Tuesday, February 9, 2010

8 Days Until Spring Training: Yogi Berra

Like his good friend Phil Rizzuto, Lawrence Peter Berra had a formative experience as a young man with a respected Major League figure who told him that he would never become a professional baseball player. In 1942, Yogi was 17 years old and playing minor league ball when he was approached by Branch Rickey, then the general manager of the Cardinals. Rickey offered him $250 to sign with the Cards but Berra refused. When he did, Rickey supposedly said, "He'll never make anything more than a Triple A ballplayer at best".

Yogi held out for $500 from the Yankees and was assigned to their club in Newport, Virginia. In some ways, you can understand why Rickey wasn't willing to shell out the extra $250. Berra never looked the part of a baseball player (or athlete of any kind, for that matter). He was 5'8" and a sturdy 190-something pounds in his playing days, but his fire plug build made him perfectly suited for catching. They don't call Berra's kind of built "squat" for nothing.

When Yogi turned 18, the year was 1943 and World War II was kicking into high gear. Instead of waiting to being drafted into the armed services, he set aside his dream to play professional baseball and enlisted in the Navy himself. Unlike many established Major Leaguers who were part of the military, Berra spent his years in active duty and participated in the D-Day invasion as a gunner's mate on a rocket-launching craft. After Normandy, he was stationed in North Africa and Italy but suffered a hand injury and was sent back across the Atlantic.

When he got back to the States, Berra was stationed at the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut. After he was discharged from the Navy, he began playing for the Yankees' affiliate in New London. According to lore, Giants manager Mel Ott saw Yogi play in New London and offered the Yankees $50,000 for him. Yanks GM Andy MacPhail wasn't familiar with Berra but was pretty sure that if Ott wanted him that badly, he was worth hanging onto. The following year, Yogi spent half of the season with the AAA Newark Bears before being called up to the Yankees.

Growing up in St. Louis, the only time Berra had seen Yankee Stadium and said he was rendered speechless because it was so much bigger and grander than Sportsman's Park where he had watched the Cardinals as a boy.

It took Berra two seasons to take the starting catcher's job from Aaron Robinson and once he did, he never looked back. The 1948 season began a stretch of 15 uninterrupted All-Star game appearances which included three MVPs and four more top 5 finishes. Yogi's career also encompassed fourteen World Series appearances and ten championships, both of which are Major League records. In addition to those, he also holds the records for World Series games (75), at-bats (259), hits (71), doubles (10), singles (49), games caught (63), and catcher putouts (457).

Between 1949 and 1955, on a team filled with offensive studs including Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, it was Berra who batted clean-up and led the Yankees in RBI for seven consecutive seasons. Yogi was famously excellent at hitting poor pitches. Despite swinging at balls in the dirt and those over his small frame, Berra had nearly as many career home runs (358) as strikeouts (414). In 1950, Berra whiffed only twelve times in 656 plate appearances. When asked about swinging at bad pitches, Berra was reported to say, "If I can hit it, it's a good pitch."

As a fielder, Berra second to none. Under the tutelage of Bill Dickey, he blossomed to one of the better defensive catchers in the league. He was spry and cat-like in his crouch, leading Casey Stengel to say "he springs on bunts like it's another dollar". He led all American League catchers eight times in games caught and chances accepted and left the game with the AL records for catcher putouts (8,723) and chances accepted (9,520).

Yogi was also well-renowned for his ability to handle a pitching staff. He handled pitchers differently depending on their disposition, alternatively coaxing or prodding hurlers based on who he felt needed what. Casey Stengel got a lot of credit for how he deployed his pitching staff during the dynasty of the 50's and 60's, but Berra played a large part in that success as well, displaying a knack for what pitches to call and when. He caught both of Allie Reynolds no-hitters in 1951 along with Don Larsen's perfect World Series game in 1956.

Yogi was also remarkably tough and durable. He averaged 118 games behind the plate from 1949-1959 and caught more than 133 games every year from 1950-1956. In June 1962, at the age of 37, Berra caught an entire 22-inning, seven-hour game against the Tigers.

He was a part of the Yankees until 1963 and even in his last season he was productive, punching up a 138 OPS+ in 164 plate appearances. The following year, he served his first stint as Yankee manager. Despite leading the Yanks to 99 wins and a World Series appearance against his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, Berra was fired and replaced with Cards' manager Johnny Keane.

He resurfaced across town with Mets in 1965 as a player-coach. He put in two games behind the plate and two more as a pinch hitter in May, picking up 2 hits in 9 at-bats but soon decided that he was finished as a player. His coaching career, however, would go on. He stayed with the Mets for the next 8 seasons as an assistant manager under at first under Casey Stengel. He eventually took over as manager in 1972 after the sudden death of Gil Hodges. That same year, he was elected to the Hall of Fame along with Sandy Koufax and Early Wynn.

In 1973, he led the Mets to the World Series and in so doing, became only the second manager to win a pennant in both leagues, following only Joe McCarthy. He had also completed the feat in only 3 seasons as a skipper.

After two more years as manager for the Mets, he rejoined the Yanks as a coach and the team won its first of three consecutive AL titles. This uncanny ability to bring about good luck was not unnoticed. Stengel once said of him, "He'd fall in a sewer and come up with a gold watch." Berra was eventually elevated to Yankee manager before the 1984 season. The team won 87 games but finished a disappointing 3rd place in the AL East.

Berra agreed to stay with the job for 1985 after receiving assurances from George Steinbrenner that he would not be fired. However, the notoriously impatient Boss axed him after a 6-10 start to the season. Instead of notifying Yogi personally, Steinbrenner dispatched GM Clyde King to deliver the news for him. This caused a rift between the two men that would not be mended for almost 15 years. Yogi's replacement? If you guessed Billy Martin, you may or may not be a baseball historian.

On August 22, 1988, Berra and his predecessor Dickey were honored with plaques to be hung in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. Berra's plaque calls him "A Legendary Yankee" and cites his most frequent quote, "It ain't over till it's over." However, the honor was not enough to cure the relationship between Steinbrenner and Yogi. That would not happen until January of 1999 when Steinbrenner publicly apologized to Berra. According to Steinbrenner at the time, "It's the worst mistake I ever made in baseball." The power broker behind the meeting? Suzyn Waldman.

Armed with only an 8th grade education, an unenviable physique and an uncanny wit, Berra became on of the most famous people in the world. Yogi has been featured in advertisements for Yoohoo, AFLAC, Entenmann's, and Stovetop Stuffing. Although he wasn't especially fond of being called "Yogi Bear", he did have the honor of having a Hanna Barbera cartoon named after him.

Of all the Yankee legends still with us, Yogi is undoubtedly the greatest character. Eighty four years young and still active with the franchise, today's Yankee fans are incredibly lucky to have him around. He currently operates the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Montclair, New Jersey. He spends a lot of time at the facility so if you make a trip out to the Museum, you just might have the privilege of chatting with the man himself.

1 comment:

  1. One of the greatest tributes to Yogi is the number of fine catchers behind him in the farm system who the Yanks could afford to trade, including multiple All Stars Del Crandall and Gus Triandos. At one point in '58 or '59, every AL team but one had an ex-Yankee farmhand catching.
    Simply a delight to watch or hear (some PBC-Knothole Gang seats were behind posts) him batting at YS I.