Yogi Berra, a Hall of Fame catcher with the New York Yankees, won three Most Valuable Player awards and appeared in the World Series more times than any other player in history.
He was also a jovial figure whose knack for tangled tidbits of wisdom — “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”; “It ain’t over till it’s over” — transcended sports to make him one of the most universally beloved figures in American life. Mr. Berra died Sept. 22 at his home in West Caldwell, N.J., according to a statement from the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center. He was 90. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Berra was a short, squat player who sometimes looked out of place among his more majestic teammates. When he was playing minor league baseball, his own general manager said he resembled “the bottom man on an unemployed acrobatic team.”
Yet something about Mr. Berra reached across time. He was an American original whose legacy as a player and whose humorous quips forged an enduring connection to generations of players and fans. People may have disliked his team, the Yankees, but everyone loved Yogi.
Black-and-white footage of Mr. Berra in action showed a fierce competitor, connecting with clutch hits at key moments, arguing with umpires and celebrating victory with his teammates. Although his final game as a player came more than 50 years ago, he became one of the top trending topics on Twitter, with comments and tributes pouring in from President Obama, Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Cal Ripken Jr., and present-day stars such as Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.
He was outwardly unassuming, but when younger players and fans learned that Mr. Berra had 10 World Series championship rings in his collection, plus a lifetime of knowledge about baseball and life, it was easy to understand why he added up to more than the sum of his parts.
As Mr. Berra said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.”
No one found more success on a baseball diamond. In his 19-year career, Mr. Berra played in 14 World Series and was on the winning team 10 times — records unmatched by any other baseball player.
He had only an eighth-grade education, but his offhand sayings, which often seemed to encapsulate an acute observation or basic human truth, entered the American vernacular.
Asked what time it was, he once replied, “Do you mean now?”
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” he said, as if offering cryptic advice on seizing opportunities and forging an individual path.
“It’s déjà vu all over again,” he said after his teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit consecutive home runs. But the comment has come to imply that everything old is new again.
“It ain’t over till it’s over,” Mr. Berra declared, describing the long, unpredictable nature of a baseball season — and life itself.
He came to symbolize the Yankees during their greatest era of success and was seen as a man of integrity who forced George Steinbrenner to apologize.
In 1985, during Mr. Berra’s second stint as the Yankees’ manager, he was fired by Steinbrenner, the team’s tempestuous owner. Steinbrenner didn’t speak directly to Mr. Berra but had one of his lieutenants deliver the message. Mr. Berra considered it an unforgivable act of rudeness and refused to have anything to do with the Yankees — a team whose legend he helped create — as long as Steinbrenner was the owner.
When a plaque honoring Mr. Berra was placed in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, he did not attend the unveiling. Old-timer games drew such Yankees greats as Joe DiMaggio, Mantle and Whitey Ford, but with each passing year the fans’ whispers turned into anguished shouts: “Where’s Yogi?”
Finally, in 1999, Steinbrenner paid a visit to Mr. Berra’s museum in Little Falls, N.J., and said he was sorry. Steinbrenner, who died in 2010, later called his handling of the matter “the worst mistake I ever made in baseball.”
Sometimes lost amid Mr. Berra’s comic quips was how great a player he was. From 1949 to 1953, he was perhaps the most valuable member of the only team in major league history to win the World Series five straight years.
Many observers believe he has never received the full credit he deserved. Baseball writer Jayson Stark, in his book “The Stark Truth,” called him the most underrated player in history.
Baseball historians rate Mr. Berra as one of the finest catchers in the history of the game, rivaled only by Johnny Bench, who played with the Cincinnati Reds from 1967 to 1983. In his monumental 2001 book “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,” baseball writer and statistical analyst Bill James named Mr. Berra the greatest catcher who ever played the game.
“Berra could throw, he could catch the ball, he could call the game, and he knew baseball like nobody else,” James wrote.
At first glance, Mr. Berra didn’t look much like a ballplayer. He was 5-foot-7
But when he had a bat in his hands, the taunts turned to silence. A left-handed batter, Mr. Berra was called a “bad-ball” hitter because he often connected with pitches outside the strike zone, yet he seldom struck out.
In 1950, perhaps his finest year, Mr. Berra struck out only 12 times in 597 at-bats. He had a batting average of .322 that year — the best of his career — with 124 runs batted in and 116 runs scored. He finished third in the Most Valuable Player voting, behind teammate Phil Rizzuto and Billy Goodman of the Boston Red Sox.
A year later, despite less gaudy statistics, Mr. Berra won his first Most Valuable Player Award. He was chosen again in 1954 and 1955.
“No other position demands such intelligence, instinct, and leadership skills, and at no other position are great players so underappreciated,” sports journalist Allen Barra wrote in his 2009 biography of Mr. Berra. “Yogi is, by all objective measurements I can find, the greatest player at baseball’s most demanding position.”
Mr. Berra hit .300 or better three times, the benchmark of batting excellence, and had a career batting average of .285. He slugged 20 or more home runs 11 times and drove in at least 100 runs in five seasons. He had 358 career home runs.
Asked to explain his thinking when he approached the plate, Mr. Berra offered a typically gnomic response: “You can’t think and hit at the same time.”
When Mr. Berra joined the Yankees, Joe DiMaggio was the team’s biggest star. Mickey Mantle would emerge in the 1950s, and Whitey Ford was the team’s best pitcher. But the heart of the lineup that won 10 World Series was Mr. Berra.
Between 1947 and 1956, the Yankees met their New York rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, six times in the World Series. After Brooklyn won its lone championship in 1955, the two teams met again the next year in another dramatic Subway Series.
In Game 5, on Oct. 8, 1956, a journeyman pitcher named Don Larsen threw a perfect game for the Yankees, not allowing a single Dodger to reach first base. It remains the only no-hitter in World Series history.
Mr. Berra was Larsen’s catcher that day. After the final pitch, a called strike three to pinch hitter Dale Mitchell, Mr. Berra ran toward the mound and leapt into Larsen’s arms, creating one of baseball’s most memorable images.
But the series didn’t end with that game. The Dodgers bounced back the next day to beat the Yankees, 1-0, tying the series at three wins apiece. A day later, Mr. Berra carried his team to victory, hitting two home runs and driving in four as the Yankees beat the Dodgers, 9-0, behind Johnny Kucks’s three-hit shutout.
“He did so many subtle things,” Joe Posnanski wrote in Sports Illustrated in 2011. “He knew how to coax a pitcher through a jam. He knew the weaknesses of every hitter in the game. He knew how to inspire his teammates and how to challenge them.”
Lawrence Peter Berra was born May 12, 1925, in St. Louis, one of five children of immigrants from northern Italy. His family settled in a predominantly Italian section of St. Louis called “the Hill,” where Mr. Berra grew up across the street from Joe Garagiola, a lifelong friend who also became a major league catcher and later a broadcaster known for his wit.
Mr. Berra quit school after the eighth grade and sold newspapers, drove a soft-drink truck and worked in a shoe factory and coal yard. Mostly, though, he played baseball.
He was a teenager when he became known as Yogi. The most reliable explanation is that Mr. Berra’s friends thought he resembled an Indian yoga master they saw in a travelogue at the movies. Even Mr. Berra’s family stopped calling him Larry in favor of Yogi.
In 1942, he and Garagiola attended a tryout for the St. Louis Cardinals. Garagiola was offered a contract, but Mr. Berra was passed over. Later that year, the Yankees signed him for a bonus of $500.
After one year in the minor leagues, Mr. Berra joined the Navy and served as a gunner aboard a landing craft among the first wave of Allied ships to reach Normandy beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Later, during a naval assault in southern France, he was grazed by a machine-gun bullet.
By 1946, Mr. Berra was out of the Navy and playing for the Yankees’ top minor league club in Newark. He was called up to the Yankees late in the season and hit home runs in his first two major league games.
With tutoring from Bill Dickey, a recently retired Yankee catcher who would later enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Mr. Berra blossomed into a excellent defensive catcher, with sure hands and a strong throwing arm. He inserted “falsies” — rubber brassiere liners — in his catcher’s mitt to relieve the constant pounding on his hand. Although he occasionally played in the outfield, he became the Yankees’ full-time catcher in 1948. That year, he was named to the first of 15 All Star teams.
“Throughout the late 1940s and most of the 1950s,” Barra wrote in his biography, “the Yankees had the best pitching in baseball, even though they seldom had the best pitchers.”
Ford was the sole Yankees pitcher of that era to reach the Hall of Fame. The only thing the pitching staff had in common was that Mr. Berra was the catcher who called the pitches.
His manager for most of his career was Casey Stengel, a fellow Missourian who was also known for his humorous malapropisms. Stengel quickly grasped his catcher’s astute knowledge of the game and called him “Mister Berra, my assistant manager.”
Almost from the beginning of his career, Mr. Berra developed a reputation for unintentionally comic pronouncements. When he was feted at a tribute in his home town, he said, “I want to thank everyone for making this night necessary.”
Explaining why he no longer frequented a particular restaurant, he said, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”
When introduced to Ernest Hemingway, who was described to him as an “important writer,” Mr. Berra asked, “What paper you with, Ernie?”
One of Mr. Berra’s comments, addressed to his players when he was a manager, carries a Zenlike truth: “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
Over the years, the list of “Yogi-isms” underwent variations and grew to the point that Mr. Berra had to declare, “I really didn’t say everything I said.”
Mr. Berra’s final full season as a player was in 1963. He became the Yankees’ manager the next year and led the team to the World Series. When the Yankees lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals, he was fired.
He returned to the playing field for four games in 1965 with the New York Mets before becoming a coach. He was named the team’s manager in 1972, and one year later the Mets won the National League pennant. They lost the World Series to the Oakland Athletics, and Mr. Berra was dismissed in 1975.
After becoming manager of the Yankees a second time in 1984, Mr. Berra was fired just 16 games into the next season. Only when Steinbrenner apologized in person did Mr. Berra end his 14-year boycott of the Yankees. In the meantime, Mr. Berra coached for several years with the Houston Astros, and became familiar to a new generation as an advertising pitchman.
Throughout his playing career, Mr. Berra acted as his own agent and was known as a smart bargainer. He and a teammate, Rizzuto, owned a bowling alley in New Jersey, and Mr. Berra became wealthy from early investments in the Yoo-hoo soft drink company. (Asked once if Yoo-hoo was hyphenated, he said, “It isn’t even carbonated.”)
Mr. Berra married Carmen Short in 1949 and lived for decades in Montclair, N.J. She died in 2014.
Survivors include three sons, all of whom became professional athletes: Larry Berra was a minor league catcher; Dale Berra was a major league infielder for 11 years; and Tim Berra played one year in the NFL for the Baltimore Colts. Others survivors include 11 grandchildren and at least one great-grandchild.
In 1972, Mr. Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and his No. 8 was retired by the Yankees. (His mentor, Dickey, had worn the same number earlier, and it was retired to honor both Yankees catchers.)
After reconciling with Steinbrenner in 1999, Mr. Berra attended spring training each year and received thunderous ovations at Yankee Stadium. He became, over time, a revered figure, even to people who had never seen him play baseball.
Mr. Berra appeared in commercials well into his 80s, capitalizing on his knack for whimsically philosophical observations. By then, he was seen as an elder of the game, a fount of timeless wisdom who had a comment for every occasion in life, including death.
“Always go to other people’s funerals,” he said. “Otherwise, they won’t go to yours.”