The Book on Berra
For most of my life I’ve heard/read/seen how Johnny Bench is the greatest catcher in baseball history. (Mickey Cochrane is always ranked number two.)
Then I heard two people mention someone else.
I was chatting with Peter Golenbock, who has written many baseball books, including Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-64. I mentioned how I learned the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history was hit by Yogi Berra in 1947 against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“That’s very Yogi-ish,” said Golenbock, who went on to add he believes Berra is “the greatest catcher in baseball history.”
My neighbor Rich, a real baseball fan who loves details and stats, told me Berra had five seasons in which he hit more home runs than he had strike-outs.
Time, I thought, to look into Berra.
Then I saw a commercial for an upcoming documentary about Yogi, called, “It Ain’t Over.” The film was spearheaded by Berra’s granddaughter, Lindsay. They were watching the 2015 All-Star game in which the greatest living players were brought on the field: Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, and Sandy Koufax.
“Are you dead?” Lindsay asked her grandfather.
“Not yet,” he replied.
Also in the preview is Yankee fanatic Billy Crystal, who says, “He was the most overlooked superstar in the history of baseball.”
Now I really have to look into this, so readers won’t think I ripped off the documentary.
In examining Berra’s career, there’s so much to Berra that is NOT related to his playing.
There’s the nickname: Yogi.
Then there are the Yogi-isms, some of which are:
“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
“Hey Yogi, do you know what time it is?” “You mean right now? You can observe a lot by watching.”
And, of course, “It ain’t over till it’s over” (which he might not have said, but it’s stuck to him).
Berra didn’t look like a ballplayer: he was 5’7”, squat and barrel-chested with short legs and bushy eyebrows. Definitely not attractive. But as he said, “nobody ever hit with their face.”
And just look at his accomplishments.
He played in 14 World Series – and won 10 of them. He always seemed to rise to the occasion in postseason play. He was critical to the Yankees’ success both on the field and at the plate.
He led the Yankees in RBIs for seven consecutive seasons. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, Thurman Munson, etc., never accomplished that.
He’s one of only a handful of players who has won three MVP Awards. And he did it in four years.
Berra could always hit. And considering his body type he was surprisingly fast and quick. He made two unassisted double plays. Each happened on a suicide squeeze attempt. After the ball was bunted, Berra grabbed it, tagged out the batter, then applied a tag to the runner attempting to slide into home. (Only 12 catchers in the major leagues have made an unassisted double play. Figures for Negro League catchers are not yet available.)
Born Lawrence Peter Berra, he was the fourth of five children born to Italian immigrants who settled in St. Louis. His mother could not pronounce “Larry,” and she called him Lawddy.
Berra never hid his dislike of school, even cutting out early to play baseball. He dropped out when he was 15, going to work at odd jobs to help his family during the Great Depression. His older brothers played baseball, too; and one was offered a chance to sign with Cleveland, but their father didn’t think playing baseball was a serious enough endeavor at a serious time when money was scarce.
(Original Caption) Catcher Lawrence Peter Berra #35 of the New York Yankees poses with his teammates for a group portrait prior to a game on September 17, 1947 against the Chicago White Sox. (Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images)
As described by poet and baseball laureate Donald Honig, Berra’s nickname (called “priceless” by Honig) was given to him by friends, “who had seen in a movie a Hindu fakir sitting in the motionless, arms-and-legs-folded posture of [someone practicing] yoga. It reminded the boys of their friend, who often sat expressionless with folded arms between innings of a ballgame. ‘Yoga’ became ‘Yogi’ and this was minted a sports I.D. to rank with Babe and Dizzy.”
One of Berra’s neighbors was Joe Garagiola, who was also a catcher. According to Allen Barra, who has written several baseball books including the biography, Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee, he took up catching because his buddy did.
“That was part of it,” said Barra. “Yogi also thought that his talents were best suited to that position and that it was the quickest way to crack the lineup because there was so relatively little competition at that position. It was too difficult for most players to manage.”
At a tryout camp with the St. Louis Cardinals, Garagiola impressed scouts who signed him, but passed on Berra. The Yankees then offered Berra a contract that included a $500 bonus (the same as Garagiola received) and $90 a month. His brothers lobbied their father to let him sign, and he relented.
At 17, Berra was assigned to the Norfolk Tars of the Class D Piedmont League. He caught 111 games and batted .253. When he turned 18 in 1943, he joined the Navy. After basic training in Maryland, he was shipped back to Norfolk and its Navy Yard.
In the book, When Baseball Went to War, Berra said, “I got tired of waiting around.” When a call went out for volunteers to join the amphibes, he signed up, not necessarily knowing quite what he was getting into. He was assigned to train on Landing Craft Support rocket boats; small, maneuverable 36-foot vessels equipped with 48 rockets, machine guns, and smoke pots (to provide cover).
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Berra was one of dozens of sailors on those amphibious boats who were lowered into the water at 4:30 a.m. When they were within 300 yards from Omaha Beach, the boats began firing rockets to take out machine gun nests and support troops hitting the beach. Berra and his shipmates had their ship capsized and had to be rescued; Berra also pulled soldiers out of the water and watched others drown. He and his crew mates were on the water for 10 days before they were relieved.
“I never saw so many planes in my life,” Berra said. “It was like a black cloud.” He said he wasn’t scared, and the experience was even fun.
(Original Caption) Glum Yogi Berra has a cast put on his fractured left thumb by Dr. Sidney S. Gaynor, Yankee physician, after he was hit by a pitched ball from Dick Starr of the Browns in the third inning of the first game at Yankee Stadium, August 7th. Yogi will be out of the lineup for three weeks. For the Yanks, it was an odd first game and perhaps a costly one. They took it, 20-2, but in addition to Yogi, Tommy Henrich, Jerry Coleman and Gus Niarhos were beaned. The second game was called in the ninth because of darkness, with the score at 2-2.
Later, Berra was transferred and on August 15, 1944, he participated in the Allied invasion of southern France. When he joined his new unit, sailors noticed he had a catcher’s mitt attached to his duffel bag.
“I suppose the Navy taught him discipline, though from an early age he showed a lot of self-discipline,” said Barra. “Let’s just say that the Navy and the War greatly broadened Yogi’s horizons.”
After being discharged, Berra was assigned to the Yankees farm team in Newark, NJ, one step from the majors. There, in 77 games, he batted .314 with 15 home runs and 59 RBIs.
That September, he and several teammates were called up to New York. Berra caught six games and batted .364.
When he made the Yankees out of spring training in 1947, the management knew Berra could hit, but where could he play? He was inexperienced at catcher, making bad throws on stolen base attempts and letting pitches get by him. He played 51 games at catcher and 24 in the outfield that year.
Because of injuries to Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Heinrich, Berra was the starting right fielder on opening day 1947. The Yankees lost 6-1 to the Philadelphia A’s. Berra said he had trouble judging fly balls. Yankee manager Bucky Harris said, “We’ll make a catcher out of him yet, even if it kills us.”
In his first World Series against the Dodgers in 1947, Berra caught the first two games. The Yankees won both, but Brooklyn stole five bases. He didn’t start game three, but in the seventh inning hit the first pinch-hit home run in series history. Berra admitted he didn’t play well against Brooklyn, but he did receive a World Series share of $5,830, more than he made for the entire year. He showed the check to his parents, who then thought maybe playing baseball was okay.
In February of 1948, the Yankees traded catcher Aaron Robinson, who had caught most of the games for the team the year before, and two other players to the Chicago White Sox for left-handed pitcher Eddie Lopat. Like Berra, Robinson threw right and batted left. He was 32 at the time of the trade, and Lopat became a key starting pitcher for the next several seasons.
With Robinson gone, Berra shared catching duties that season with Gus Niarhos, who played more games behind the plate than Berra – who also played in the outfield.
Then Berra met his patron saint, Casey Stengel.
When taking over as Yankee manager in 1949, Stengel had enough outfielders in his platoon system who could hit; but what type of run production would he get out of the catcher’s position? He reasoned if Berra’s bat was in the lineup at catcher, the Yankee offense would soar.
(Original Caption) Casey Stengel (right), N.Y. Yankee manager, examines the double-threat hands of Yogi Berra, Yankee outfielder and catcher, February 26. Berra, a late returnee, signed his 1949 contract when Stengel arrived in Florida from New York. (Photo by © Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive)
So why did Stengel think Berra could become a quality backstop?
“There’s no simple answer to that question, yet I think it can be summed up by saying Casey was an oddball who won with unconventional ideas and methods, and that, in Yogi, he saw a kindred spirit,” said Barra. “From the very beginning Yogi produced results; Casey could see that, and that was all that mattered to him, not the manner in which he produced them. What Casey saw right away with Yogi was that they saw the game in similar terms and that Yogi was the right man to implement Casey’s … well, ‘philosophy.’”
The “Old Perfesser” brought in Yankee legend Bill Dickey, who’d had a Hall-of-Fame career with New York, to coach Berra on the fine points of catching.
According to Berra biographers, Dickey was a stern taskmaster, but he had an apt pupil in Berra, who drove himself with constant drills and practice. Dickey changed the footwork on Berra’s throws to second base, and they no longer sailed into centerfield. (For his career, Berra threw out 48.61 percent of base stealers.) He had Berra move closer to the plate, thus cutting down on pitches in the dirt that got by him. Dickey also schooled Berra in how to call a game, how to work with pitchers, and how to set up opposing batters.
In 1949, Berra became the team’s primary catcher, playing in 116 games. He batted .277 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs, helping Stengel win his first pennant and World Series. (Niarhos played only 30 games at catcher, starting only 15. The Yankees waived him in the middle of the 1950 season and he was claimed by the Chicago White Sox.)
“Clearly, Mr. Berra, as Stengel called him, was a favorite of the Yankee manager,” Golenbock wrote in Dynasty. “As early as 1950 Stengel used Berra as an unofficial assistant coach, recognizing his ability to gauge the performances of his pitchers. Berra became a student of his craft, and his excellent memory helped him to learn the strengths and weaknesses of every opposing pitcher.”
Yankees GM George Weiss was a notorious negotiator, who had no qualms about cutting a player’s salary if his numbers weren’t as good as the previous year. After the 1949 season, he offered a modest raise to his catcher. Berra said he was worth more – he told Weiss he’d led his team in RBIs for a club that won a world championship. Berra (and six other Yankees) held out that spring. Berra told Weiss he’d fly down to spring training to discuss his contract, but only if the Yankees paid for his round-trip plane ticket even if he didn’t sign. Weiss agreed, and the two eventually settled.
When the press asked Stengel if Berra’s bitter contract situation and shortened spring training would affect his play, the manager said, “I don’t see how. Sure his feet stick out wrong and he doesn’t seem to do anything right. But he always murders the ball and when he’s behind the plate, my pitchers win.”
1964 Sports Illustrated Cover: Closeup of New York Mets Casey Stengel (L) and New York Yankees Yogi Berra (R), 2/2/1964 (Photo by Mark Kauffman/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
Berra might have had a bitter contract experience and shortened spring, but in 1950 he batted .322, a career high, and hit 28 home runs and drove in 124 runs. His all-around play earned him third place in the MVP voting. He did this with a bum knee while catching 151 of 154 games, and he struck only 12 times that season.
“As for my upcoming contract,” Berra wrote, “I was tired of Weiss telling me how young I was, how I had a long time to make money. Considering the year I had – I had two more RBIs than DiMag…” But Weiss and Berra were far apart in contract talks, and Berra again held out. Stengel got involved and urged Weiss to compromise and the pair settled on a figure between what one offered and what the other requested.
In July of 1950, the Yankees called up a cocky left-handed pitcher from their minor league system, Edward Charles Ford, who went by the nickname “Whitey.” He soon became one of the best pitchers of his era, and despite his cockiness he learned to appreciate Berra behind the plate.
“I’d say I probably threw more of what Yogi wanted than any other pitcher,” Ford told Golenbock in an interview for Dynasty. “I very seldom shook him off. I think he knew the batters probably better than I did. He could almost outguess them. He’d call two fastballs for strikes, and the batter would say, ‘Geez, he’ll never throw me another fastball,’ and he’d be looking for a curve, and Yogi would call for a third fastball. Yogi did everything crazy. A batter couldn’t believe the combination of pitches he would call for. I’ll tell you, he outguessed a lot of good hitters. He had a natural instinct. He knew what the batters were looking for. Yogi made you bear down.”
Despite his lack of education and appearance, the catcher was, said Barra, “smart.”
“Yogi learned dollars and cents from his parents, and from an early age he had confidence in his value,” said Barra. “A lot of players bought the front office argument, ‘Well, you made yourself some extra money last year from the World Series.’ When Weiss tried it on Yogi, he shot back, “I had a little something to do with that’ – meaning ‘The team might not have made it to the World Series if not for me.’”
At the many pennant-winning party celebrations held by the Yankees, Berra would start chatting with team co-owner Dan Topping. Knowing Topping had a few drinks in him, Berra would ask him what he thought he was worth salary-wise. Topping’s figure was always more than what Weiss offered.
Berra may have been uneducated formally, but he had a “street smarts” sense when it came to baseball. He talked to opposing batters at the plate. Sometimes he asked about their families, would joke with them, or even tell them what the pitcher was going to throw, anything to upset their concentration.
In an interview, Berra recalled how the Yankees “had a brushback thing going once (with the Red Sox) with Jimmy Piersall coming up, after we knocked down one of their hitters. Piersall had just come back from a mental institution and turned to me and said, ‘If this guy throws at me, I’ll wrap this bat around your neck. I can get away with it. I can plead temporary insanity.’ I just told Jimmy, ‘Look, boy, on this club we don’t knock down .250 hitters.’”
In the first game of the 1952 World Series (again New York playing Brooklyn), there was a key moment in the seventh inning. The Dodgers had runners at first and second and no outs. Third baseman Billy Cox bunted the ball but Berra got to it quickly and threw out the runner at third. The next batter, pitcher Carl Erskine, also bunted, and again Berra threw out the runner at third.
When asked by writers if he had known the hitters were bunting by stealing a sign, he replied, “That wasn’t it. I was just watching how the batters stood. I knew they were bunting and knew where it was going.”
The Yankees won five consecutive World Series during that era (1949-52). They won 103 games in 1954, the most ever by a Stengel team, but lost the pennant to Cleveland. Starting in 1955, New York went on to win eight more pennants and four World Series during Berra’s career. By the end of his final season, Berra had appeared in 75 World Series games and received 10 championship rings.
With the emergence of Elston Howard as a catcher, Berra started playing more in the outfield.
He retired after the 1963 season. He wrote, “My playing career with the Yankees was over. Seventeen seasons. Fourteen World Series, ten championships. Each of those championships was an amazing experience. The relationship we had as teammates made each and every one of those championships feel almost magical, and that feeling never got old.”
After he stopped playing, Berra went straight into managing and won pennants with the 1964 Yankees and the 1973 Mets. However, in non-baseball circles, Berra is more remembered for what happened off the field – through a cartoon called Yogi Bear, appearing on TV shows and commercials, and of course for the Yogi-isms.
Thankfully, I finished this column before the Berra documentary was released, and I hope it raises his stature.
But before that happens, let me again quote Donald Honig, baseball’s poet laureate:
“Like his great predecessor (Bill) Dickey, who had been overshadowed by Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio, Berra also found long and glamorous shadows around him. First it was DiMaggio’s, whose shadow grew longer in its twilight, and then Mickey Mantle’s, with all its bristling, breathtaking talent. Nevertheless, the big man who won a host of Yankee pennants in the 1950s was Berra.”
Was he baseball’s greatest catcher?
For his career, Berra batted .285, with 358 home runs (not all at catcher) and with 1,430 RBI’s.
Bench had a career batting average of .267, hit 389 home runs (not all at catcher), and drove in 1,376 runs.
Cochrane’s batting average was .320, and he hit 119 home runs with 830 runs batted in (Cochrane’s career was cut short by an injury).
Berra was a noted MVP three times. Bench and Cochrane were each selected twice as the MVP.
All three are in the Hall of Fame and won World Series championships: Bench two, Cochrane three – one as a manager, and Berra 10.
“Well, let’s just say he’s neck-and-neck with Johnny Bench and maybe Mickey Cochrane. And, at least at his best, Roy Campanella,” said Barra. “You can argue the stats, but it’s hard to argue World Series rings.”