Berra’s plaque hangs in Cooperstown (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
When the final chapter of the game is written and the Pantheon of baseball greats is assembled, Lawrence Peter Berra will surely be among them. In his 18-year, Hall of Fame career as a New York Yankee, Yogi Berra was the glue of two dynasties, piloted by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, was the preeminent catcher of his day, and remains one of the greatest backstops of all-time. However, he may not have made the Major Leagues at all had the Yankees not been willing to take a risk.
Berra, the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in St. Louis. His father was a bricklayer and viewed his son’s favorite pastime as a frivolous activity, convinced it was contributing to his poor grades, but Berra’s passion for baseball could not be quelled. After an afternoon at the sandlot, Yogi would stop at a neighbor’s home to clean up and change his clothes before heading home in order to hide his day’s transgressions.
When it came time for Berra to turn pro, there were few scouts interested in courting him, despite his ample power. Famed Cardinals’ scout, Branch Rickey, thought Berra was a Triple-A player at best, but the Yanks took a chance, signing him to a minor league contract for a $500 bonus and a $90-a-week salary. However, once he signed there were still pervading doubts about whether he could be the every day catcher for the New York Yankees. While many maligned his playing style, manager Casey Stengel championed his young talent, and vehemently defended him in the press. To help Berra’s transition to the Big Leagues, the team hired Bill Dickey, the Hall of Fame Yankee catcher, to tutor Berra on his footwork and defense. By the end of his time with the greenhorn Dickey said, “He’ll be a pretty good catcher.” It is one of the great understatements of all-time.
Berra would go on to win three AL MVP Awards (the same number as DiMaggio and Mantle), and sock 358 home runs (4th most among catchers). Berra’s legacy will always be his success in October as he won 14 pennants and 10 World Series, both records, while establishing World Series records in games played (75), at-bats (259), singles (49), doubles (10), hits (71), games caught (63), and catcher putouts (457). He also caught the only perfect game in World Series history when his battery mate, Don Larsen, baffled the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1956 Fall Classic.
Over his nearly two decades as a player, consistency was a badge of honor for Berra. He was a 15-time All-Star and received MVP votes in 15 consecutive seasons, finishing in the top 5 seven times. But in perhaps the greatest indicator of his dependability, he led the Yankees in RBIs every year from 1949-1955 even with the likes of the Yankee Clipper and the Mick in the lineup.
Berra’s approach at the plate was also one of his distinctives. He was a tremendous contact hitter, known for his ability to hit poor pitches well. He could golf and tomahawk balls well out of the strike zone, yet in five seasons he had more home runs than strikeouts and struck out just once every 20.2 plate appearances. In the inimitable words of Berra, “If I can hit it, it’s a good pitch.” He was also a sensational catcher, leaving the game as one of the finest defensive backstops in the history of the game. According to famed sabermetrician Bill James’ win shares formula, Berra is the greatest catcher in baseball history.
After retiring from the game, Berra managed with the Mets and Yankees, winning World Series rings in 1969, 1977, and 1978. In 1972 he was enshrined at Cooperstown and saw his number 8 retired by the Yankees. In 1999 The Sporting News ranked him at 4oth on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players and he was chosen as part of Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team.
Over the course of his 87 years, there is little he has not done, so it was a true thrill for me to have the chance to interview not only a Yankee legend, but one of the greatest players to ever grace a ball field.
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When you first became a regular in 1947, how did having veterans like DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich, and Phil Rizzuto as teammates help you as a young player?
Well, it was good to know they were on your side. They did things right. The expectations were high, so everyone had to pull together. The older guys, they cared about winning more than anything.
Of all the incredible moments DiMaggio had on the field, which one impressed you the most?
I can’t say one in particular. It was just his overall grace, his determination. Never saw him dive for a ball in the outfield–he just timed everything right. If he’d hit a ball in the gap, you never expected him to turn it into a triple, but he would. He just had that knack.
You caught a record 63 World Series games, but one of your most memorable was on October 8, 1956. At what point did you know Don Larsen had something special that day?
Pretty early. He was wild in Game 2. He didn’t even last two innings. But everything I put down in Game 5 he got over. Fell behind only one hitter, to Pee Wee Reese in the first. He threw only 97 pitches all game.
You were well known for your ability to hit bad pitches. In 1950 you struck out just 12 times in 597 at bats while smacking 28 home runs. What made you such a tough out at the plate?
I just saw the ball good. Like I said, if I could see it, I could hit it. Some guys today over-think too much. I still believe you can’t think and hit at the same time.
Of your 358 home runs, which one sticks out to you as the most memorable?
I don’t know. To me they all weren’t bad.
Yogi, you did so much during your Hall of Fame career. What about your career are you most proud of?
Mostly playing on so many championship teams, playing with great guys, the camaraderie. We had a lot of fun.
You played with some instigators like Mantle and Whitey Ford. What is your funniest clubhouse memory?
We had some good pranksters. Guys liked to play around with Phil [Rizzuto] cause he was afraid of everything. They’d put lizards in his locker, scared the heck out of him.
Lastly, how out was Jackie Robinson when he stole home in the 1955 World Series? [Preface: In one of the most iconic plays in World Series history, Robinson stole home in Game 1 of the 1955 Fall Classic. Robinson was ruled safe, a call that Berra furiously argued with the umpire. Watch the clip here.]
He was out enough, that I know.
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Special thanks to Dave Kaplan, Director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Little Falls, New Jersey. Check out the website of this fantastic museum at yogiberramuseum.org.
Follow Dan at @161st_and_River.