You should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise, they won’t come to yours.” – Yogi Berra
It ain’t over.
Yogi Berra transcended his baseball career, but that was only possible because he happened to be one of the best catchers in the history of the game. Any fitting memorial has to begin with his accomplishment on the field, but Berra’s accolades are really too numerous to count, especially on his fingers, each adorned with a World Series ring. The short and squat catcher was really a giant among immortals at the peak of the Yankees’ dynasty. He won three MVPs, made the All Star Game in every full season of his career, and was front and center at many of the Yankees’ most dramatic and memorable postseason moments. He didn’t play in the shadows of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Even at 5’ 7”, he stood shoulder-to-shoulder.
Berra is most known for his exploits with the bat, particularly his heroics during the World Series. However, those who watched him play often argue that his defense behind the plate was as meaningful as the swings he took standing next to it. Although Berra would shift to the outfield later in his career, no one disputed how important his role as a catcher was to the Yankees’ success. “Why has our pitching been so great?” the great Casey Stengel once mused. “Our catcher that’s why,” he answered.
Baseball has had many immortals pass from the game into relative obscurity once they retire: players relegated to the record books because they are forgotten by succeeding generations. Yogi Berra wasn’t one of them. During his playing days and coaching career, which lasted another 30 years, Berra became as much known for what he said off the field as how he played on it. Like his accomplishments, there are too many of his oft-recited quotes to list. However, these amusing statements, which affectionately came to be called Yogisms, made Berra known well beyond the sport and long after he left it. In fact, someone endeavoring to learn about the great catcher might glean more by studying Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations than the Baseball Encyclopedia. According to accounts, Berra has more entries in the former than any President of the United States.
As if being an all-time great athlete with a large, and always lovable, personality isn’t enough of an epitaph, Berra’s life was also a great American story. The son of Italian immigrants, Berra grew up in a working class community, but always strove for something better. Baseball would provide the path, but not before a couple of detours.
Like every great American tale, there were setbacks and sacrifices. When Berra tried out for the St. Louis Cardinals, he was offered a meager $250 contract. Despite only having an 8th grade education upon which to fall back, he declined. Berra was always smarter than he appeared. Soon thereafter, the Yankees signed him for double that amount. Unfortunately, Adolph Hitler got in the way.
In 1943, Berra put aside his burgeoning baseball career to join the Navy. He was only 18 at the time. During his four years of service, Berra saw action in North Africa and throughout Europe, but most notably served as a gunner’s mate during the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach. He was also wounded during the Allied assault on southern France, and earned a Purple Heart for his valor. After facing death on the field of battle, is it any wonder that baseball, and life, always seemed to come so easy for him?
Perhaps Berra’s greatest, and most overlooked accomplishment took place in 1949, after he had returned from war and established himself as a key figure on the Yankees. On January 26 of that year, Berra married his beloved Carmen, and together they remained for 65 years until her death just after their anniversary in 2014. Berra did more than just lead a decorated life. He also raised a family. In today’s society, fame and fortune are often more lauded, but by all accounts, Yogi was a good husband and father, and, perhaps, that may be how the modest Berra would most like to be remembered.
Yogi Berra was a true American hero, but even that laudable status doesn’t quite tell the whole story. For, not only was Berra a man to be revered, respected and admired, he was also one to be loved. Anyone who have ever come into contact with Yogi Berra has always seemed to leave with the same reaction: a smile. Seeing his big grin light up an almost cartoonish face couldn’t help but cause infectious happiness. So, why indulge sadness when remembering Berra? Although his storybook life has ended, his legacy remains.