Yogi Berra died last night. When you call someone a true American 'hero', it should mean something. With Yogi, it most certainly did. He was not only one of the greatest ballplayers to ever live; not only one of the most astute observers of the human condition; but also was a war hero before his 20th birthday. Indeed, two years before he hit his first home run, Berra distinguished himself on a field of battle that saw countless other pre-20-year olds lose their lives. All that Berra achieved after D-Day would never have happened, obviously, had he perished that day. Had he died at Normandy, though, he'd be no less an American hero today - even without ten World Series rings, three MVP awards, 71 World Series hits or any of the other long list of on-field accomplishments.
Yogi grew up in a section of St. Louis known as 'The Hill'. His best friend and confidant growing up was Joe Garagiola, who would also go on to a career in baseball as a player and announcer. Berra had another nickname before 'Yogi'. "We called him 'Lawdie'," Garagiola remembered in a documentary on Yogi's life for the YES Network's Yankeeography Series. "He was called 'Lawdie' because his mother [an Italian immigrant] couldn't say 'Lawrence or 'Larry''."
His more famous nickname came about one day on the baseball 'fields' on The Hill. While playing in American Legion baseball with his friends, Berra sat on the field with his arms and legs crossed waiting to bat. "He looks like one of them 'yogis'" said one of his friends - and thus 'Yogi' Berra was born.
In 1941, Yogi and Joe Garagiola responded to a newspaper ad and attended a tryout for the St. Louis Cardinals. Branch Rickey ran the tryout and - after observing both young men - offered Garagiola a $500 contract to play for the Cardinals. Garagiola wasn't the player Rickey wanted, however. Rickey knew that he would be leaving the Cardinals to take over the presidency of the Brooklyn Dodgers. And Rickey wanted Yogi Berra for the Dodgers, not the Cardinals. So, Rickey offered Berra a contract but no bonus, guessing [correctly] that Berra wouldn't sign without a bonus. Sure enough, Rickey left the Cardinals for the Dodgers and contacted Berra with a $500 offer. Rickey was too late. In the interim, the New York Yankees had scouted Berra, offered him the $500, and Yogi Berra was neither a Cardinal nor a Dodger - but a Yankee.
Baseball would have to wait, though. At the age of 18, Berra enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1943. Shortly after completing basic training, Berra volunteered for a mission that would change the world. Berra served on a rocket boat at the Battle of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The job that Berra had volunteered for put him on a 6-man, 36-foot LCSS Boat [Landing Craft Support, Small; Berra later would say the letters really stood for 'Landing Craft Suicide Squad']. Berra and the others were part of the initial wave to land on the beach, and their mission was to fire rockets at German gun targets to protect Allied troops attempting to storm the beach. Of the six men in Berra's craft, three were killed.
Berra was one of 35 baseball Hall of Famers to serve in World War II. Of his ordeal, Berra would later say, “It was like Fourth of July to see all those planes and ships on Normandy, my gosh. You couldn’t see anything,” Berra said in 2010. “I stood up on the deck of our boat, looked up and my officer tells me, ‘You better get your head down here before it gets blown off.’ I said, ‘I like it up here.’ He said, ‘You better get down here [or] you won’t have it. You won’t look at anything.’ Being a kid, ‘What the heck,’ I said. ‘Nothing can kill me.’ I found out later on.”
Having somehow survived D-Day, Berra returned to the Yankees' minor league system after the war and was called up to the big club at the end of the 1946 season, hitting a home run in his very first at bat. The Yankees went to the World Series in his first full season, 1947. Berra had a strong offensive series but was miserable defensively behind the plate. In the series versus the Brooklyn Dodgers, Berra hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history. But Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers ran roughshod over him, at one point stealing five bases in one game. Although the Yankees won the series four games to three, Berra was embarrassed by his inability to shine behind the plate the way he had in front of it.
That changed in 1949 when Casey Stengel became manager of the Yankees. Stengel saw Berra as a star - with tremendous potential as a catcher. He tapped Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey to come to spring training to work with Berra exclusively on his defense. By the time Dickey was finished tutoring Berra, the latter was a defensive stalwart behind the plate. Indeed, as Mel Ott would say, "[Berra] stopped everything behind the plate and hit everything in front of it." Even during his final days as a catcher [he would play the outfield for the last four seasons of his career] Berra compiled a remarkable streak of 148 straight games - 950 chances - without an error from 1957-1959.
The Yankees would go on to win five straight World Series from 1949-1953. Berra was voted the American League Most Valuable Player in 1951. He would win it two more times - in 1954 and 1955. By the time he was done, he'd won ten World Series and been in four others. At a time when the Yankees fielded Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, it was Berra who led the Yankees in RBIs for seven consecutive seasons [1949-1955]. Perhaps one of the most amazing statistics, however, is that in 7,555 at-bats, he struck out only 414 times. For many of today's major leaguers, that's only two years' worth of strikeouts.
Perhaps Berra was best described by his lifelong friend, Garagiola. "If I had to use one word to describe him," Garagiola said of Berra, "it would be 'underestimated'. His entire life, everybody - except those of us who knew him - underestimated him."
No one underestimates Yogi Berra now. We may just underestimate how much we're going to miss him.