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Mudville: June 12, 2024 6:46 pm PDT

Yogi Berra was there. 

Not only for 10 Yankees World Championships and three MVP Awards, he was there on D-Day June 6, 1944 – a 19-year-old volunteering on a rocket launching boat – giving cover to troops landing on Utah Beach.

Come Monday, the 78th anniversary of D-Day, let’s not forget what the Greatest Generation did for America and the world. Here at BallNine we go deep. So I spent some time this week talking to Yogi’s son and his namesake Larry Berra about his father who passed away at the age of 90 in 2015.

We all need to remember D-Day. On that day The Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center will host a wonderful Tribute Ceremony, recognizing the 78th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The event will be simulcast as well, beginning at 10 am. It is a free event, but you have to register. It is presented in partnership with the Bob Feller Act of Valor Award Foundation @ActofValorAward. The special event will explore the human and emotional aspects of D-Day, roles played by Feller and Berra while serving in the Navy, service above self.

You can register at actofvaloraward.org/remember-d-day.

Every school in America still in session should watch this program. The special tribute will be going out to all active-duty military personnel around the world. The tribute features a panel, including Edward “Sonny’’ Masso, U.S. Navy, baseball author Luke Epplin and Larry Berra. It will be moderated by Dean Karayanis, host of the “History Author Show.’’ Ray Mabus, 75th Secretary of the Navy will participate as well.

Yogi, like my own father who served in the Navy in World War II, never spoke much about the war. One day was different, though.

“My brothers and I took my father to see “Saving Private Ryan,’’ Larry Berra told BallNine.

“When I was younger I always knew Dad was in the Navy and that he was at D-Day but I never knew what he did,’’ Larry said. “I just knew he was there, so I started reading up on a lot of the stuff. I read a ton of books about World War II and transferred to the Civil War, so I am a big history buff.

“He would give little smatterings of this and that. My Uncle Mike and Uncle John were both in the service. My Uncle Tony was home taking care of the family, he was the oldest so he was exempt I guess at that time. They wouldn’t talk about it either.

“So we went to see Saving Private Ryan. We saw the movie, it was the first time we had been to the movies together, my brothers and my Dad. When we came out of the movies, my Dad looked like he was showing some emotion.

“I said, ‘You okay?’

He said, “Yeah, but …’’

Photo courtesy of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center

The opening scene, the landing on the beach, hit home.

“Almost everybody on the ship was hit,’’ Yogi recalled of his rocket boat.

The memories of both D-Day and Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Provence in Southern France came flooding back to Yogi.

“What he started talking about was not the first day of D-Day, but the second day and the third day,’’ Larry recalled. “They were still just off-shore and their duty was to, unfortunately, pull the bodies that floated up. And he got very emotional about it. He started talking a little about this and that but never really explained on it. He said he was in Africa and Italy but never really talked about it.’’

The Berra family also had a family friend who fought in General Patton’s Third Army.

“He fought in Africa at Kasserine Pass, Sicily, Anzio, he was like in seven battles,’’ Larry said. “He would talk a little bit, he said he lost a lot of buddies. He would try to make light of stuff, like his Sherman Tank, he said the Sherman Tank would fit inside the treads of the Tiger Tank.’’

The bigger Tiger Tank could outgun and outmaneuver the Sherman.

“He said that five or six Shermans would have to swarm a Tiger Tank. You go after a Tiger Tank by yourself, you ain’t going to make it.’’

Those were hard lessons learned in WWII by the Greatest Generation, but they persevered.

What a powerful moment that must have been for Second Class Seaman Yogi Berra and his boys as they came out of Saving Private Ryan. And remember, D-Day happened two years before Yogi made his Yankee major league debut. He was just a kid.

(Original caption:) Portrait of Yogi Berra casual with his family: wife Carmen and sons Tim (L), Larry (R), and Dale (C) during photo shoot at home. Woodcliff Lake, NJ 12/18/1958 (Photo by Jerry Cooke /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)

“America was his country… He embraced everybody. It didn’t matter what race, creed, color, religion, whatever you were, it didn’t matter as long as you were an honest, hard-working individual, you had no problem with Yogi Berra.’’

He volunteered for this secret mission involving rocket boats because he was “bored’’ during basic training. “They asked for volunteers to go on a rocket boat,’’ Yogi once said. “I didn’t even know what a rocket boat was.’’

He sailed out on the attack transport USS Bayfield where he became a member of the six-man rocket boat crew as a gunner’s mate, manning a 50-caliber machine gun. He told writer Gary Bedingfield, “It was just like the Fourth of July,’’ of the Utah Beach battle as his rocket ship supplied cover for the troops landing on the beach.

The 36-foot rocket boats were classified as Landing Craft Small Support (LCSS). The boats were armed with a dozen rockets, a six-man crew and several machine guns. They would get within 300 yards of shore and pound the German machine gun positions with rockets so the troops might have a better chance of survival.

For Yogi to survive, he had to keep his head down.

Berra also took part in another landing in August in Southern France and was wounded in the left hand.

The wound entitled him to the Purple Heart but Yogi refused to put in for the medal when he was overseas because, as Larry told me, “He did not want his mother to worry about him being wounded.’’

Eventually, Berra put in for the Purple Heart, but Naval records were destroyed in a fire – so they couldn’t find the official records that he was wounded on the rocket boat.

Yogi had his own record.

“He had the scar on his left hand,’’ Larry said. “He showed us and said, ‘This is where I got hit.’

“They acknowledge it but they never actually gave him the Purple Heart,’’ Larry said. “We have had letters from the Department of Defense saying, we wish we could, but we can’t confirm it. The Purple Heart Foundation in New Jersey comes to all our events in honoring the situation.’’

It would be nice if some politician stepped forward so Yogi’s family could be awarded that well deserved Purple Heart.

Photo courtesy of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center

Berra also served in North Africa and Italy and was later stationed at the Naval Submarine base in New London, Connecticut, where he played baseball. You can read about that portion of his life in an earlier column I wrote for BallNine.

Berra was a Hall of Fame player in baseball and a Hall of Famer fighting for America.

Not only did he win those 10 championships and three MVPs in 1951, ’54 and ’55 as catcher for the Yankees, but in 1950 he finished third in the MVP voting. That year he hit .322 with 28 home runs, 124 RBIs and caught 148 games. In 1953 Yogi finished second and again in 1956 he finished second. From 1950 to 1956 he was in the thick of the MVP voting. He starred for the Yankees for 18 years.

Yogi Berra lived the American Dream but he had to fight for his right to live the American Dream.

“Dad loved America,’’ Larry said. “America was his country. He was Italian but American-Italian. He embraced everybody. It didn’t matter what race, creed, color, religion, whatever you were, it didn’t matter as long as you were an honest, hard-working individual, you had no problem with Yogi Berra.’’

Now on display at Yogi’s museum is the Bob Feller “Act of Valor’’ display that explores the stories of all 39 Hall of Fame inductees who served our military during World War II. Yogi was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972. Perhaps you will be inspired by their legacies of citizenship, sacrifice and service.

Certainly, in this day and age, it would be good for our children and our grandchildren to learn of this information. My grandson Jack, through his school, has seen the different displays at the museum and loved them.

Later this month an exhibition organized by the New York Historical Society will honor tennis legend Billie Jean King.

Bob Feller and Yogi became great buddies, but it didn’t start that way.

Photo courtesy of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center

Larry tells the story.

“When dad first came up to the Yankees and dad first met Bob Feller, Bob Feller wouldn’t talk to him,’’ Larry explained. “Then one of the Yankee players, it was Allie Reynolds or one of the other pitchers, I believe, told Bob Feller, ‘Why won’t you say hello to Larry?’

“‘I don’t talk to young guys who didn’t fight for their country,’ Feller responded.

‘He was at D-Day for crying out loud.’

‘I didn’t know that.’

Now Feller knew the whole story.

“From then on,’’ Larry Berra said, “they were best buddies. And now Bob Feller’s group Act of Valor Foundation is sponsoring this program.’’

There were no buddies like World War II veterans.

In my little town of Kenilworth, N.J. some of my fathers’ closest friends were WWII veterans and the American Legion was their gathering place. They would help one another out because many of the men were craftsmen. This was community in action.

I had a number of conversations with Bob Feller through the years about America and how much he loved his country. One such conversation took place just after he had finished throwing a ball against his barn for exercise. He was in his 80s. True story.

That generation really was The Greatest Generation.

“The museum has been doing really well with the school tours, even during the pandemic, they had tons of video tours from all over the country, St. Louis and Louisiana, all over,’’ Larry said.

Yogi was born in St. Louis on The Hill on Elizabeth Avenue. Joe Garagiola, fellow major leaguer who became a Hall of Fame broadcaster, lived across the street.

When Yogi passed, Garagiola told his son Joe Jr. “I just lost my best friend.’’

Photo courtesy of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center

Through the years I would visit Yogi at his museum, which is on the campus of Montclair State University in Little Falls, N.J. The official street address, of course, is 8 Yogi Berra Drive.

Those were good times and there was nothing like touring the museum with the man himself. Yogi was humble.

These are Yogi Times right now with a new documentary on Yogi coming out June 11 at the Tribeca Film Festival and it is titled perfectly: “It Ain’t Over.’’

Larry’s daughter, Yogi’s granddaughter, Lindsay, is the executive producer. You can follow her on Twitter @lindsayberra.

“It will make you cry,’’ Larry said of the documentary.

“Everybody knows Dad as the funny man,’’ Larry said. “He is a nice guy. His sayings.’’

But Yogi’s talent and athletic ability were off the charts.

“They say Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, etc., they leave Berra out,’’ Larry said of his father’s incredible mark on baseball and the Yankees.

“What about the guy who won three MVPs before Mantle finally caught on and after Joe DiMaggio retired? There was somebody in between these guys that held this team together,’’ Larry said.

Photo courtesy of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center

Yogi was the heart and soul of the Yankees at catcher. He caught 173 shutouts, and there was Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Berra was an 18-time All-Star, hitting .285 with 358 home runs and 1,430 RBI. He struck out only 414 times in 8,359 plate appearances. In World Series play he produced an .811 OPS in 75 games over 14 World Series.

“He caught 117 doubleheaders,’’ Larry said with a laugh. “Now you can’t even get a guy to catch a day game after a night game and these guys are three times his size. They all need a rest.

“He played 18 years, nothing happened to him.’’

Eighteen years with the Yankees after serving in World War II.

Yogi was about toughness, endurance and Hall of Fame talent. As for catching all those doubleheaders, in typical Yogi fashion he once said, “I don’t know how to say no.’’

“There was the story about Dad up in Boston,’’ Larry said. “The Yankees were playing a doubleheader, it was towards the end of the season and they had already clinched. It was like 95 degrees. Dad caught the first game and he went to Casey (Stengel) and said, ‘Can I take the second game off?’

“Casey looked at him and said, ‘Who catches for the Yankees?’

“Well, I do.’’

“Then go out and catch.’’

“He goes back out and by the third inning he starts calling the umpire every name in the book to get thrown out of the game,’’ Larry said. “The umpire calls timeout and says, ‘Yogi, I know what you are trying to do. You want me to throw you out of this game, but as long as I have to stand behind this plate, you are going to catch.’ ’’

Yogi Berra was there.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

  • Kevin,
    My name is Glenn Flickinger, I am Board member and WWTwo historian for the Veterans Breakfast Club a non-profit based in Pittsburgh (www.veteransbreakfastclub.org). Have learned lately of Berra’s WWTwo service and his DDay experience I’d love to learn more about his military service and include his story on our June 6th live “Zoomcast” about DDay. Could we arrange a phone or Zoom call? Thank you, Glenn 412-418-9557

    May 1, 2024
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