He was born Lawrence Peter Berra in 1925, but we all knew him and loved him as “Yogi” Berra, the great baseball player and manager who died last week at age 90.
The St. Louis native grew up on “The Hill,” a section of the city populated predominantly by Italian-Americans. His parents were Italian immigrants. One of Berra’s lifelong friends, who lived across the street on Elizabeth Avenue, was former baseball player and broadcaster Joe Garagiola. I have visited “The Hill” on many occasions, and every time I go there I soak up the history and culture, knowing that some well-known Italian-Americans grew up in that neighborhood. Although following his career, Berra made his home in New Jersey, he frequently returned to “The Hill” to visit friends and family.
I met Berra in 1987, while working for the Jamestown Expos. Our general manager Tom Prohaska and I were summoned to Montreal for a meeting with our minor league director, Dave Dombrowski, now the general manager of the Boston Red Sox. While meeting in Dombrowski’s office, I saw Berra walk into the front office and he was talking with one of the ladies at her desk. Since Dombrowski was on the phone, I looked at Prohaska and motioned that Berra was out there and I had his Hall of Fame plaque postcard for him to sign. Prohaska motioned for me to “go on.” So I did.
I introduced myself to Berra and kindly asked him for an autograph. He was very friendly and willing to sign as we spoke for a few minutes, then I excused myself and explained that I was really supposed to be in a meeting and needed to get back in there.
When I returned to Dombrowski’s office, he just laughed at me and shook his head.
My response was, “But it’s Yogi.”
I likely wouldn’t have left the office of our “big boss” for anyone else, risking a fine or worse, but I had come prepared with a stack of baseball cards to get autographed. I knew that since the Astros were in town and Berra was the bench coach for the team, there was a chance I would get to meet the Hall of Famer and former Yankee great and I did. Mission accomplished.
I was a bit surprised it was so simple. Berra came to me. I didn’t expect to see him in the Expos front office, but he needed something mailed. I believe, so there he was. I thought I would have to try to track him down during batting practice in the clubhouse or out on the field.
Berra was possibly best known to the younger fans for what he said, as opposed to what he accomplished in baseball, but his baseball stats are what got him inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
Berra dropped out of school after eighth grade, and spent his time playing American Legion and semi-pro baseball. Eventually he caught the eye of baseball scouts.
In 1942, at the age of 17, he was passed over by his hometown team as the Cardinals decided to sign another catcher, Garagiola, instead. Berra was then offered the same contract as Garagiola to sign with the New York Yankees, so he did. He spent one year in the minors, and then served in the Navy during World War II. When returning to civilian life, Berra went back to the Yankees minor league system,
He played parts of 19 seasons in the majors, all but the last season with the Bronx Bombers, then finishing his career in Queens with the Mets in 1965, where he was hired as a player coach. He hit 358 home runs, 1,430 RBIs and had a career batting average of .285. He was named American League Most Valuable Player three times (1951, 1954, and 1955) and was a member of 13 World Series Championship teams (as a player or coach).
After playing, Berra managed and coached in the majors another 26 seasons, with the Yankees, Mets and Astros. He retired in 1989.
Berra devoted his life in retirement to the establishment of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of the Montclair State University, in Little Falls, New Jersey. The museum and learning center is full of artifacts and mementos from Berra’s career. The museum holds year-round character-based sports education programs, in cooperation with MSU faculty and professionals from the world of sports, business and arts.
“Yogisms,” as they’ve been affectionately called, are what made Berra famous. He was known for saying things in a funny way, but not really intending to, in fact, one of his famous quotes was, “I never said most of the things I said.”
Here are a few more, just to bring a smile to your face;
“It’s déjà vu all over again.”
“He hits from both sides of the plate, he’s amphibious.”
“When you come to the fork in the road, take it.”
“We made too many wrong mistakes.”
“The future isn’t what it used to be.”
“It was impossible to get a conversation going, everyone was talking too much.”
“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.”
“Why buy good luggage, you only use it when you travel.”
“Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”