Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, beloved Montclair resident for more than 50 years, Baseball Hall of Famer and iconic New York Yankee died Tuesday, September 22 of natural causes. He was 90 years old. Berra and his wife Carmen, who passed away in 2014, moved to Montclair in 1959 and lived here until 2012. Funeral plans are not yet confirmed but the following statement was issued by his the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center:
It is with a profound sense of loss and heartfelt sorrow that the Board of Directors of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center (YBMLC) shares the news that Yogi Berra has passed away at the age of 90 due to natural causes. Yogi conducted his life with unwavering integrity, humility and a contagious good humor that elevated him from baseball legend to beloved national icon. For all his accolades and honors as a player, coach and mentor, he remained completely true to himself – a rare example of authentic character excellence and a lasting role model for his peers, his public, and the thousands of children who visit the YBMLC each year to take part in programs inspired by his values.
The following statement was issued by his family:
“While we mourn the loss of our father, grandfather and great-grandfather, we know he is at peace with Mom.
We celebrate his remarkable life, and are thankful he meant so much to so many. He will truly be missed.”
Yogi’s life was an American success story—born to immigrant parents, playing baseball in the sandlots of St. Louis, fighting for his country in the waters off of Omaha beach in World War II, anchoring some of the greatest Yankees teams ever, uttering some of the most quoted phrases of the past 50 years and raising three sons with Carmen, his wife of 65 years. Throughout it all he showed humility, grace, humor and generosity.
Berra got his nickname long before his maxims became part of American folklore. While playing in American Legion baseball as a teenager, a friend said he looked like a Hindu yogi as Berra sat with his arms and legs folded waiting to bat.
Son of Immigrants
Berra was born on May 12, 1925 to Italian immigrants. Pietro Berra emigrated from Milan, Italy to “The Hill” section of St. Louis, MO (via Ellis Island) in 1909. Later Berra’s mother, Paolina, and two older brothers, Mike and Tony, followed. His other brother John, Yogi and sister Josie, where born in St. Louis. Berra grew up on Elizabeth Avenue not far from childhood friend and award-winning broadcaster Joe Garagiola, who played catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and other teams (1946-54). Berra attended South Side Catholic and left school after eighth grade, playing American Legion baseball and working odd jobs to help support his family.
Yogi broke into professional baseball in 1942 when he signed with the Yankees’ Class B affiliate in Norfolk. He left baseball to serve in World War II as a gunner’s mate on the USS Bayfield during the D-Day invasion in 1944.
Hall of Fame Career
Berra resumed his baseball career in 1946 with the Yankees’ top minor-league team, the Newark Bears. Later that year he was called up to play seven games with the big league team. Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey mentored Berra who had an uncanny ability to hit the ball wherever it was thrown.
Berra batted from the left side of the plate and threw with his right hand. A squat 5’8 and 190 pounds, he wasn’t built like a baseball superstar but his discipline at the plate (he rarely struck out), and ability to hit balls out of the strike zone helped him post impressive numbers—lifetime batting average of .285, 358 home runs, 1,430 runs batted in with a .348 on base percentage.
What made Yogi so great was that he was one of the most feared hitters the game had ever seen, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame website. “Teammate Hector Lopez said ‘Yogi had the fastest bat I ever saw. He could hit a ball late that was already past him, and take it out of the park. The pitchers were afraid of him because he’d hit anything, so they didn’t know what to throw. Yogi had them psyched out and he wasn’t even trying to psych them out.’”
Berra was also an excellent defensive catcher and game caller, helping Allie Reynolds pitch a perfect game in 1951. More famously, Berra caught Don Larsen’s perfect gem in game five of the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers to help the Yankees win the Championship.
Berra won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1951, 1954 and 1955 and was a 15-time All-Star. His play helped the Yankees win 10 World Championships (1947, 1949-1953, 1956, 1958, 1961-62) during his career. Though in the shadow of titans such as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Berra was a top notch clutch hitter, leading the Yankees in runs batted in from 1949 to 1955. In 1956 and 1957 Berra was the highest paid player in baseball at $58,000 and $65,000 respectively, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.
Yogi had a reputation for talking to the batters he was playing behind to distract them, according the National Baseball Hall of Fame website. In the 1958 World Series, he kept telling Hank Aaron to “hit with the label up on the bat”. Finally Aaron turned and said “Yogi, I came up here to hit, not to read.”
In the 1950s, baseball players often had winter jobs to supplement their income. Early in his career Berra worked in the offseason at the American Shops, a clothing store in Newark. In 1959 Berra and teammate Phil “The Scooter” Rizzuto (a Hillside, NJ resident) opened Rizzuto Berra Bowling Lanes in Clifton’s Styretown shopping center. The 40-lane business was sold and became Astro Bowl which closed permanently in 1999.
Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. During his 1972 Hall of Fame induction speech, Berra said “I want to thank baseball. It has given me more than I could have ever hoped for. And I hope that when I’m through with this game, I will put something back.”
Pennant Winning Manager in Both Leagues
Shortly after ending his playing career with the Yankees in 1963, Berra was hired to manage the ‘64 Yankees and took them to the World Series, but lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. Losing that series cost Berra his job. He returned to baseball in 1965 as a player/coach for the New York Mets, playing in four games before hanging up his cleats. Berra was on the Mets coaching staff for eight years, including the 1969 championship team. He was promoted to manager after Gil Hodge’s death in 1972.
In 1973 the Mets were plagued by injuries and were mired in last place late in July. A reporter asked Berra about the situation and his response became a classic Yogism– “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
The Mets squeaked by as division winners with a 83-79 record, Berra’s team beat the Cincinnati Reds in a major upset to advance to the World Series against the Oakland A’s. The Mets lost in seven games.
Berra managed the entire 1974 season for the Mets and was fired as manager in August 1975.
Yogi returned to the Yankees as a coach in 1976 as the team was entering another era of dominance. The ’76 Yankees won the AL pennant, but were swept in four games by the Cincinnati Reds. The Yankees bounced back by winning the World Series in 1977 and 1978.
In 1984 Berra was named the Yankees’ manager and led the team to a 87-75 record, finishing 17 games behind the Detroit Tigers. Berra stayed on as manager for the 1985 season after Yankees owner George Steinbrenner assured him he wouldn’t be fired. But the Yankees got off to a slow start in 1985 and rather than fire Berra himself, Steinbrenner sent general manager Clyde King to deliver the news. This touched off a 14-year feud between Steinbrenner and Berra. Yogi did not set foot in Yankee stadium again until Steinbrenner personally apologized (by visiting Berra at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Little Falls) in January of 1999.
During his exile Yogi helped friend and fellow Montclair resident John McMullen, who owned the Houston Astros, by serving as the team’s coach from 1986 to 1989.
Berra graciously accepted Steinbrenner’s apology and participated in the Yankees spring 1999 training camp. He was honored during the season with “Yogi Berra Day” at Yankee Stadium on July 18, 1999. Don Larsen, Yogi’s battery mate for the 1956 perfect game, threw out the first pitch. Perfection was in the air that day as David Cone threw a perfect game against the Montreal Expos.
Berra’s formidable baseball skills were equaled by his generosity. In 1959 when the Yankees sponsored a Yogi Berra day, Berra and his wife Carmen requested proceeds from that event fund a scholarship at Columbia University in honor of fellow Yankee, and Columbia alumni, Lou Gehrig. As a result, the Yogi Berra Scholarship at Columbia has assisted dozens of students in earning an Ivy League education.
Berra was a longtime fundraiser for the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF). The Foundation presented him with the NIAF Special Achievement Award in 1996. He also earned a Silver Buffalo Award, from the Boy Scouts of America for extraordinary service to young people.
In 2011 the Salvation Army awarded Carmen and Yogi Berra a Pinnacle of Service Award. Carmen Berra served on the Advisory Board for the Salvation Army of Montclair for about 20 years. Every summer since 1991 Berra has participated in or promoted the Yogi Berra Celebrity Golf Classic at Montclair Golf Club. Since 2003 proceeds from the tournament have benefitted the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center which promotes leadership workshops for high school students.
Accomplished Author, Pitchman
Berra wrote or co-wrote a number of books on his famous sayings, baseball memoirs and baseball techniques. They included:
· The Yogi Book (A New York Times Bestseller) 2010
· You Can Observe A Lot By Watching: What I’ve Learned About Teamwork From the Yankees and Life (co-written with Dave Kaplan) 2009
· Let’s Go, Yankees! 2006
· Ten Rings: My Championship Seasons (co-written with Dave Kaplan) 2003
· What Time Is It? You Mean Now?: Advice for Life from the Zennest Master of Them All (co-written with Dave Kaplan) 2003
· When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It!: Inspiration and Wisdom From One of Baseball’s Greatest Heroes (co written with Dave Kaplan) 2002
· Yogi Berra’s Baseball Book: The Game and How to Play It (co-written with Howard Liss) 1999
· Yogi: It Ain’t Over (co-written with Tom Horton) 1989
· The Wit and Wisdom of Yogi Berra (co-written with Phil Pepe) 1973;
· Yogi Berra’s Baseball guidebook: basic plays and playing techniques for boys 1966
· Yogi (co-written with Ed Fitzgerald) 1961.
Aside from being a Hall of Fame catcher and 10-time World Champion, Yogi Berra was an accomplished pitch man. Who can forget his YooHoo commercials? Berra was part owner of that company until 1981. If you grew up in the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s, you might remember his classic takes on Camel cigarettes and Puss n’ Boots cat food,
Miller Lite Beer and AFLAC. Yogi was also was a spokesman for Entenmann’s and Stove Top Stuffing.
In 1996, Montclair State University (MSU) presented Berra with an honorary doctorate. Two years later Yogi Berra Stadium, the minor league ballpark on the MSU campus—home to the Jersey Jackals (of the Can-Am League) and Montclair State Red Hawks—opened. Later that year the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center also on the MSU campus, opened.
Life in Montclair
The Berra’s first house in Montclair was a seven-bedroom Tudor-style home. There Berra and his wife Carmen raised three sons: Larry, a former minor-league catcher, Tim, a former wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts, and Dale, a former major-league infielder, who Berra briefly managed with the Yankees in 1985. The Berras had 11 grandchildren.
In 1974 Berra moved to a smaller house on 19 Highland Ave which they sold in 2014.
In 2012 the Town of Montclair name the intersection of Edgewood Terrace and Edgewood Road, which are near Berra’s Highland Avenue house “Yogi Berra Way” <
Berra’s favorite haunts in Montclair and the surrounding area included Pal’s Cabin in West Orange (now a CVS pharmacy), La Couronne at Watchung Plaza and Henry’s Deli (318 Bloomfield Ave). Berra and his wife Carmen were also grand marshals for the 2005 Montclair Fourth of July parade.
Berra and his wife were also an active parishioners at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church on Fullerton Avenue.
To further explore the life of Yogi Berra, visit the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center.