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Yogi Berra, Yankees Hall Of Fame Catcher, Dies


Yogi Berra was a Hall of Fame baseball player and a folk legend. Over 19 seasons, mostly with the New York Yankees, Berra won 10 World Series Championships, more than the other major leaguer. Lawrence Peter Berra died yesterday. He was 90. Jim O'Grady of member station WNYC has this remembrance of the man and his nuggets of homespun wisdom.

JIM O'GRADY, BYLINE: Yogi Berra was a catcher. Baseball people call a catcher's equipment - shin guards, chest protector and mask - the tools of ignorance. The implication is only dumb guys play the position, guys who get dumber with every foul ball that ricochets off their head. But former Yankees executive Marty Appel says when it comes to Yogi Berra, that just ain't right.

MARTY APPEL: He had a wonderful instinct for the game. He was Albert Einstein on the - once he got on the diamond. In terms of baseball, he was a genius.

O'GRADY: A catcher calls the pitches. A catcher controls the game. Yogi's granddaughter, sportscaster Lindsay Berra, says no one did it better than him.

LINDSAY BERRA: He remembers every - and I'm not exaggerating here - every inconsequential pitch sequence he ever called in his entire life.

O'GRADY: Many observers of the game say Yogi is the best catcher in baseball history. He hit for power, and he hit for average. He almost never struck out. He said striking out was just too embarrassing. And he won 3 Most Valuable Player Awards. On teams with Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, it was Yogi Berra who often drove in the most runs. And he did it while looking more like a plumber than a 15-time Major League All-Star. Marty Appel says Yogi was especially underestimated at the beginning of his career when this son of Italian immigrant from a poor part of St. Louis first showed up in New York.

APPEL: He was derided as sort of a pretender, not athletic looking and not a Yankee-looking guy.

O'GRADY: But years later when a sports writer asked Yankee manager Casey Stengel what was the secret to the team's domination through the 1950s? Casey, referring to Yogi, said, I never play a game without my man. Author Jane Leavy says it was Yogi's great success as a player combined with his every-man lack of glamour that endeared him to fans.

JANE LEAVY: In that horrible modern phrase, he was relatable. He was totally human.

O'GRADY: Berra was especially relatable for mind-bending aphorisms like, when you come to the fork in the road, take it. Leavy recalls a story from Berra's wife, Carmen, who told her one of the couple's first apartments had a Murphy bed which Yogi had never encountered before.

LEAVY: So Yogi walked in and said, what are you supposed to do sleep standing up? (Laughter). And that came from his wife, so I believe that one.

O'GRADY: As a manager, Berra got to the seventh game of the World Series twice - once with the Yankees and once with the Mets. After Yankees owner George Steinbrenner fired Berra in 1985, Berra refused to set foot in the Bronx for 14 years. Steinbrenner had to make an apologetic pilgrimage to Berra's home in New Jersey to make amends. Yogi Berra was a proud man. He didn't talk much about it, but he also had a distinguished military service record.

BERRA: He was a gunner's mate on a landing craft support off of Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion.

O'GRADY: Lindsay Berra says it's part of why she's campaigning to have her grandfather awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

BERRA: For the things that he did on the baseball field and then on the battlefield.

O'GRADY: In a statement, President Obama praised Yogi Berra's big heart and said he epitomized what it meant to be a sportsman and a citizen. For NPR News, I'm Jim O'Grady. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim O'Grady
Jim O'Grady is a contributor to NPR's Planet Money podcast.
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