A great cultural icon, Lawrence Peter Berra, passed away on Tuesday, Sept. 22. He was better known as “Yogi,” a nickname attached to him for the crossed arms and legs posture posture he often assumed, giving some the impression of a Hindu holy man.
Yogi Berra was a fascinating person to me growing up, partly because he was so famous that one of my favorite cartoon shows was a derivative of his name. But Mr. Berra was nothing like the sneaky bear of Jellystone Park, always scheming to steal a pic-a-nic basket despite the watchful Ranger Smith. Yogi Berra was strong, honest, courageous, and faithful. He was one of the greatest major league baseball players of all time and endured in the public eye as a celebrity because of his lovable personality and quotable malapropisms long after his playing days were over. He attended school only through the 8th grade, but his name was known by virtually everyone in America in his heyday.
Yogi was the son of an Italian immigrant, born in the great city of St. Louis, a second generation American. He attended Catholic schools and was a devoted Roman Catholic until the day he died. I heard the story of Yogi and his wife traveling to Rome and being given a private audience with Pope John XXIII. Walking in and apparently not having been briefed on protocol, Mr. Berra began the meeting by saying, “Hi, Pope!”
But he was also very brave. He never bragged about his military service, but he was there on D-Day, June 6, 1944, seeing action on both Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. He was there for one of the most horrific days in the history of the world. Nineteen years old. We owe him.
Many baseball teams do not expect much offense from their catchers, seeing them as primarily defensive players (Jesus Sucre, the current catcher for the Seattle Mariners has a batting average of .132 right now). Yogi Berra was a key hitter for the great Yankees teams of the 1950s. When playing in the minor leagues, he once batted in 23 runs in a double header. The man could hit. One the defensive side, his career percentage for throwing out players trying to steal second base was 49%, one of the highest of all time.
Yogi was a family man. His beloved wife, Carmen, died last year shortly after they celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. They had three sons, one who played Major League baseball (Dale) and another who played in the NFL (Tim).
Yogi is most known now for his ironic and oxymoronic quips. Some have become standard in Americana: “It’s deja vu all over again,” “When you come to fork in the road, take it,” “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
Here are some others I like:
- Even Napoleon had his Watergate
- He hits from both sides of the plate. He’s amphibious.
- You can observe a lot just by watching.
- It ain’t the heat. It’s the humility.
And maybe that last one sums up Mr. Berra. Humility. He seemed so genuine, even puzzled by his celebrity. He did not try to be anyone but himself. Yogi Berra, Rest in Peace.
Nebraska Christian College