Yogi Berra’s father, Pietro, immigrated from Italy, arriving on Ellis Island in October 1909. He made his way to St. Louis where he settled on The Hill, the Italian section of the city. His wife came over later with their two sons, and they went on to have three more children.
Lorenzo Pietro Berra was born in St. Louis in 1925. His parents nicknamed him Lawdie, because they had trouble pronouncing Lawrence or Larry. The family attended the local Catholic church, and Lawdie hung around the neighborhood. He was not a particularly good student and dropped out of school after eighth grade. Apparently he didn’t feel the need for book learning, for as he later said, “You can learn a lot by watching.”
When World War II broke out, Yogi Berra joined the Navy. He served as a gunner’s mate aboard the attack transport USS Bayfield during the D-Day invasion at Normandy. His crew shot machine guns and launched rockets into the German defenses at Omaha Beach. They took fire, but no one was seriously injured.
When he came back from the war he went to Newark, NJ. He had played a lot of baseball as a kid, and had even caught the eye of the St. Louis Cardinals. But he was brought to the Newark minor league team by baseball great Bill Dickey, the Yankee catcher and coach who’d played on the championship Yankee teams with Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig.
Yogi Berra took Dickey’s old number 8, and later said, “I owe everything I did in baseball to Bill Dickey.” But we do have to be careful about quoting this baseball player, because as he himself admitted, “I really didn’t say everything I said.”
He was called up to the majors toward the end of the 1946 season, and went on to become a mainstay of the Yankees for the next 17 years. Yogi went on to play for the NY Mets, and then became a coach for the Yankees, the Mets and the Houston Astros. In all, he played in 14 World Series and won 10 championships. He was named an All Star in 15 seasons.
One of his most notable moments was catching Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, the only perfect game ever thrown in MLB postseason play. He also witnessed the record-breaking home run duel between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, famously noting as he watched them hit back-to-back homers, “It’s deja vu all over again.”
Yogi Berra set a number of records in his position as catcher for the Yankees, and was a good hitter as well. He was considered one of the best clutch hitters in baseball, primarily because he was fast with the bat and hardly ever struck out. His lifetime batting average was .285, with 358 home runs and 1,430 runs batted in.
After he retired as a player Yogi Berra went to the NY Mets as a coach, and he was a part of the Miracle Mets that won the 1969 World Series. He had gotten the nickname Yogi as a teenager, when he went to the movies, and one of his friends thought he looked like a man practicing yoga in the film. His friends started calling him Yogi, and the name stuck.
In 1972, Berra was named manager of the Mets. The following year the team was plagued by injuries, and by mid-season the Mets were in last place. A reporter asked the new manager if the season was over for them. Yogi’s famous reply: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Sure enough, the Mets staged a comeback and won the 1973 National League title, before succumbing to the Oakland Athletics in a hard-fought seven-game World Series.
Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, and that same year the number 8 was retired by the Yankees, jointly honoring him and his mentor and fellow catcher Bill Dickey.
Yogi Berra married Carmen Short in 1949, and they had three sons. They were longtime residents of Montclair, NJ, where the Berras sponsored the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center (which advertises, “We’re open till we close”) and the Yogi Berra baseball stadium at Montclair State University.
Carmen died in 2014, shortly after celebrating their 65th anniversary. Yogi died at age 90 on Sept. 22, 2015 — 69 years to the day after he debuted in the major leagues. Yogi Berra was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in Nov. 2015, who cited one of Yogi’s favorite lines: “One thing we know for sure: If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”