til it's over."
"It gets late early out here."
"Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."
"It's deja vu all over again."
"We made too many wrong mistakes."
"You can observe a lot by watching."
"If the people don't want to come out to the ballpark, nobody's going to stop them."
"I usually take a two-hour nap from one to four."
"The future ain't what it used to be."
He also expressed his gratitude for a "Day" in St. Louis in1947 with the comment: "I want to thank you for making this day necessary."
Although the unwitting witticisms endeared Berra to New York fans and others, his warm popular image was largely the creation of two broadcasters, boyhood friend Joe Garagiola and former teammate Phil Rizzuto. In fact, he was a somewhat grumpy guy with more baseball sense than his image allowed before turning into a successful businessman living in New Jersey.
Lawrence Peter Berra was born on May 12, 1925 in St. Louis and grew up in an Italian neighborhood called "The Hill." Quitting school after the eighth grade, he worked in a coal yard, but continued to play sandlot ball. He got his nickname Yogi from a boyhood friend who thought Larry looked like an Indian snake charmer in a movie they had seen.
Signed by the Yankees in 1943 during World War II, he hit .253 for the Norfolk Tars of the Class B Piedmont League and then was drafted. At 19, he was in a Navy support boat off Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day in 1944. Later, he served in North Africa and Italy.
After his discharge from the Navy, he played with the International League Newark Bears, the Yankees' top minor league club, in 1946. At the end of the season, New York called him up.
A defensive liability when he first joined the Yankees, Berra was often used in the outfield in 1947 and 1948 as well as behind the plate until Casey Stengel became manager for the 1949 season. He hired Hall of Fame receiver Bill Dickey to tutor his young catcher. The mentor succeeded to the extent that his pupil established records for consecutive chances (950) and consecutive games (148) without an error (from July 1957 to May 1959) and led the AL in double plays a major league record six times.
The 5-foot-7½, 185-pound Berra eventually became regarded as the best backstop in the league at pouncing on bunts and calling a game. He also was the first catcher to leave a finger outside his glove, a style most other catchers emulated.
Although he wasn't fast, Berra broke double digits in two-base hits every year from 1947 to 1961, reaching the 20-mark eight times. He also managed 10 triples in 1948. His 30 homers in both 1952 and 1956 were an AL record for catchers at the time.
Berra was sensational in 1950, when he knocked in 124 runs and had career-highs with a .322 average, 116 runs and 30 doubles. The next season, although his numbers dropped to 88 RBI and .294, he won his first MVP. In 1954 and 1955, he won back-to-back MVP awards, with his 125 RBI in the former season being a personal best.
After performing poorly in his first five World Series, Berra was a standout in five of his next six Fall Classics. He batted higher than .400 in both 1953 (.429) and 1955 (.417) against the Brooklyn Dodgers, and topped .300 in three other Series.
In 1956, he had his best Series. Aside from catching Don Larsen's perfect game, he compiled a .360 average and knocked in 10 runs, both team highs. He also belted three homers - a grand slam in Game 2 and a pair of two-run homers in Game 7 to start the Yankees to a 9-0 victory.
From 1960 to 1962, he spent considerable time in the outfield, where he was more than adequate defensively. Berra retired after a final season as player-coach in 1963 and, in something of a surprise move, replaced Ralph Houk as manager when Houk was moved upstairs to general manager.
Hired partially to offset the widespread popularity of Stengel, who was managing the Mets, Berra made the 1964 season memorable for his altercation with Phil Linz over the infielder's harmonica playing on a bus after a tough loss and with the team languishing in third place.
Berra's sourness had both players and the press running with their complaints to Houk. Still, the Yankees won the pennant. In what seemed an unexpected move - but was planned since just after the harmonica episode - he was fired the day after the Yankees lost the World Series in seven games to St. Louis. His replacement: Cardinals manager Johnny Keane.
In 1965, Berra joined Stengel's coaching staff in a major public relations coup for the Mets. He also played his final four games that season.
With the Mets, Berra served under four managers before succeeding Gil Hodges in 1972. In charge during the "you gotta believe" Mets pennant drive the following year, the manager lost points with the front office for allowing players a much freer rein in making on-field decisions than chairman M. Donald Grant thought wise. Believing Berra had lost control of the club, Grant finally fired Yogi in August 1975.
Returning to the Yankees as a coach from 1976 to 1983, Berra watched as owner George Steinbrenner changed managers eight times in those eight seasons. Taking his turn in the revolving door in 1984, for his second tour as Yankees manager, Berra brought a mediocre club home third and accepted Steinbrenner's accolades and promises that he would have all of 1985 to bring another pennant to the Bronx. Instead, he was replaced 17 games into the season by Billy Martin (in his fourth tour of duty).
Vowing that he would not set foot in Yankee Stadium again until Steinbrenner was no longer in charge, Berra stayed away for 14 years. Berra, who spent 1986-92 as a Houston Astros coach, finally succumbed to the pleas of Rizzuto and others that he forget The Boss's broken promise. When "The Boss" apologized, Yogi returned. Given his second "Day" at Yankee Stadium on July 19, 1999 (the first had been in 1959), Berra - as well as Larsen - was present for David Cone's perfect game.