Yogi Berra, a Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees whose mangled syntax made him one of the sports world’s most beloved and frequently quoted figures, died Tuesday at the age of 90.
Berra died of natural causes, the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center said in a statement posted online.
“Yogi conducted his life with unwavering integrity, humility and a contagious good humor that elevated him from baseball legend to beloved national icon,” the northern New Jersey museum said.
Lawrence Peter Berra, known to the world as Yogi, was a tough catcher and a feared clutch hitter who helped the Yankees dominate baseball from 1947 to 1963.
On a team packed with great players such as Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, Berra led the Yankees in runs batted in for seven consecutive seasons.
He won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award three times in the 1950s, was a 15-time All Star and entered baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1972.
After retiring as a player, Berra became one of only six managers to lead separate American and National League teams to the World Series.
Berra’s baseball accomplishments were sometimes overshadowed by his linguistic shortcomings. Some of his statements were head-scratching malapropisms, while others sounded like warped Zen koans or deep Yoda-like wisdom.
His “Yogi-isms” were repeated by presidents, Wall Street titans, comedians and anyone else who wanted to sound wise, funny, folksy — or all three.
“I don’t know why I say these things,” he once told Reuters. “But people understand me.”
Berra also appeared as himself in TV ads that played on his tangled expressions to sell everything from a global credit card to the Yoo-hoo chocolate drink.
President Barack Obama hailed Berra as “an American original.”
“He epitomized what it meant to be a sportsman and a citizen, with a big heart, competitive spirit, and a selfless desire to open baseball to everyone, no matter their background,” Obama said in a statement.
A holy man
The son of poor Italian immigrants, Berra was born in St. Louis on May 12, 1925, and grew up in the city’s Italian “Hill” section. He quit school to help his family during the Depression and played baseball in local leagues.
He often told the story of a friend who said he resembled a Hindu holy man, or yogi, whenever he sat around with arms and legs crossed waiting to bat. The name stuck.
The Yankees signed Berra for $500 in 1942 and assigned him to the team’s minor league affiliates. He later enlisted in the Navy and was a gunner’s mate in the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. After the war, he became a Yankee regular by 1947.
His career coincided with a period of Yankees dominance. He appeared in 14 World Series, won 10 championships and established records for World Series games in at bats, hits, doubles, singles and games caught.
Berra was the catcher in one of the greatest games in baseball history, Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He later managed both the Yankees and their crosstown rivals, the New York Mets, to World Series appearances.
In 1999 he was included in a list of the 100 greatest baseball players compiled by Sporting News, and fans voted him onto baseball’s All-Century team.
Yet Berra’s achievements did not come easily. From his arrival at Yankee Stadium, when a lowly employee said the newcomer would not last because he did not “look like a Yankee,” opponents and reporters ridiculed him for his short, rotund frame, large ears, speech and seeming inability to throw, catch, run and learn the strike zone.
In a book, he acknowledged how the insults had hurt but said they motivated him to work harder.
“I’ve been called some awful things,” he wrote.
Berra always maintained a sunny disposition, teammates and opponents said.
“There’s an essential sweetness about him,” former teammate Jim Bouton told the Boston Globe. “He’s without guile. That’s about as kind of a thing you can say about a human being.”
Berra’s steely side emerged during a falling-out with George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ blustery principal owner from 1973 until his death in 2010. In 1985, Steinbrenner promised Berra a chance to manage the team for a full season but fired him in the third week, sending a proxy to pass on the decision.
Berra vowed never to return to Yankee Stadium as long as Steinbrenner owned the team, and for 14 years he stayed away. Eventually, Steinbrenner traveled to Berra’s museum and apologized.
Steinbrenner’s son Hal, the Yankees’ current principal owner, on Wednesday called Berra a national treasure.
“While his baseball wit and wisdom brought out the best in generations of Yankees, his imprint in society stretches far beyond the walls of Yankee Stadium,” Steinbrenner said.
Berra was treated like a celebrity wherever he went, but he remained intensely shy.
The cartoon character Yogi Bear was named after him. After occasionally being addressed as Yogi Bear, he did not appreciate that.
In 1998, he established the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, which was built by a nonprofit group.
Berra was married to Carmen Berra from 1949 until her death in 2014 and lived for nearly four decades in Montclair, New Jersey. They had three sons, one of whom, Dale, played in the major leagues.